On September 1st, I celebrated 15 years as President and CEO of United Way of Salt Lake. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long until I begin looking back and reflecting on the many changes that I and the organization have been through in that time.
When I joined United Way, in September of 1999, we were primarily a fund-raising, fund distributing organization. Our principal mission was to raise money for health and human services and allocate it to other nonprofits in the community. While, for many years, that was a worthy goal, it became clear to me very quickly that United Way of Salt Lake needed to do more. We needed to shift our focus from being just a fund raiser to being a community problem solver.
But, why change? Because the old model was no longer adequate to meet the needs of today’s society. The problems in our community have grown in size and complexity. We are seeing major demographic changes, low student achievement, poor health and lack of access to health care, generational poverty and crime. Large scale social change was not possible under our old model.
In 2001, we embarked on a ten-year journey to reinvent our 100-year-old organization. At a Board of Directors Retreat in 2001, the Board voted to begin the transformation. That took a lot of vision and a lot of courage.
Over the course of the next several years, we became heavily engaged in public policy, conducted research and produced studies on community needs, financial instability, and immigrant and refugee integration. Based on the results of those studies, we began to target resources to the key issues of education, income, health and basic needs.
We convened groups of experts and community leaders to identify major service gaps in our community and developed specific initiatives to focus on them. The first was Sealants for Smiles, which focused on children’s dental disease. From there, we launched Utah Saves to address the issues around financial insecurity. Additionally, we partnered with others to start Earn It. Keep It. Save It. to expand Voluntary Income Tax Assistance and outreach for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income working families.
In 2007, we launched the Community Learning Centers initiative to develop long-term plans to address the student achievement gap. That project became the basis for the work that we do today. We started with a pilot program in four elementary schools that targeted the many social and academic barriers faced by low-income, at-risk students and their families.
Today, we are working in 19 schools, apartment complexes and community centers. Our focus is on advancing education, income and health in the neighborhoods and communities where we work, to ensure every child succeeds, every step of the way, from cradle to career. We have a long-term sustainability and growth strategy in place. We have made a promise to our community. That promise is to Change the Odds so all children and their families have the same chance to succeed in school and in life.
We have adopted Collective Impact as our business model. It is a unique approach to community problem solving. It requires that everyone works together in partnership – businesses, cities, governments, schools, churches, foundations, and nonprofit organizations, to find new and innovative ways to address challenges and develop lasting solutions. Together, we work to create a vision and set shared goals, organize and align resources and programs into strategies, measure success by sharing data and being mutually accountable and create constant communication and continuous improvement.
United Way of Salt Lake serves as the “backbone”, ensuring there is adequate organizational and staff support to assist partners and work alongside them to simplify complexities, facilitate partnerships, connect dots, develop and implement plans, and communicate the work of the partnerships.
We are working with our many partners to achieve specific objectives:
- Children are kindergarten ready
- Students are proficient in reading, math and science
- Student graduate from high school ready to succeed in post-secondary education
- Students complete post-secondary education with a degree or certificate
- Children and families are healthy
- Children and families are financially stable
In 2010, we acquired 2-1-1 Information and Referral. 2-1-1 is an easy-to-remember phone number for people who are in crisis to get connected to the services they need, as well as for people to find volunteer opportunities. We have worked hard over the past four years to deepen and strengthen 2-1-1’s reach throughout the state. We are in the process of receiving national accreditation, services are provided 24/7, and 2-1-1 is a solid social barometer for the state, providing data on the most critical needs of Utahns.
We have come a long way in the past few years. It is because there are people with vision, talent, and courage leading the way. Without the strength and leadership of our Board of Directors, our senior management team, our staff, our donors and our partners, none of this would have been possible.
As I think back over the past 15 years, I am in awe of all the people who I have had the privilege of working with; people who have YES in their hearts and who are willing to do whatever it takes to help kids and families succeed. All of us working together, collectively, are Changing the Odds and transforming communities for generations to come. I feel such a sense of pride and gratitude that I have had the chance to be part of this amazing journey.