United Way Drives the Community

United Way of Greater Cleveland is a point of pride in Northeast Ohio.

Greater Clevelanders have been feeling pretty good about their town lately, thanks to events like the Cavaliers’ victory, the Indians’ trip to the World Series, hosting the Republican National Convention and continued downtown development. And the new United Way of Greater Cleveland president and CEO August A. (Augie) Napoli Jr. believes there is one more thing in which Greater Clevelanders should feel great civic pride — an achievement making big changes and quiet victories.

“Greater Clevelanders contribute mightily to our community,” he said in a recent interview since he took on the post in June. “We should be proud of this! Giving is a joyous thing, and we have distributed $2.2 billion through United Way in the last 103 years.”

In fact, a 2016 survey by Charity Navigator, a large evaluator of 501(c)(3) charities, confirms this. It ranked Cleveland 10th in overall in charitable giving, beating out cities like San Francisco, Boston and Chicago. This year, United Way will invest nearly $34 million in more than 120 local programs that help 500,000 people annually.

Indeed, most people have donated to the fundraising powerhouse at one time or another, especially those who have filled out a pledge card at work or perhaps donated at the grocery store check-out. But that’s just one piece of it. Napoli says much less is known about how the money is distributed and the expertise behind these important decisions.

A painstaking process of evaluating community needs, vetting agencies that will receive funding and ultimately measuring outcomes takes place every year. The process is driven by community volunteers who bring their own perspectives to the process. All this is done to maximize the impact of every dollar raised. Napoli hopes to shine a bright light on how this benefits the community.

“It’s all about the client,” he says. “Our volunteers and staff are some of the best people at getting the money to where it can do the most good. They have technical expertise, and they are objective and neutral.”

Overall, roughly 500 individuals volunteer for United Way in some capacity, and many serve on Community Impact Committees, which review agency requests for funding and work to make the best decisions for distributing financial resources.

The Community Impact department at United Way of Greater Cleveland works to bring relevant data and statistics to help volunteers make the best formal decisions for funding allocations possible. It looks for multiple factors: experience in health and human services and people with a diversity of experience, such as professionals from business, law, finance or banking. It also roots out possible conflicts of interest and looks for a diversity of experience in age, knowledge and ethnicity.

A typical committee might include a public health expert with technical expertise, as well as a small business owner and possibly an accountant with cost-effective input. They all bring different insights to the discussions.

Other checks and balances are built into the process to ensure integrity and maintain good stewardship. The committee reviews proposals and ranks them against needs in the community. Eventually, their recommendations go to the Board of Directors for further scrutiny.

The needs assessment takes into account things like census data, statistics from local counties and input from academia, including Cleveland State University and Case Western Reserve University. It does this in order to make sure it's meeting needs in the right places.”

Every few years, United Way conducts its own needs assessment to stay in touch with community issues. It partners with the Center for Community Solutions to do this. This year, it surveyed hundreds of individuals from government, academia and foundations, as well as individual donors, community members and agency representatives. In addition, United Way regularly collects usage data from the agencies it funds and performs site visits to measure their effectiveness and impact.

Even with such a wide range of people and opinions within the research sample, United Way was able to zero in on several areas of consensus. For example, a high priority — particularly among community participants — was workforce development, job training and placement.  

Other priority areas were education, basic food and shelter, care for mental health, substance abuse, disease, safety and violence prevention. All this data will guide United Way with funding decisions.

Beyond raising and distributing funds, United Way provides another vital and potentially life-saving service every day. “ 2-1-1” is a 24-hour hotline providing free and confidential health and human service assistance. Available in English or Spanish, specialists assess problems and help callers navigate a complicated network of social services. But they do much more than just refer clients to services: They work with callers to identify root causes. In 2015, United Way responded to roughly 250,000 calls.

Thanks to the generosity of caring Greater Clevelanders, the agency is able to make a difference in the lives of those it serves.   

  • Share this story: