United Way – What I’ve Learned in a Month

Before coming to United Way of Northwest Arkansas, I was working in the for-profit industry. I have wanted to work for a nonprofit since my sophomore year of college and when the opportunity came to work for United Way of Northwest Arkansas, I jumped on it. I was so excited to work for an organization that helps so many other agencies succeed here in our community. The second I announced that I had gotten the job, I started to hear from people who had lots of different opinions on United Way – some of which I later found out were misconceptions. After working here for about a month, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned. The following is a list of things I heard from people, and what the truth is about each statement:

#1 – United Way of Northwest Arkansas isn’t really local.

Each United Way functions independently. All of our decisions (hiring, funding, events, etc.) are made locally. The only way in which United Way of Northwest Arkansas is a “national” organization is in its affiliation with the United Way brand and by following the brand standards outlined by United Way Worldwide.

#2 – United Way of Northwest Arkansas is part of a national organization, so a lot of the money raised doesn’t stay here locally.

99% of the funds raised at United Way NWA stays here in the community. Only 1% goes to United Way Worldwide, our parent organization. That money helps get us things like branding, resources, training and support to help us do the work that we do. So last year, we raised almost $3,800,000 from our community which means over $3,720,000 stayed right here in Northwest Arkansas!

#3 – United Way of Northwest Arkansas doesn’t use their funds correctly and has too much overhead.

$0.86 of every dollar goes directly to our partner agencies and to supporting programs that make a huge impact in the community like the Free Tax Service Initiative, Dolly Parton Imagination Library, and our Volunteer Engagement Center.

I’d also like to address the concept of “too much overhead”. One thing I’ve learned working in any organization, regardless of the type, is that if you want to do impactful, meaningful work, you have to have strong employees. Even at a nonprofit, you have to have good benefits and pay to attract good employees who will do good work. Poor benefits or pay will result in unhappy employees, high turnover, and a lack of a positive work environment. No one is working at United Way of Northwest Arkansas to get rich, but we’re also not going to ask our employees to work on changing poverty in Northwest Arkansas while they themselves are living in it. That being said, our overhead is very low and we have a high impact staff. With only 5% of our funds being administrative, includeing rent, all office supplies and technology, our Gifts in Kind Warehouse, and employee compensation, we are operating at a very low cost and making sure that the agencies we fund reap the benefits of our fundraising as much as possible.

#4 – United Way of Northwest Arkansas doesn’t fund many nonprofits, so it’s kind of pointless.

We fund nearly 70 programs, and over 130 local nonprofits and churches are helped through our Gifts in Kind Warehouse.

#5 – United Way of Northwest Arkansas is a pass-through agency – they only fund other nonprofits and aren’t doing any work themselves.

We actually have 6 awesome initiatives that we manage internally:

  • United Way NWA Gifts in Kind Warehouse. Our Gifts in Kind Warehouse works with over 130 nonprofit agencies who serve needy children and families to give them access to critical basic need products such as paper goods, personal care, diapers, cleaning supplies and more! Walmart provides a large percentage of the products in our Gifts in Kind Warehouse. Last year, $10 million worth of product was given back to the community through agencies and churches utilizing the Gifts in Kind Warehouse.
  • NWA Diaper Bank. 1 in 3 moms have found themselves struggling to provide diapers for their babies and often times have to make the choice between buying food for their family or diapers for their babies. Kimberly-Clark partnered with us to start the NWA Diaper Bank to help alleviate stress from these struggling families. Through a $5,000 grant and 1 million diapers donated in kind, the bank was started and helps an average of 1,170 children each month.
  • 2-1-1. 2-1-1 is a phone helpline that can refer people in Northwest Arkansas to services they need including food banks, shelters, rent/utility assistance, health insurance programs, crisis intervention, support groups, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, employment support, and volunteer opportunities. The helpline is a United Way of Northwest Arkansas program housed in the Arkansas Crisis Center in Springdale. As of 2014, we’ve received over 25,000 calls to 2-1-1.
  • Free Tax Service Initiative. Our Free Tax Service Initiative is designed to help hardworking families who earn $58,000/year or less with free tax preparation and financial literacy. Through this service, $3.3 million in tax refunds went back into the pockets of Northwest Arkansas residents.
  • Dolly Parton Imagination Library. The Imagination Library is a free program to children 5 years of age and younger who live in Benton, Washington, Madison or McDonald counties. Every child enrolled in the program gets 1 book each month from birth to 5 years of age for free. Books are mailed directly to the home; the only requirement is that the family update us of any change in address and agree to read with the child! It’s only $25 to sponsor a child for a year or $125 to sponsor a child for the entire duration of the program. With the support of NWA residents and companies, we’ve given over 13,000 books to children in Northwest Arkansas.
  • Fill the Bus. This school supplies drive is a staff favorite event! Partnering with Walmart and Coca-Cola, we set up buses at Walmart locations around Northwest Arkansas and fill them with school supplies donated by both shoppers and companies. This year, we gave school supplies to more than 10 school districts in Northwest Arkansas through Fill the Bus.

So there you have it! Just a few things I’ve learned in my month with United Way so far. Do you have other questions about our organization? Leave a comment and I’ll get the answer ASAP!

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