United Way looks to start a community conversation in 2017

Special to the Gazette

The Historic Triangle is a great place to live. Tourists flock here for our sense of history and Southern charm. College students come for great academics. Local governments provide outstanding services while maintaining a low tax burden.

Yet for all of our positive aspects, our community is not immune from challenges that grip many areas. We have families that cannot afford adequate housing. We have students who under-perform in school. We have disabled adults who do not know where to turn for assistance. We have income inequality and racial disparities.

These are just a few of the community needs that the United Way of Greater Williamsburg is in a position to address.

In 2002, the president of United Way Worldwide, Brian Gallagher, challenged United Ways to focus on "community impact." He argued that United Ways create value not just through workplace giving campaigns and agency funding, but by creating a meaningful impact on major community issues – especially education, income and health.

At the United Way of Greater Williamsburg, we already are making a community impact. Our Community Resource Center serves more than 200 households per month with emergency needs including food, shelter, clothing and medical assistance. Our Home for Good program is working to move 19 families from precarious housing situations to permanent, stable housing. And our monthly food distribution program, United for Food, provides nutritious foods for more than 500 persons per month.

We are proud and honored to do such good work. But the United Way cannot realize its full potential unless we engage our community, identify the most pressing issues, implement collaborative strategies to address those issues, and share our successes and challenges.

The United Way has a long history of service to the community, going back to 1949, and has proven its impact by responding to community needs and initiating programs like the Community Resource Center.

But we also face challenges. Our fund raising has declined in recent years providing less money for agency support and our contributions make up smaller percentages of their overall budgets. Many people cannot articulate what the United Way does and its value to the community.

Our United Way's future success is tied to engagement with the entire community. That is why our board has decided to use 2017 to initiate a community conversation.

During this conversation, we will conduct a needs analysis, review statistics, and engage with stakeholders of all demographics. Our goal is to identify those under-addressed local issues on which the United Way is best positioned to make a difference.

Once we identify such issues, the United Way will work as a convener to bring together local governments, service providers, the faith communities, donors and other stakeholders to develop, implement and fund a meaningful plan to effect lasting positive change.

We need your help as we pursue this strategy. We need to hear from you as to the issues you see in the community that are not being adequately addressed. We need to hear from people who feel underserved as to how their needs are not being met. We need to hear from governments and non-profits about existing gaps they see in social services.

We cannot be successful unless the entire community is engaged and united to make positive change here where we live and work.

By implementing this collaborative strategy, we hope that in the future we will not simply be reporting back statistics on the number of people we serve. Instead, we will be able to report meaningful and measurable progress towards addressing major community needs.

This approach will allow all citizens to see the role of the United Way of Greater Williamsburg. It will give us a more compelling message with which to raise funds for our mission. And it will allow us to meet our CEO's charge of making a positive "community impact."

We look forward to initiating our community conversation in the New Year and to reporting back regularly on its progress.

Will you join us?

Poole chairs the Board of the United Way of Greater Williamsburg. Larry Foster will serve as Interim Executive Director of the United Way of Greater Williamsburg starting in January. Share your feedback at communityimpact@uwgw.org.

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