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United Way puts a new yardstick on its agencies

November 19, 1997

They come at you in waves at this time of year, asking for your dollars to support one charitable activity or another. You'd like to help every one of them, but you're not rich, so you have to decide: Where will my contributions make a real difference?

The United Way of Washington County is attempting to answer that question for its donors with something called the Outcome Funding Initiative. Armed with $30,000 in grant money from the Citicorp Foundation and Allegheny Power, United Way is changing the way it distributes money collected in the annual campaign. Instead of funding an agency based on descriptions of its programs, the new system will fund programs that have measurable results.

Melinda Marsden, the United Way's vice president for agency relations, said that under the old system, the member agencies would submit their budgets and program descriptions. Then they'd ask for enough dollars to fill the gap between what they could raise on their own and what they felt they needed to operate.

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Now, said Marsden, instead of funding the agencies' deficits, United Way is asking agencies to request funds for programs with measurable results.

"We're asking, 'What is the program? Who is involved? What are the results and how are you going to measure those results?" she said.

"It's a big change, and the other piece of it is that we, as a United Way, can decide what we want to buy, and then reach out to the agencies and say "This is the sort of program we want to buy.' "

For example, Marsden said, just recently a state agency survey found a lack of affordable day care in Washington County. Theoretically, she said, the United Way board could decide that it wanted to fund such a program, then put it out to the agencies for bid.

"It's a change in the way we think about what we do, and with this outcome funding, the agencies are going to tell us how they're doing more regularly, since quarterly reporting is built in. That's going to permit them to make changes and re-evaluate the programs as they go," she said.

Next year will actually be the third year of this program, Marsden said, explaining that agencies have been given time to "ease into it."

The first year they were encouraged to write outcome-based programs, though not all of their funding depended on them. This year, more of the funding was contingent on such programs, she said. Next year, they'll be going for 100 percent, she said.

Marsden said it has been a shock for some agencies, but she said it's a shock they needed, since many state grants are now requiring the same sort of results-based justifications. And donors are getting a little tough to convince, as well, she said.

"You can't just look at people and say, 'We do good things.' You've got to show them what you do, and how you determine your results," she said.

For a real-world look at how this process works, I talked to Sue Summerfelt, the former director of W House, a local shelter for alcohol- and drug-addicted women. Summerfelt, who still serves on the agency's board, said it's been a big change.

"Instead of just reporting how many clients are walking through the doors, we're developing some individual behavior milestones we can measure," she said.

For the women there, those milestones include participating in individual or group therapy, obtaining employment and learning skills like creating a household budget or grasping the concept of comparison shopping.

"We're actually looking at significant behavioral changes," she said.

What she didn't say, but what is certainly implied, is that if W House can show some real successes in dealing with its clients, it might be able to argue successfully for more funding in the future. The W House residential program can house only nine women at a time, and takes six to nine months to complete.

That means just 30 to 35 clients a year can be served each year, even though Summerfelt said there are at least 60 drug-addicted women incarcerated at the county's detention center at any given time.

For Citicorp and Allegheny Power, two companies long involved in activities to better the community, the idea of paying for measurable results instead of warm and fuzzy promises made a great deal of sense.

Phil Kelly, director of external affairs for Citicorp, said the program is "right in line with our commitment to education and community development."

The difference is that this time, instead of giving youngsters new computers, the companies are helping charitable agencies do a better job of serving their clients and a better job of justifying how they use donated dollars. If you'd like more information, call the United Way office at (301) 739-8200.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of The Herald-Mail.

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