For United Way, Change Is the Way Forward
Jul 28, 2016
As submitted to the Akron Beacon Journal on July 28, 2016
United Way of Summit County is accomplishing great things. I’ve seen it firsthand in the work done by our dedicated volunteers to improve education, income and health throughout our community. Over just the past few months, hundreds of people from across the county have taken part in United Way’s engagement events. Our volunteers distributed thousands of books to Akron Public School students through our Page It Forward Book Drive. They gave the too-often neglected neighborhood of University Park a makeover as part of the Neighborhood Reborn project. On a hot Saturday in June, more than 200 volunteers built a brand new playground in an at-risk neighborhood in just six hours.
That so many people are willing to devote so much of their time and effort to improve this city is a testament to the love we Akronites have for our hometown. Moreover, it is an affirmation of the fundamental principle behind United Way’s mission – that a community thrives when members of that community invest their talent, their resources and their energy within it.
Ultimately, volunteers are the engine that drives the work of United Way. I have the honor of serving as chair of United Way’s board of directors – 48 men and women who donate their time and effort to serve the common good. As the volunteer leaders of this nearly 100-year-old institution, we feel a tremendous responsibility to ensure that it can effectively carry out its mission to improve education, income and health for every child and every family here in Akron.
Over the past year, we at United Way have undertaken extensive efforts to refocus and strengthen our impact in the community. This has required us to reexamine how United Way’s organizational structures and practices are aligned with that mission. Through our analysis, we have identified obstacles we must overcome in order to best serve Akron and all of Summit County.
Most notably, in recent years, designated donations – that is, donations made through United Way but earmarked for a third-party nonprofit organization – have nearly doubled. For us on the United Way board, this is of great concern because, too often, these donations do not drive the mission of our organization. Today, 60 percent of designated donations are made outside of United Way’s local mission and impact areas of education, income and health. Of even greater concern, half of all designated donations leave Summit County.
The end result is that, while United Way’s revenue has remained constant in recent years, we have had to make do with fewer funds to invest in impact initiatives within the community. Increasingly, it seems, many have come to see United Way as a go-between for charitable giving, not an agent for change in Greater Akron.
That we would like to change this perception does not in any way diminish the generosity of our donors. That so many people have given regularly to – and through – United Way speaks to the extraordinary spirit of philanthropy that exists in this community. Rather, we want to demonstrate the value United Way brings to the table. We want to reassure our donors that the
best way to achieve transformational change in Greater Akron is by investing directly in the work of United Way.
Over the coming months, we will begin to implement new strategies aimed at increasing the share of funds that we are able to invest in our local impact efforts. To that end, the United Way board of directors has put into place policies to curb the designation of donations to causes outside of our mission.
Much more importantly, however, we are making a firm commitment to all of our current and future donors. We will pinpoint innovative, effective solutions to problems throughout our community. If you give to United Way, we will ensure that your donation is leveraged for maximum impact and return on investment.
We can make that promise because United Way counts on the support of some of the most dedicated and talented individuals in Akron. From the volunteers who make our engagement events possible, to the volunteers who guide us as an organization, we all have a stake in the continued health and success of this community, and we will work tirelessly to ensure that Summit County is a place full of promise and prosperity for everyone.
United Way is accomplishing great things, and the future is incredibly bright. I hope you will join us as we work to make our community a better place to live, work and raise our families.
For more information about United Way’s case for change and its new policies visit uwsummit.org/forward.
James E. Merklin, CPA
Partner in charge, Assurance and Advisory Services for Bober Markey Fedorovich, and Chair of the United Way of Summit County Board of Directors.