How to make a real impact in the community

Every three years for the past several decades, United Way of Greater Nashua has embarked on its most central and core mission of assessing the needs of the community and then investing in programs proven to address those needs. Unlike other organizations which make grants, it is in the DNA of United Way to base our decisions on data and metrics, and to measure progress in quantifiable outcomes. This spring and summer are an exciting time for us, as this is the year for this process to take place.

Currently, we are going through the process of doing our needs assessment. We do not see it as our role at United Way to be the source of data. In fact, there are already many good sources of data in our community. These include the welfare department, public health department, school’s department, regional planning commission, continuum of care, and others. Each of these tends to focus on a singular area such as “health.” We, in turn, synthesize the data into a more comprehensive view which includes all three of the areas that become the United Way pillars of health, education, and financial stability. This creates a picture that tells us how we are doing as a community. Are we getting better or are we losing ground? Are there areas in need of specific attention? In health we look at topics such as mental health, including depression and suicide, substance use disorder, access to healthcare, obesity, cardio-pulmonary health, and lifespan. In the area of education, we look at outcomes such as readiness to enter school, reading and computing on grade level by the third grade, and graduating from high school ready for the workforce or further education. In the area of financial stability, we focus on problems such as underemployment, cost and availability of housing, livable wages, and youth homelessness.

Armed with this data, a few things then can happen. The first is that our Board of Directors will decide from our available funding pool how much to allocate to each of the three areas. In the last cycle, based on this data, about ½ went to health, and the remaining ½ was split evenly between education and financial stability. We will again be making this same determination, using the needs assessment to guide that decision. The next thing which happens is that agencies are invited to present their proposals for programs to be funded that touch on one of these areas. And that’s where the grant making process begins.

We believe at United Way that grants should be decided upon by volunteers who are donors. If a person donates $10 a year, or $1,000 a year, regardless, they are qualified to be involved in this process. While our professional staff, myself included, have some say in the process, ultimately the decisions are made by our volunteers. This ensures that our community truly has a voice at the table in strengthening itself and that many diverse perspectives can be represented. It also helps ensure transparency and accountability, which are very important if United Way is to maintain a position of trust in the community. The dollars raised by our annual campaign are used to support this process, and if a donor doesn’t believe in the process for spending their money, then they won’t be inclined to give.

It is important for people to understand that ANY nonprofit 501(c)3 organization is qualified to apply for United Way funding. For us, it’s important that the program serves the residents of Greater Nashua and that it addresses, through its process, one or more of the needs identified in our assessment. It is also important that the program’s success can be measured in quantifiable outcomes. It doesn’t matter how large or small the agency is or if it has or has not received United Way funding in the past. This process is actually already open for applications, but agencies wishing to learn more can do so online on our website, www.unitedwaynashua.org, under the tab “Get Involved/For Service Providers.” Also, there will be an informational session for agencies wishing to apply for funding on May 3 at United Way.

What will be the outcome of the assessment/investment process this year? To be honest, I have no idea about the actual grants which will be made. What we do know is that the decisions will be made by volunteers and based on data. And that is the secret sauce of the United Way process. I look forward to announcing the results in future columns, and to all of those involved in donating to our community impact fund, volunteering in the needs assessment process, evaluating grant proposals, or partnering with us as an agency, my heartfelt thanks to you, because together Great Things Happen When We LIVE UNITED.

Mike Apfelberg is president of United Way of Greater Nashua.