Beaufort News

The Local Life: Community a sound investment

Investment is a hot topic these days. People are searching for ways to grow their money for retirement, a college fund or a home and to get the best return possible. United Way of the Lowcountry has found a sure thing: Investing in our community.

The Community Investment process is a pillar of our United Way's operation. It's a hands-on experience that gives contributors a direct say in how dollars raised in the campaign are invested to address critical community needs. The system engages 48 volunteers -- United Way contributors themselves -- who attend training and then rigorously evaluate each agency program requesting funds.

The agency must demonstrate sound management, exceptional financial accountability and transparency, excellent program content and measurable results that positively impact needs. Programs must meet the criteria of one of four types of funding, which are tied to United Way's strategic priorities for our community: Priority needs (literacy, hunger, shelter, poverty or health, which includes access to health care, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, mental health and AIDS/STDs); highlighted needs (family abuse and violence); other needs vital to the health and social well-being of the community; and one-time grants for innovative programs.

Community Investment volunteers are assigned to one of eight panels, each looking at the programs of three or four agencies in a common area of work. Each panel forms a consensus and panel chairmen report their groups' recommendations to the Community Investment chairman (a volunteer with additional experience and training). Panel reports are assembled and presented to the United Way Board of Directors as a committee recommendation for fund distribution in the following year. This total is the basis of the goal amount for the fall United Way campaign.

Panels are beginning their program interviews and budget discussions now, aiming for a recommendation at the May board of directors meeting and a goal announcement for the 2011 campaign not long thereafter. Money raised in this year's campaign will be distributed to agencies for 2012 operations, based on Community Investment volunteers' recommendations.

It's important for applicants and evaluators to be able to quantify the work being done in our community by a given program. Some years ago our United Way chose the Outcomes Logic Model as its basis for funding decisions and strategic decision-making.

This model is a guide to analyzing any program to see how well it's achieving its goal. It has five elements:

  • Inputs: staff, money, volunteers, equipment and supplies (What do we need to do this job?)
  • Activities: programs, e.g. meals, counseling, shelter (What is the means to our goal?)
  • Outputs: quantity and cost of activities (How many are served? What's the cost?)
  • Data: key indicators relevant to program goals; surveys, tests, interviews, focus groups (How do we know it's working?)
  • Outcomes: improved awareness, knowledge, behavior, quality of life (Lasting change is made in people's lives)
  • Outcomes tell the real story of a program's effectiveness. Measuring outcomes is not just a Community Investment requirement; it's also the best way for an agency to see if a program is achieving the desired result -- a great help in planning for the future.

    United Way is not the only source of funding for its agencies. But for agencies that work within the guidelines of the Community Investment system, it can be a key source. To quote one of this year's agency applications: "The continuing support of United Way is critically important in these difficult economic times as we try to work smarter with fewer resources, without compromising the quality or reducing the scope of our services."

    It's important to United Way, too. The volunteer-driven, outcomes-based Community Investment program assures United Way contributors their gifts are invested for maximum community impact, with investment recommendations linked to program outcomes and United Way strategic priorities.

    Sounds like a sure thing to me.