Over that past few weeks, I have been volunteering with a group working hard to “give money away.” That group, the United Way of Central West Virginia citizen reviewers and fund allocation committee, come together each year about this time to do the same thing….”give money away.” At the conclusion of our efforts we always talk about what a great process it is and how we should share it with the general public, so I decided this is the year!
As a disclaimer let me acknowledge that I am a member of the United Way board of directors and Community Services Committee. I also serve as volunteer fund allocation committee chair, and have served as a citizen reviewer. I am also a donor to the community through United Way. I share this information to point out that I have some experience with the process and organization so my description will be very accurate.
Every year, our local United Way approaches the citizens of Kanawha, Putnam, Boone, Clay, and Logan counties with a community fund raising campaign. This campaign, held during the fall and early winter, sets the stage for social service agency funding during the next calendar year. But, well before the “campaign” kicks off, the citizen review and fund allocation volunteers come together to consider the funding requests from a variety of local nonprofit organizations. That analysis and ultimate recommendation to the United Way board of directors, creates the “community need” that will then be funded by the campaign kicking off in the fall.
Here’s how that analysis works. First, nonprofits are invited to apply for funding with an application deadline around February 1st. Remember the pie is only so large so funding is typically not open to everyone and each application needs to “meet an identified need in the community” and do so “in the most efficient way possible.” Once received, applications are then distributed to 35-40 community volunteers, just like me, who have been recruited by United Way. This year our group was made up of lawyers, bankers, accountants, retired professionals, salespeople, insurance executives, university instructors, hospital staff, and more. This volunteer group representing multiple counties and community segments, becomes the heart and soul of every donor and every beneficiary of service within the local United Way footprint.
Next we are assigned to three-person teams and each team receives 2-3 specific applications to review. When our application packages are received, they have already been reviewed by another group of CPA volunteers who analyzed all the financial data presented. Each package had also been analyzed by a local “logic model” expert to make sure the program outcomes were meeting the community need. And this year, a number of packages were reviewed by a volunteer group from WVDHHR Bureau for Public Health making sure programs interested in a new initiative of funding are evidenced based and meeting the proper need. Then the real work begins.
Each team spends time reviewing each application… making notes, gathering questions, reviewing past activities. Questions are generally shared with the Agency or Program Director of our assigned agencies and then an on-site visit is scheduled. This is a time to meet with agency representatives, see the program from “behind the scenes”, ask the questions raised during our preliminary review, and begin to formulate our evaluation of the need. In fact, one of our usual site visit questions is “tell us why you really need this money?” Site visits are a great experience because we all get to see to work being done in our community to help those faced with a personal or family crisis.
After the site visit, we meet as a team again and agree on a recommended level of funding for each agency. Then we go as a group and “present our case” to the Fund Allocation Committee. It is a little like being on trial because we have to defend our recommendation to our fellow volunteers and many of them are not easy to convince. That’s good, I guess, because they are representing all those donors who would surely ask the same tough questions.
Once all the individual presentations are made, the recommendations are totaled and you can cut the anticipation with a knife. “What if the amount is too high?” “These are really strong programs. How can we reduce their request?” And that is when the really tough work begins because the amount requested is ALWAYS too high. The Fund Allocation Committee begins a laborious process of analysis of each recommendation looking for ways to cut, but not kill, each program. “Does the agency have reserves they can draw on?” “Are there other sources of revenue available?” The task is tough but the volunteers are tough as well and I like that because we can’t give away what we don’t have.
And then… finally… we reach a collective number that appears to fit into the fund raising campaign plan, and we are done for another year. That is when we always end up talking about what a great process it is and how the community needs to know that a very special group of volunteers is looking out for them each and every year. So that is why I’m telling my story…
In closing, to all my friends, neighbors, and fellow West Virginians, this coming fall I am asking you to dig down in your pocket and support the community with a donation through your local United Way. While none of the fund allocation volunteers are paid staff (we did get a couple of lunches, and a little breakfast one day), we are a group of focused individuals working hard to make good decisions on behalf of all the communities we serve. We make hard decisions because we think you want us to. We put your money to work where you would put it to work and it makes our communities stronger.
The next time you hear someone question the allocation process of United Way of Central West Virginia, be sure to show them my story and tell them we’ll be glad to have them volunteer next year!
Randell “Randy” D. Foxx is chief financial officer for Boone Memorial Hospital and a member of numerous nonprofit and foundation boards including United Way of Central WV.