Monday, January 6, 2014

Creating Engagement: How UWCW’s Hands On Greater Portland team is working to break the cycle of childhood poverty

By Megan Nugent, United Way Director, Marketing and Communications

Becky Blumer
In August, United Way of the Columbia-Willamette launched a new strategic plan to break the cycle of childhood poverty in our four-county community. This shifting focus had large implications on the structure of our organization. United Way’s Community Impact (CI) team had arguably the biggest change. In order to clearly articulate to the public these changes we created a three-part blog series in which we interviewed the leaders of the three teams that now encompass the new CI department. In part 1, we talked with Alejandro Queral to discuss the newly formed Systems Planning and Performance (SPP) team. In part 2, we had a conversation with Mayra Arreola regarding the recently created Community Collaborations (CC) team.
In this third and final installment of the blog series, we will be focusing on our Hands On Greater Portland (Hands On) team and their part in breaking the cycle of childhood poverty. I interviewed Becky Blumer, director of the Hands On team, to discuss volunteerism’s role in the new CI structure.

Hands On Greater Portland formed in 1996 and is part of the larger “Hands On” global network which originally formed in Atlanta, New York, DC and Chicago. There are now more than 200 affiliates worldwide. Several Hands On affiliates are programs of their local United Way. The local Portland chapter started in 1996. Blumer has been with Hands On since 1999.

First off, how do you all fit into the larger CI department?

We consider ourselves the engagement arm of the CI department. We work directly with our community to get people out volunteering on opportunities that align with our new strategic goal of reducing childhood poverty. We also offer a broader selection of volunteer opportunities, such as working on environmental issues or helping the elderly.

Tell us a little about your model and how it works.

Our model is based on the belief that everyone has the opportunity to serve. We believe that when you volunteer to help your community, it’s not only the recipient that gains, but volunteers’ lives are also enriched. We believe that service is something that we all have in common and that it is transformative.

On any given month we have approximately 100 volunteer events up on our calendar of opportunities. We provide done-in-a-day volunteer opportunities, and also make long-term referrals for mentoring, tutoring and other critical volunteer opportunities that support the nonprofit infrastructure in the four-county area. Many of our projects are led and managed by trained Hands On Volunteer Leaders who guide volunteers on the project and ensure they have a great experience. Our projects are great for families, groups (school and corporate) and people of all ages. We strive to provide something for everyone.  Last year we made more than 20,000 volunteer connections and partnered with 400 nonprofits in our community.

In 2012, Hands On merged with United Way. Has this model changed at all? 

To our volunteers and partners we look the same. But internally there have been some changes. When we merged with United Way it allowed us to focus on what we do best ‒ connecting volunteers to opportunities. We have been able to streamline our operations, cut overhead costs and free up our staff’s time to connect our volunteers with meaningful volunteer opportunities.

How does Hands On fit into the new strategic plan with the focus on breaking the cycle of childhood poverty?

The primary way we are going to be able to help break the cycle of poverty is to bring more volunteer resources to the table to work on this issue. A large part of the new plan is this idea of a connected community, and we see volunteerism as integral to that. When neighborhoods have a large array of services and support they can help elevate the families and children living in them.

We are really working to align our projects and events with the mission. Currently, 50 percent of our projects on the MLK Weekend of Service impact children and families. We are looking to deepen the impact on kids and their families in our service area as we continue to grow our volunteer offerings.
Another thing that people might not know is that while we have a robust set of projects on our website, we are more than just a website that matches volunteers with projects. Our role is also to train a corps of volunteer leaders to dig deep and develop their own leadership skills while leading other volunteers in meaningful service opportunities. We also work closely with our nonprofit partners to bring them more volunteer-related resources.

We also have a program called TeamWorks that brings together teams of up to 12 volunteers on a series of projects designed to explore specific issues, organizations and/or communities through volunteerism. Past themes have included poverty, food of the future and “Discover Portland.” I think this avenue would be a great way to have people explore the issue of kids in poverty and how they can help.

What are your goals for Hands On in 2014? 

Now that we have completed the merger and we have our footing it’s really all about digging deeper programmatically. It’s so exciting that thousands of people connect with our new strategic plan. We can now harness this energy. We’ve had great conversations with many in our community – now we can start getting the job done.

This is the final installment of a three-part series looking at how United Way’s community impact team is realigning in order to help break the cycle of childhood poverty. You can read more about Alejandro’s story and Mayra’s story on our blog.

Interested in how your organization can help break the cycle of childhood poverty? Learn more about funding opportunities from United Way. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Building a strong foundation: together we’re helping families thrive

By Paul Krieger, United Way intern

The morning Dan* walked into the Gladstone Center for Children and Families (GCCF), he had only intended to register his five-year-old son for kindergarten. While filling out the usual paperwork, the receptionist noticed Dan was getting stuck on the address box. Dan explained that he didn’t have a current address – he and his two children were temporarily staying with another family. A few more questions revealed that Dan and his family had lost their home when his wife had left him and they could no longer stay with their in-laws. While he had been consistently employed over the years and had maintained his children’s health insurance payments and car payments, he had fallen behind on an energy bill and no longer had enough money left for rent or a deposit. Like many other families in our four-county region, Dan was in danger of losing his kids and living on the street.

Fortunately GCCF had recently created a new full-time Family Resource Coordinator (FRC) position with the help of a Catalyst Fund grant from United Way of the Columbia-Willamette. The GCCF is a unique place: It houses 10 agencies in one warm, welcoming location in Gladstone. The idea is that families can easily access a range of services, with the goal of preparing all kids for kindergarten. Organizations like GCCF show how providing low-income families with resources and tools can help them succeed. The FRC position was designed to help connect parents with community resources across an array of needs, from healthcare to housing.

And the creation of this new position made a difference for Dan and his family. With the help of the FRC, Dan moved into the Annie Ross House, the only family shelter in Clackamas County (operated by Northwest Housing Alternatives, another United Way-funded partner). Later, the FRC worked with Dan to get his HUD application approved, and after a two-week stay in the shelter, he and his two children moved into a subsidized apartment. Dan also got case management, counseling for his son, and energy assistance, and enrolled his kids in Head Start. Because of the help he received, Dan and his children are able to live with a sense of security and his children are able to make the important transition into early school, a critical time for determining later academic success.

Unfortunately, too many families in our region face similar challenges to Dan and his children. Forty percent of children in the four-county region live in low-income families – a number that has prompted our focus on breaking the cycle of childhood poverty in our community. As another example, a recent one-night count found 474 people in families living on the street or in temporary homeless shelters in Multnomah County. Many more experience homelessness at some point in the year. And the number of “literally homeless” (in emergency shelters or on the streets) individuals in families increased by 18 percent. Many families that aren’t experiencing homelessness are struggling in other ways: for example, more than half of Oregon students now qualify for free or reduced school lunches and the number of Oregonians relying on public assistance is at record levels.

Nationally, the Annie E. Casey Foundation's 2013 Kids Count Data Book shows that 32 percent of children have parents who lack secure employment and are vulnerable to even slight economic setbacks. Twenty-two percent of all children live in families below the Federal Poverty Line of $23,500 for a family of four. The overall number could be twice this, considering that the federal government uses several methods to calculate the percent, which has not changed significantly since its creation in 1964.**

Parents are the primary socializing agents for their children and parents stressed or overwhelmed by situational pressures have a harder time meeting the emotional and care giving needs of their children. This places children in a kind of “double jeopardy” where children are more at risk from the dangers of poverty and experience greater consequences from those risks. United Way funded the FRC position at Gladstone because we recognize the deep connection that exists between stable families and successful children. We cannot attempt to address breaking the cycle of childhood poverty without addressing the child’s home life, as well as the community supports that contribute to family stability. The three are inextricably linked. Poverty hampers parents’ abilities to help their children and in turn, places children at greater risk for failing at school and continuing a generational cycle of poverty.

For this reason, stable families are our second key focus area in our overall strategy of breaking the cycle of child poverty in our region. (The other focus areas are successful kids and connected communities.) Within this focus, we’ll connect families to basic resources like health care, housing and jobs. Our current funded projects like NW Housing Alternatives' Homebase and Council for the Homeless' Housing Solutions Center are helping families and individuals find the stable housing they need. Projects like IRCO's Financial Health for Newcomers, Voz Workers’ Rights Education Project – MLK Jr. Worker Center and Mercy Corps NW's Reentry Transition Center will provide financial education and help in finding work. Finally, we will be supporting increasing access to the Earned Income Tax Credit, a significant refund that many families are eligible to receive but often do not know about.

In a recent study published in The Journal of Children and Poverty, “The Economic Costs of Childhood Poverty in the United States,” it is estimated that the long-term cost of child poverty is about $500 billion or four percent of Gross Domestic Product per year when increases in crime and healthcare costs are factored in. But this study also suggests great potential for economic returns. By helping children in our region now, we are making an investment that pays off further down the road. Better outcomes for children and families, a more prosperous socio-economic base for our region and a happier and healthier community – these are all things that will more than repay our efforts now as we move forward together as a united community. Together, we can help build a stronger community and break the cycle of childhood poverty in our region.

Learn more about how we help kids and families succeed. If you’re with a local organization that supports successful kids, stable families or connected communities, you may be interested in our funding opportunities.

* Name has been changed.

** Data sites like Greater Portland Pulse use the Self-Sufficiency Standard, which calculates how much a family would need to make in order to meet its needs without public subsidies or assistance from nonprofits, friends and extended family. While the federal poverty line for a family of four is $23,550, the self-sufficiency standard for that same family living in Multnomah County would be about $65,522.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Building connections: How UWCW’s Community Collaborations team is working to break the cycle of childhood poverty

By Paul Krieger, United Way Intern

Mayra Arreola
United Way of the Columbia-Willamette is currently instituting major changes in the way we do business — especially how we interact with our community partners and how we evaluate the impact of our investments in the four-county region. This blog series will look at how our Community Impact team is retooling to achieve our ambitious goal of breaking the cycle of childhood poverty. In this second part, I interview Mayra Arreola, director of the newly formed Community Collaborations (CC) team, responsible for working with and building new relationships with community partners.

Prior to her work with United Way, Arreola worked at Rural Development Initiatives as diversity and inclusion manager as well as Latino program manager. Her work involved providing programs and services to the Latino community as well as convening, facilitating and training in the realms of leadership development, and community and economic vitality. It also involved building new relationships and finding new ways to bridge services with needs – skills that are well suited for United Way’s new community impact strategy. Mayra is originally from Mexico and has lived in the US for the past seven years.

What exactly does your team do within the larger Community Impact department?

Community Collaborations focuses on two things: managing UWCW’s grants portfolio and engaging with the community in the four-county area. Community engagement for us is about understanding the counties we serve and getting to know firsthand both these communities and the organizations that serve them. That includes learning about what they’re doing, what their needs are, where they’re struggling, and what inequities they’re facing. It’s also about looking for opportunities, as well as putting the pieces together from a United Way perspective through funding, services, convening and facilitating. We’re looking for the right places to support, lead or strengthen the work of local organizations.

The other side of what we do relates to our grant funding investments in local organizations. We manage those grants and establish relationships with funded organizations. For example, with our Community Transformation strategy on people’s minds, we’ve gotten a lot of questions about what “Community” means for us. “Community” can mean a lot of different things. It can mean cultural communities, advocacy groups, different geographic areas or even different layers within a community. That’s why we want to encourage grant applications from groups who may not see themselves as traditional United Way grantees but could actually receive funding.

Overall, we want to make sure that our investment portfolio and the communities applying align with the mission and the vision of United Way and are a reflection of the four-county area. We want to open doors and encourage our target communities to work together in a way that reflects United Way’s goals and again, aligns with what we’re doing. We also want to provide opportunities for the organizations to have clarity when it comes to our new grants guidelines and processes as well as where United Way is going and how they can fit in with the new strategies in terms of what they’re doing.

The new Strategic Plan represents a real shift in focus for Community Impact, especially from its work in years past.

Yes, that’s true. One example is that when it comes to grant funding, it’s no longer just about applying, getting the money, submitting a report and that’s it. We’ll be looking to gain a deeper understanding of the organization and their needs, as well as how we can partner and reach our goals together. United Way will have a stronger presence and a stronger role as a convener, a facilitator, or a supporter of the funded organizations’ work and their impact.

We are transitioning to become a “backbone” organization when applicable as well as a convener. What is Community Collaborations’ role in making this transition happen?

One way I see United Way being a backbone organization revolves around that sense of really understanding our region and being able to establish links and be a connector – being able to say: here are several groups whose work or vision aligns with one another, what happens if we convene them and work on a problem together? Also, we are interested in working with organizations that are not necessarily funded by us, but because of their role and what they do, they align with United Way’s vision of breaking the cycle of childhood poverty.  

So it’s almost like in our role as a convener, we are acting as an informational hub where information travels both ways between partner organizations.

That’s right. Eventually we’ll get to a place of deeper understanding of what is happening in the areas we serve so that we can help inform and work with other organizations to shape their future efforts, linking it to our data, metrics and indicators of success. That way we can say: based on the data we know, in this particular community, this action is something that makes a lot of sense to support and will be great for us to get involved in.

In his interview, Alejandro Queral, director of Systems Planning and Performance (SPP), described SPP and CC as two sides of the same coin, with CC as the face side. Can you describe CC’s relationship with SPP and how the work of one department complements the other?

SPP and CC are like a big team, but we have a different focus – one internal, one external – and we work closely together. It’s a complementary approach. SPP is mostly focused on systems, data and metrics, while CC is focused on managing grants and relationships and engaging with the community. As Alejandro said, these sides of the same coin provide a well-rounded perspective of what we are basing our decisions on and how we see our efforts moving forward. In the end, everything we do links back together as Community Impact and also as United Way.

As we take a more active role with our community partners, how do we learn to listen more effectively to their own input and concerns and digest more qualitative feedback?
This fall, we held Town Halls in each county about the new strategic plan; then we hosted informational sessions in each county about the grant funding opportunities. At both types of events, people had the opportunity to give their input and suggestions. We also solicited online feedback about our draft grant-making guidelines, and that input definitely influenced the final version of the guidelines. We’re being intentional about making sure we reach out to culturally specific groups in a variety of sectors. In general, there’s a shift in the relationship with potential grantees: we’re not just distributing information about what we’re doing but we’re also providing an opportunity to influence the grant-making guidelines.

How is CC working to be more adaptable in terms of how we relate to organizations of different sizes and levels of sophistication? Also, how can we be more flexible in terms of how we measure community impact?

This year, we have different evaluation criteria and requirements for emerging and established organizations that are applying for Community Strengthening grant funds. Also, while Community Transformation is an opportunity that’s best suited for existing collaboratives, the Catalyst Fund grant opportunity is streamlined and accessible for all sizes of organizations, including smaller, newer ones.

How is CC working to be a part of the community outside of grant funding?

To start with, each of our team members is a liaison for a specific county:

  • Clark/Multnomah Counties: Mayra
  • Clackamas/Multnomah Counties: Hosheman Brown, Community Collaborations Manager
  • Washington/Multnomah Counties: Lai-Lani Ovalles, Community Collaborations Manager

This is a new effort for us, and we’re starting to connect and be a part of networks. We have a presence at nonprofits, committees, task forces and boards, either in an advisory position or to gather information. As time goes on, we’ll be doing a lot more of this and identifying focus areas for our involvement. Also, we have great support from Anna Nakano-Baker, Community Collaborations Coordinator, who supports the team in a variety of ways.

What else should people know about your team?

We’re a new team and we’re doing a lot of planning and laying the groundwork right now so that we can be successful in the future. We’re looking forward to building more and better relationships with the community and we’re very excited to do more to help break the cycle of childhood poverty!

This is part two of a three-part series looking at how United Way’s community impact team is realigning in order to help break the cycle of childhood poverty. Up next is our Hands On Greater Portland Director Becky Blumer.

Interested in how your organization can help break the cycle of childhood poverty? Learn more about funding opportunities from United Way. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Shifting lenses: How UWCW’s Community Impact team is working to break the cycle of childhood poverty

By Paul Krieger, United Way Intern

Alejandro Queral
United Way of the Columbia-Willamette is currently instituting major changes in the way we do business — especially how we interact with our community partners and evaluate the impact and success we are having in our region. This blog series will look out how our Community Impact team is retooling to achieve our ambitious goal of breaking the cycle of childhood poverty within our four-county region within a generation. In this first part, I will interview Alejandro Queral, director of the newly formed Systems Planning and Performance team, responsible for measuring and evaluating our overall impact and efficacy.

Queral is a new member of our team, having come on board in July. He holds a B.S. in environmental science and a master’s in evolutionary biology and is a graduate of the George Washington University Law School. He has also worked for the Sierra Club, directing their Human Rights and Environment program, been a state government relations director of the American Heart Association and a program supervisor for Multnomah County Health Department. With his extensive background in health, environment and administration, Queral brings a unique perspective to the role of SPP director.

What’s the function of the Systems Planning and Performance team?

SPP is the part of Community Impact responsible for developing systems that will help United Way make the investment decisions that will be most effective at reducing or eliminating childhood poverty; ultimately, these decisions will be based on data, available evidence and measurable outcomes.

What is the current focus of your work in Systems Planning?

This is a period of creation and innovation for us; in fact we are trying to define what we are given our new role. We are currently working on creating and refining an integrated management system for multiple data sources to make better decisions about how to invest and who to invest in. We are moving toward a system where we can better evaluate the performance of our partners as well as measure our own impact within the community. So we will focus on key performance metrics that can help us measure how effective we are toward eliminating childhood poverty, as well as to continue to improve our investment processes and decisions moving forward.

How has the focus of your department changed compared with years past, especially given the new strategic focus?

We have taken a critical step in changing our focus from a transactional, fundraising organization to a relational focus that is community-based. With this new focus, we must identify who the key stakeholders are in our community and who is driving change. We must enlarge our knowledge base and understanding of what works so that we are more in tune with community needs, and better understand where we can have the greatest community impact. We need to increase our presence as a community partner by participating in our community in more qualitative ways — we must do a better job of telling the story of who we are and what our impact is.

How is Systems Planning preparing for this new relational role and how do you envision this will play out in terms of how we interact with partner organizations and projects?

This is where one of the great opportunities lies for United Way, to redefine itself. What does it mean to be relational, particularly in the context of working with community partners and investing resources into their organization and development? SPP has a key role to play in defining how we measure success and in being able to convey what success looks like to our community partners. SPP provides a framework for a performance-based approach in making our investment decisions — we should be able to say what organizations are really having an impact in ending childhood poverty.

But it’s more than evaluating or assessing their performance — it’s also about understanding what it is that they’re doing that is working well, that is helping move the needle, and understanding where the barriers are that are preventing success. In other words, when we talk about being relational, we need to think about accountability in a different way — not necessarily about being punitive but about using the data we gather from the community and the region to make better decisions about where to invest, where to take action, how to approach a particular problem. So we will play a role in not just gathering and managing data but turning that data into knowledge that partners can use to make effective decisions.

So it’s a two-way streetdata can flow both ways helping both us and our partners gauge performance?

Absolutely. I think it’s critical that we are learning from organizations — we will certainly be creating the infrastructure internally to understand what it is our partners are doing. It goes to the question of impact — if we understand how to measure success, then we can say something about the impact of United Way and our grantees in the community. And it’s more than a two-way street; it’s really a whole network of organizations, and through that network we will be sharing knowledge that can be put into action — not just a bunch of data that only tell us whether we’ve met our goals or not. It’s more than that. Through the network, we will all learn why we did or didn’t achieve our individual and collective objectives and what we can all do to be more effective.

Can you talk a little about our role as a “backbone organization” and about being a convener?

There are a number of things there — one is the question of what our role is within a collective impact model. We can play a backbone role but I think we should also be open to adapting, particularly around the CommunityTransformation investment strategy. What I think we will see is that organizations and collaboratives are at different stages of development and readiness. So United Way has to tailor its role according to where organizations and collaboratives are and how they envision their partnership with us. We need to able to think about what is the best role for us to play in enhancing the work of a particular community.

How about measuring impact?

Since about 2012, United Way has been funneling resources to a range of projects with focus areas around health, education and economic stability. But within those things, it runs the gamut — around income for instance, around EITC, rent assistance, financial literacy classes — all these different things in the past have never shared metrics, have never shared goals. It’s very difficult to condense that work into stories that people can relate to. Statistics and theory are not sexy. People want to hear about results. In previous years we have not been set up to understand the impact. So what we’re doing is refining how to look at what works to reduce childhood poverty based on the available evidence.

For some types of projects it’s relatively easy to measure concrete impact and return on investment; for others that are less tangible, it will take time and research to develop meaningful metrics. For example, what does it mean for a family to be able to stay in their home one more month? How does that impact their family stability? What does it mean in the long term? Does that one time influx of cash have a long term effect on their ability to stay employed?

The key is to be able to communicate the vision of where United Way wants to be. In order to do that, we can provide data that shows where our region is in terms of childhood poverty — measurements like academic attainment, financial stability, public housing, services provided, etc. Moving forward, we’ll be working on data that captures what our partners are doing and how they’re moving the needle in a very local way.

Anything else that our community should know about SPP?

The role of the Systems Planning and Performance team is to create the underlying infrastructure that will allow the Community Collaborations team (another new team within Community Impact) to better understand what is happening in the community, how our partners are working and what kinds of success they’ve achieved. It’s really important not to lose sight or forget that Systems Planning is just one side of this coin and that the Community Collaboration team will be more directly engaged with community members on the ground. Our role really is to facilitate their work. We have a relationship where we just don’t simply meet and talk but rather take action together and create the infrastructure that allows us to take action together.

This is part one of a three-part series looking at how United Way’s community impact team is realigning in order to help break the cycle of childhood poverty. Up next is our Community Collaborations Director Mayra Arreola.

Interested in how your organization can help break the cycle of childhood poverty? Learn more about funding opportunities from United Way. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Their success is our success: Together we’re helping kids succeed

By Paul Krieger, Intern for United Way

I remember my dad telling me stories about growing up in poverty. Of the hot summer sun in the San Joaquin Valley where he and his younger brother picked cotton for less than five cents a pound. Of the small, two room bungalow where the brothers lived with their mother, step-father and two sisters. Of sleeping on the kitchen floor during winters and on the porch during summers and of the dirty well water they used to wash and bathe themselves. Through it all my father maintained a strong determination and spirit that manifested itself in a youthful desire to become a preacher.

Yet without the intervention of a caring aunt and the excellent support and belief of his local school, he almost certainly would have fallen into the same generational poverty that marked his family. With their support, however, my father was able to be the first in his family to go to college, then on to graduate school and afterward, a rewarding career in public service. Because there were critical supports — concerned school counselors and teachers, a supportive faith community and a mentoring family member — he was able to prevail in the belief that if he worked hard enough, he could find a place in the world for himself and his family.

Yet not all children are as fortunate as my father. Many are unable to escape poverty’s downward pull. During my father’s college years, poverty steadily declined for all Americans, reaching 11.3 percent in 1973 according to the National Poverty Center. Today, however, childhood poverty is worse than ever, especially since the onset of the 2008 recession. According to UNICEF, the U.S. now has a childhood poverty rate of 23 percent, among the worst of the industrialized world. For comparison, our rate is slightly lower than Romania’s but higher than Spain or Latvia. This rate is even higher for minorities like African Americans and Native Americans, groups who suffer the worst during periods of recession such as our current one.

The situation for children in poverty in Oregon is particularly alarming when compared to the national situation. According to a report by Children First for Oregon, in 2011, 44 percent of children lived in poverty or in low-income families, with 24 percent at poverty level — an amount that is the 14th worst in the country and above the national average. Over half of Oregon students are now eligible for free or reduced lunches. As noted in this OregonLive article, the economy is not creating jobs fast enough to reduce the demand on public assistance. Many Oregonians are exhausting their unemployment benefits and turning to cash welfare, the number of which has more than doubled since 2006.

 According to the American Psychological Association, the stress poverty places on families negatively impacts the ability of children to learn. The emotional toll leads to depression in children, lower attention spans and lower academic performance. This is a time when children learn to form friendships and adapt to the demands of school and their outside environment. Parents overwhelmed by financial stress are less able to meet the caregiving needs of their children and this in turn negatively impacts the educational readiness of the child — the largest single indicator of their future success and the biggest determinant for breaking the cycle of generational poverty.

To meet this crisis of our region’s children, United Way of the Columbia-Willamette is adopting a new strategic focus that seeks to help end this problem within a generation — a strategy that will involve a shift in the way we engage with the community: we will become an engaged organizer and partner of the community rather than simply the fundraising organization we have been known for being in the past. Our new focus will involve effecting outcomes in three key areas: successful kids, stable families and connected communities.

Not having a high school diploma effectively dooms a child to a life of poverty so we will strategically invest in and work with partners that support student success at all grade levels including preschool, high school graduation and college/career transition after high school. Recognizing that children live in families, we will also support programs that promote family health and stability. Finally, we believe that some of the best solutions grow out of communities themselves; we will therefore be making long-term investments in and work with a cohort of strong community partners.

To help kids succeed, we fund organizations that implement programs that support students all the way from preschool to high school graduation (the biggest determinate of overall life earning potential). For instance, Self-Enhancement, Inc. has a strong mentorship program concentrating on the needs of students both in and outside of class. I Have a Dream’s The Dreamer School Project, builds long-term relationships, academic and social support services and creates a “culture of college” within school. Or the Youth Advocacy Program at the  Native American Youth and Family Center which provides intensive educational and culturally specific community services for Native youth, focusing on developing strong peer relations and collaborative problem-solving. Funded projects like these will help young students receive the supports they need both in class and without in order to maximize their chances of academic success.

So many years ago, my father was fortunate enough to receive the kind of supports he needed to overcome the obstacles that would have condemned him and his family to a life of poverty. Because of the support he received, he and his family were able to realize their dreams and build a middle-class life. The contributions you make to United Way can similarly help children from low-income families break the cycle of generational poverty, not only helping them reach their dreams but also ensuring our entire community becomes healthier and economically stronger.

Learn more about how we help kids succeed. If you’re with a local organization that supports successful kids, stable families or connected communities, you may be interested in our funding opportunities.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Measuring Up: Assessing Ourselves on Equity

In May, United Way of the Columbia-Willamette staff completed an internal assessment to gauge how well we are doing in creating equal opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds within our organization. The assessment (called the Tool for Organizational Self-Assessment and Shared Accountability) was done as part of our partnership with All Hands Raised.   

The overarching goal of the tool is to help promote improved outcomes for children and youth in Multnomah County schools especially around the areas of racial education equality and social justice. United Way volunteered to pilot the tool along with All Hands Raised.

The assessment took 76 hours to complete and consisted of 72 questions on topics such as organizational and leadership commitment, policies and practices, culture and communications and other areas impacting our practices vis-à-vis diversity. The assessment process included extensive discussion and data collection and was conducted by the culture committee and Maria Rubio, the former vice president of equity and engagement (Rubio stepped down from her role in June). I had the opportunity to speak with Rubio, before she left,  regarding the assessment and what it revealed about United Way’s own situation.  

I first would like to ask you about the difference between the words equity and equality. I think equality is the word most of us are familiar with and learned about in civics classes. This is probably the word most people think of when we think about the American social contract.
Equality means treating everyone the same - food, money, time, etc. Equity recognizes that everyone doesn’t come from the same place. Equality doesn’t recognize the barriers others often face in reaching the same outcomes - for example, the barriers created by discrimination or the challenges faced by a person with a disability.

At this point Rubio referred me to an image featured in the Equity Tool Report: 
Note: This image was adapted by the City of Portland
Office of Equity and Human Rights from the original graphic:
The image shows three boys of varying heights standing on boxes, trying to view a baseball game over a fence.  The left panel, titled “Equality,” shows how by being given equal resources, the boys do not achieve equal outcomes, while the right panel, titled “Equity,” shows that when resources are shifted to account for differences, the result is equal outcomes.  This principle is actually recognized by our judicial system and Rubio referred to a quote from a study of equity and bias in the Oregon Justice System that states:   “equal treatment of un-equals, constitutes unequal treatment” (paraphrased).  As the Portland Plan defines it, equity is when everyone has access to the opportunities necessary to satisfy their essential needs, advance their well being and achieve their full potential.

What is the importance of the assessment tool and what do you hope to accomplish by using it?
The tool will help organizations like local government and school districts assess how their organization and cultures might be creating disparities in their service delivery and/or their student success. The tool also spurs conversation and discussion about equity that rarely happens in the workplace.

So what did the assessment tool reveal about our own commitment to equity?
Our chief strength is our commitment and our courage and willingness to discuss and examine these sensitive issues. This is a role that an organization’s leadership must play and here at United Way, Keith Thomajan (United Way of the Columbia-Willamette CEO and president) has really been a driving force for creating our own culture of equity.

Maria Rubio goes over the assessment results with United Way staff

What are some of our other strengths?
We have a strong community sense and an existing equity policy that focuses on populations that are the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised in our region.  We also have an equity lens designed to help keep equity front and center in our organization. Lastly, we have a strong and diverse culture committee. This committee serves as advisors to the leadership team on issues that impact culture and morale. Committee members serve as ambassadors who model and incorporate the guiding principles that demonstrate the culture we want to have here at United Way.

Where are some areas where we fall short?
An obvious gap in our equity work is that we don’t incorporate it into our workplace giving campaign messaging. We need to engage and educate our donors about how inequities affect learning outcomes in schools, individual health, and individual and community economic stability. By improving education, health and economic conditions for the most vulnerable in our society, we all benefit by higher incomes, a better educated workforce and healthy people.

Dannon Raith, Hands On Greater Portland Program Coordinator, and Carol Frye, Chief Operating Officer, listen to the assessment results

The equity lens was identified as one of United Way’s strengths. What can you tell me about the lens?
The equity lens is a way of keeping equity front and center and to keep the dialogue open. It is a way of keeping track of equity - how it will impact people thinking about diversity and how it impacts us.  It offers us a way to look at where we can impact this process.  The lens creates more commitment to equity and with it, a greater commitment of resources as well.

How often should organizations like United Way conduct an equity assessment?
We should conduct the assessment at least once a year and measure the progress from the previous year’s goals. It should be conducted by a diverse, cross section of employees and organization leaders.

Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share?
Other collaborative member agencies worry about putting themselves out there by undertaking this assessment work.  At United Way, we have been very open with our findings, even when it’s hard to hear.  Because of this, we now have a benchmark for our future work and we will only get better.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Open Hearts, Open Minds: A Glimpse into the Success of Mount Scott Learning Centers

Watch a video about MSLC
On a Tuesday morning visit to Mt. Scott Learning Centers (MSLC), there was a palpable sense of community. One of the first things I noticed - besides the bright purple façade of the building - was that the administrative and dean’s offices had full-window walls, creating an open environment. As we toured the school, students approached our tour guide, MSLC Transitions Manager Joshua Mead, asking to speak with him later. In the lunchroom, students and teachers talked animatedly in small groups. Voices of teachers starting class spilled out of classroom doors left ajar. Students en route to class bustled past us with quick smiles to Mead. The hallways were lined with framed photographs documenting graduations, school events and sports teams. If I could sum up my first impression in three words it would be: energy, enthusiasm and warmth.

MSLC has become a known leader in the Portland community for providing accredited alternative education for at-risk youth. A majority of students who attend MSLC are categorized as “academic priority,” meaning they had poor attendance records, low benchmark scores on the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or were failing core courses and in danger of not graduating high school. More than 70 percent are low-income.  Yet, if you dig deeper into why these students are at-risk, it becomes clear that many different roads led to this path. For varying reasons these students were all struggling in a conventional schooling environment and needed more one-on-one attention and a more flexible approach.

An unprecedented number of students graduated from MSLC this year!
MSLC has been able to transform chronically disengaged students by establishing positive adult relationships. Class sizes are at a maximum of 20 students, allowing a richer curriculum and closer student-teacher relationships. The school’s core teachers hold weekly small group advisory sessions for students. From the time I spent there, it was clear that the staff’s dedication to their students extended far beyond programming.  Likewise, the students possess a strong loyalty to the school because they selected MSLC and are choosing to make the effort to graduate high school. This paralleled commitment fuels the staff’s desire to constantly improve the organization’s ability to serve the needs of its students.

MSLC received a $97,000 grant from United Way of the Columbia-Willamette’s 2012-13 grant cycle because MSLC’s goals for improving its school were closely aligned with United Way’s education impact areas of high school completion and students’ successful transition to continuing education. MSLC used the grant money to enhance the Transitions Program and to develop the Career Foundations class. These classes directly address the growing need to help students prepare for their transition post-graduation and that some students need personalized assistance in planning their credits for high school completion.

The Career Foundations class, an elective targeted for younger students, is designed to give students the tools, analytical skills and encouragement to plan for their future career options.  The course supplements the Transitions Program, a class designed for seniors’ transition out of high school, and gives the students a comprehensive plan of action for their future. Students conduct market research on their top career choice and backup career choice. At the end of the quarter, every student presents the research conducted on their top two career choices.

The grant also assisted in the development of intensive case management services for 25 students within the Transitions Program. The students receive support to identify credits needed for graduation and get referrals for credit retrieval. They also attend career classes, receive support in career planning and personalized mentorship. All 15 seniors in United Way’s case management program will successfully graduate and receive their diploma June 2013.

Many students of MSLC are the first in their family to consider college. Thus, another emphasis at MSLC is to increase awareness and knowledge of college. In January, the school hosted a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) Night for students and their families to get information and assistance in filling out FAFSA applications. Mead spearheaded this idea when he realized that many families do not have the resources to complete the complicated application; thus students were missing out on an opportunity to receive funding for post-secondary education. The event proved hugely successful with around 30 families attending. Most notably, there was a significant increase in the number of students receiving scholarships. A huge part of this can be attributed to the development of the case management program, new opportunities for career explorative classes and family outreach events such as FAFSA night. To highlight the success of such programs, all 15 case managed youth applied for FAFSA and will receive a Pell Grant and 10 of the 15 won additional scholarships.

In the past, MSLC graduated 17-19 students each year. This year, the number of students who are graduating has almost doubled to 31 students. MSLC credits a large part of this success to the support provided by the Transitions Program case management’s increased focus on ensuring that students attain the credits they need to graduate and the Career Foundations class’ emphasis on planning early for the future. These services are clearly spilling over to other students as reflected by the increased graduation rates.

“The most rewarding aspect of my job has always been watching our students graduate,” said Mead.  “I can now add that seeing my students realize college is an accessible option is another extremely rewarding part of my work. Their sense of accomplishment and pride is very moving.”  

To learn more about Mt. Scott Learning Centers, visit: