Guest commentary Working to mobilize a caring community

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UNITED WAY Blackhawk Region's annual fundraising campaign launched in September though we work year-round to engage public and corporate support. What's more important than the campaign is why we work so hard to mobilize our caring community.

We want to raise every dollar we can to fight our most daunting social problems. United Way's Community Grants are how we invest donor dollars to tackle tough-to-solve issues, such as food insecurity, family and sexual violence, poverty, homelessness, racial injustice, educational and health disadvantages, to name a few.

IT'S important to know how United Way stewards your contributions to maximize a return on investment. It's similar to a financial advisor, guiding resources to the most effective programs.

First and foremost, our Community Grants process is volunteer-driven. Funding decisions are made through a highly competitive process, and grants are awarded to high performing nonprofits that provide programs and services aligned with our three strategic priority areas of Health, Education, and Financial Stability.

Each nonprofit applicant must first meet eligibility criteria to apply. As part of the application, a program must substantiate the community need it's working to address, as well as the population(s) served, demonstrate community collaboration, address duplication, and articulate measurable results. Governance and financial information, including the Form 990, agency and program budgets are also required.

WE RECRUIT nearly 50 knowledgeable volunteers and subject matter experts from across the region to conduct grant reviews, lending upward of 750 volunteer hours. This year, we had a school superintendent, retired journalist, Beloit College and UW Rock County faculty, social workers, school board members, health system representatives, accountants, small business owners, bankers, nonprofit employees, and corporate volunteers serve. All volunteers sign a Code of Ethics policy, as well as disclose any potential conflicts of interest. While United Way's lean team helps facilitate the process and ask questions, all staff members (including myself) are precluded from making or voting on funding recommendations.

The first step in the review is a rigorous financial analysis, conducted by accountants and finance professionals. Next is the formation of volunteer panels to evaluate applications and receive in-person presentations from applicants. Review teams carefully assess each program's effectiveness and impact in the community and make recommendations for grant awards.

Their recommendations are vetted and approved by our volunteer Community Impact Council and ultimately by our board of directors.

AS EVERY volunteer would tell you, the integrity of this process is something we're all deeply proud of. Nevertheless, there are difficult decisions to be made. There are no funding guarantees; some programs will receive the full amount requested, many will not, and others may not receive an award. It's not perfectly objective, but we strive for equity in the process.

Looking ahead, the process will continuously improve and transform into a collective-impact model. Future grant cycles will be multiyear and timing will shift from fall to spring. We will continue to rely upon data to inform decisions but will also turn outward to gather and listen to input of all stakeholders, so that together we may identify and agree upon community priorities. As we become increasingly collaborative, we'll be excited to allocate resources to new programs and initiatives to serve the greatest good.

Thanks to the generosity of all donors and volunteers, we live better by living united.

Mary Fanning-Penny is the President and CEO of United Way, Blackhawk Region.

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