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Renee Moe, president and CEO, United Way of Dane County

Jody Bartnick is the executive director of Community Coordinated Child Care, and while she believes in the power of her organization, she knows it can’t solve every problem for the kids it serves.

“We know that if we work with a child who goes home every night to a family that’s homeless, the impact that we have is a little bit less significant,” she said. “It’s difficult for me to make meaningful change solely on my own.”

When it comes to helping families, the United Way of Dane County recognizes the value of a team effort. The organization is changing the way it invests in community organizations to encourage and support collaboration between service providers in the area. Officials announced the change at a community leadership launch Wednesday morning.

“We don’t just want to help, we want to solve the root cause to the problems,” said Renee Moe, president and CEO of United Way of Dane County. “That’s why United Way is changing the way we go about investment decisions.”

The move, which would allow organizations to apply jointly for collaborative funds, is meant to give families better access to needed programs, but also has the potential to streamline data and the funding process for service providers and funders, proponents said. The new process will affect funds raised in 2019 and allocated in 2020.

During a public panel discussion and interview Wednesday, service organizations and United Way staff and volunteers expressed excitement for the change.

Barbara Nichols, executive director of Wisconsin Center for Nursing and United Way Vision Council chair, said she’s been a practicing nurse for 60 years and has seen how “health care and social service systems can be really challenging for families to navigate.”

“When families have complex needs, they are not always served by one agency or program,” Moe said.

Another issue: with so many service providers in the area, there’s “some natural competition that arises,” said Monica Meinholz, director of the early childhood program at RISE.

And while there are many examples of service agencies collaborating in Dane County, “they are often not given resources or dedicated time and space to strengthen those collaborations,” Moe said.

To correct this, Dane County will change its investment strategy. United Way of Dane County awards millions of dollars to community organizations every year; in 2017, it allocated almost $19 million in funds to 59 agencies.

Now, 20 percent of United Way revenue, or around $1.5 million, will be allocated by a new cross-systems collaboration team for collaborative work, Nichols said.

The team will examine proposals and make investments in programs that cover at least two areas among health, education and income. The team will specifically focus on investing in programs that serve families with young children.

Lauren Martin, senior director of cross-systems collaboration at United Way, said that kids under 5 are at an “incredible period of opportunity,” and the return on investment in early childhood programming ranges from $7 to $13 for every dollar spent. The cross-systems effort will also emphasize “multi-generational” approaches, or helping both kids and their caretakers.

“I can make a greater impact by partnering with other nonprofits … and together we can support the entire family unit,” Bartnick said. “Housing, employment, health care coupled with early childhood is really powerful to me.”

While the move is meant to better serve families and lift them out of poverty, there are other potential benefits. Collaboration among organizations also means shared results and data, said Scott Strong, executive director of RISE.

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“It creates a common language. Because now we’ll all be using the same definitions, singing from the same hymnal and on the same page as we look at this collective work,” Nichols said.

Bartnick noted that collaborations have been “happening for decades and decades,” so the new United Way approach could also simplify the funding process for organizations that are already working together, allowing them to submit one proposal, Bartnick said.

Jeff Keebler, chairman, president & CEO of Madison Gas and Electric, noted that collaborative efforts can be attractive to funders.

“As a funder, I like knowing that we’re measuring the success out there and we’re doing it in a collaborative fashion, so we’re not just meeting the needs of individuals, we’re meeting the needs of the community,” he said.

United Way has been talking about a new way to approach their investment process since 2017. After focus groups, open houses, presentations, examining research and conversations with city and county staff, the Board of Directors voted in favor of changing the investment process.

Other United Way organizations across the country have also dedicated some or all of their investments towards models that emphasize collaboration and supporting multiple generations at one time, Martin said.

While different United Way organizations may have “done things a little bit differently,” many also focused on early childhood, multi-generation care, “in order to raise up the whole family,” said Martha Cranley, executive vice president of Community Impact at United Way.

Moe acknowledged that as a change to United Way’s funding process, there may be “some anxiety about this.”

“Whenever you’re talking about changing the allocation of resources, people get a little nervous about that,” Strong said. “United Way, I trust they’re going to make sure it’s managed well.”

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