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Deedra Atkinson


Why do we like the United Way of Dane County so much?

It’s not just the organization’s big heart. It’s the smart head it has on its shoulders.

The local United Way does more than hand money to groups and causes that try to improve people’s lives. It tracks whether that money is producing positive results. And it requires recipients to show they’re making a difference, based on data.

Measuring for success has become ingrained in the United Way of Dane County thanks in large part to Deedra Atkinson, who retired from the organization last week as executive vice president of community impact.

Madison and Dane County owe Atkinson many thanks.

During her nearly 15 years at the nonprofit, she’s been a champion for collecting and analyzing numbers to prioritize needs and track progress. She’s been the go-to person for identifying research and trends on school achievement, homelessness, incarceration, employment, poverty, the elderly and more.

No one has been so intent on using data to find and speed solutions than Atkinson. And according to other United Way officials, her legacy includes training other staff and volunteers to continue those measurements and analytics in the future.

That’s great to hear.

The United Way’s Journey Home program is a good example of the organization’s attention to numbers. When the program to help inmates released from prison began more than a decade ago, two-thirds of these offenders in Dane County returned to prison within two years. The United Way sought to lower that figure by helping participants find housing, employment and treatment for addictions.

Over the next decade, the return-to-prison rate fell to just 19 percent. That was a big change, impacting hundreds of lives each year while preventing further crime and costly incarceration.

The United Way has had similar success with the Housing First program, which over six years achieved an 80 percent success rate at keeping homeless families in stable housing.

The United Way has tracked and reduced falls by the elderly. It has improved reading and math scores for students. It is helping slow the summer slide in learning by providing children free books at summer recreation programs. The students incorporate the reading material into their mostly outdoor activities through the Read Up Madison program.

Atkinson didn’t do all of that — and more — on her own. It took lots of colleagues and United Way partners. And sometimes the data showed well-meaning programs weren’t working, prompting change.

Atkinson will be missed in her retirement. But we’re glad to hear her commitment to data-driven decisions will continue at the United Way.