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United Way President Explains Transformation

People have known for a while that a change was in the works. But Brach spoke to Style last week to spell out the new system in detail.

The new United Way wants to take charge and see results, Brach says. The organization, which contributed nearly $16.5 million this fiscal year to local agencies, will now coordinate different nonprofits' missions and prioritize where its money goes.

When people donate to the United Way (and they do — about 100,000 people contributed to the fall campaign), they may designate their gift for a specific cause or allow it to go to the all-purpose Community Care Fund, which totaled about $9 million last year. In the past, money from that pot could go to anything from reading programs to animal shelters.

Now the United Way is targeting what it considers the three most urgent needs in the Richmond community: strengthening families of young children and teen-agers, ending homelessness and improving the lives of older adults.

Why these three? They serve people's most basic needs, Brach explains, and together provide a "continuum of care" from infancy to old age.

But the United Way will not open its coffers for every agency associated with those three goals, Brach says. Agencies must also prove their programs work. In the past, United Way measured its impact by how many people its agencies reached; now, it wants to know how those people are affected. For example, Brach says, in United Way-funded after-school programs, counting the children who participate isn't as important as measuring changes in their grades and behavior. And for the first time, if an agency does not prove that its efforts are making a measurable difference, its funding may be decreased or cut.

Committees of volunteers have been meeting monthly to identify the services that are inadequate.

"While there was a need for everything we had, there were some definite gaps," says Gray Wyatt, chairman of the Homeless Action Council and owner of Perly's restaurant. His council named the greatest needs for the homeless, such as permanent housing and easily accessible mental-health services. The United Way responded by giving money this year to agencies that address those needs, including Freedom House, the Urban League and ESI Connections.

Not everyone may be pleased with the change, but agencies that have enjoyed a long relationship with the United Way won't be neglected, Brach says. They are guaranteed funding from the Community Care Fund through 2004.

Each of the 1,400 United Ways nationwide decides how to distribute its funds, but others are starting to follow the lead of chapters like Richmond's, Brach says. "We want to be more and more accountable to the people that give money," she says. — M.S.S.

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