For nearly six months, Community Human Services, an Oakland-based organization that provides food, shelter and other basic needs for people who are struggling, has been building its case.
The goal is to convince United Way of Allegheny Way that it should receive about $200,000 of an estimated $13 million Impact Fund — money to be awarded soon to local nonprofits for programs that will help the elderly, people with disabilities and others in the region.
Of 40 agencies that responded after United Way in mid-December posted requests for proposals on how to spend the fund, CHS is among 16 organizations that survived three rounds of evaluations and are now waiting to learn whether United Way’s board later this month will approve their proposals for funding.
“It’s always nerve-racking,” said Adrienne Walnoha, chief executive of CHS, whose operations include a food pantry, after-school programs, residential programs for the homeless and a health clinic.
Besides preparing detailed proposals describing the programs they believe would best address the critical community needs identified by United Way, nonprofits vying for a share of the Impact Fund must also submit the budgets and expected outcomes. After passing the first couple of reviews by United Way staff and volunteers, the finalists then were required to host an on-site evaluation.
“I would call it a rigorous process,” said Andrew Rind, senior director of Northern Area Multi Service Center, a Sharpsburg nonprofit that is also competing for a piece of the Impact Fund this year.
NAMS operates senior centers, Meals on Wheels programs, home health care, refugee resettlement assistance, and transportation services for the elderly and people with disabilities in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties. The nonprofit asked for $150,000 over three years to expand its Meals on Wheels program to include training and technology so people delivering meals to homebound seniors can recognize changes in the seniors’ health or other personal issues that need attention.
“They are really taking a hard look at all aspects of the agency to ensure what they are funding has a high probability of success,” said Mr. Rind.
Before United Way introduced its so-called “needs assessment” process in 2008, the method by which it doled out money didn’t subject nonprofits to nearly the same level of scrutiny.
In fact, many agencies counted on an annual allocation with few questions asked.
Back then, as one of about 50 to 60 nonprofits designated as one of United Way “member agencies,” CHS informed United Way about how it expected to use its yearly award and then reported back on what it did with the money, said Ms. Walnoha.
“It was very much directed by our organization. … We could set our own marching orders,” she said.
A number of factors prompted United Way leaders to reassess the annual distribution process. Among them: regional economic realities that had taken a toll on contributions beginning in the 1980s, including the collapse of the steel industry, the exodus of major corporate headquarters from Pittsburgh and drastic dips in population.
Also, the local United Way was one of many affiliates of the national organization that aimed to become more transparent to donors in response to the 1990s scandal in which United Way of America’s president was convicted of fraud and conspiracy after he diverted $1.2 million of the charity’s funds for personal spending on gambling, travel and extramarital affairs.
“After the executive scandal, everybody began to distrust [United Way] and say, ‘Where’s my money going?’ ” said Kevin Kearns, a professor of public and nonprofit management in the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.
The model for distributing funds also needed to be adjusted, he said, after United Way in the 1980s introduced the donor choice option that allows individuals to designate specific nonprofits where they wanted to direct their contributions.
While donor choice may have satisfied some longtime contributors, United Way was left “without any unrestricted funding to spread around to the community on a needs basis,” Mr. Kearns said.
“Everybody was designating workplace donations to specific agencies. United Way was essentially becoming a pass-through … they were basically processing checks.”
The launch of the needs assessment process “was a big sea change,” said Harold Miller, president of consulting firm Future Strategies LLC, and adjunct professor of public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz School.
“There was historically a family of United Way agencies and it was kind of a presumption you would be in that family as long as you didn’t do anything horrible. United Way needed to think more about whether it was having an impact on community needs rather than sustaining a particular set of human service agencies.”
After seeking input from a wide range of experts — including social service providers, foundations, universities and for-profit businesses — United Way developed the current system by which it annually identifies the gaps in providing human services and critical areas where it hopes funding can make the biggest impact, including help for seniors, the disabled, children and families in crisis.
The strategy encourages nonprofits and government agencies to collaborate on projects, requires applicants to provide measurable data on their programs and outcomes, and relies on volunteers from the various sectors to help United Way review proposals and conduct evaluations.
“It opened what had been a closed process,” said Robert Nelkin, president and chief professional officer of United Way of Allegheny County who came to that job just as the new allocation strategy was being hammered out.
For nonprofits, he said, “We introduced open competition for our dollars. They have to show us measurable results. And showing results is extremely important because it’s donors’ precious money.”
On Thursday, United Way is scheduled to announce the results of its 2013 campaign. Mr. Nelkin declined to disclose whether the organization generated more or less than the $33 million raised in 2012.
Regardless of the total raised, the Impact Fund is projected to remain at $13 million and the United Way board will meet June 10 to decide which programs and agencies to approve for funding beginning July 1.
CHS, which submitted proposals for two grants that would provide support programs for seniors and disabled individuals, on April 30 hosted United Way representatives for more than an hour. At that gathering, CHS staff had a final opportunity to answer questions and provide “our rationale for why we thought [our proposal] would be successful,” said Ms. Walnoha.
“That’s a pretty comprehensive time to talk soup-to-nuts about what you’re doing [as a service provider] and why; the impact on the community; and how it can go forward if United Way funding is available. A wonderful side benefit is that some of the questions the evaluators asked us were things we’ve never thought about. And we do human services every day.”
Anne Franks, executive director, administrative services for Pitt’s Office of Institutional Advancement, this year served on the volunteer committee that evaluated proposals and also led some site visits.
Among the budget items she examines carefully, she said, is administrative overhead. She also analyzes other expenses, deficits and how much funding the nonprofit expects to receive from sources other than United Way, including government agencies and foundations.
“United Way doesn’t want to just hand out money,” she said. “There have been many times when an agency is not recommended. It’s not a pass through.
”In the old days if you were an United Way agency, you stayed. Now you have to earn your status, and when you do that it benefits the greater community.”
Joyce Gannon: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1580.