United Way’s annual Day of Caring mobilizes employees from West Michigan companies to volunteer. Here, Steelcase employees help in the gardens at Well House, an organization working with the homeless in Grand Rapids. Courtesy United Way
The Heart of West Michigan United Way collected its first dollars 100 years ago, when contagious diseases and food shortages prompted members of the Grand Rapids community to create a unifying way to provide relief to their neighbors.
Michelle Van Dyke, president and CEO of Heart of West Michigan United Way, said the original organizers wanted to increase effectiveness and decrease service duplication in the community by forming the organization.
“They wanted to make it easier to donate to different causes,” Van Dyke said.
Since its founding, the organization has undergone more than 10 name changes and repeatedly has adapted its priorities to meet the changing needs of the community.
For example, Van Dyke said during World War I the United Way focused on providing scarce resources to families in need, during World War II — under the name the War Chest — it funded 10 war relief agencies along with 18 other community agencies, and following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it suspended its local fundraising to instead raise funds for New York and Washington D.C.
“That is the benefit of the United Way, we are so flexible and able to adapt to the needs of the community at any given time,” Van Dyke said.
The organization originally relied on door-to-door campaigns with a massive volunteer network of 15,000 to raise funds.
It also utilized widely attended community spectacles to kick off its campaigns, including parades with fireworks displays, a torch lighting ceremony, and in 1947, a helicopter landing.
Van Dyke said by the 1970s, United Way started to turn toward local businesses for greater support.
“In the ’70s, more women went to work, and I think women were kind of a mainstay from a volunteer perspective, and so I think they were struggling to find people who could do the work,” Van Dyke said.
She said several organizations that also had relied on door-to-door fundraising campaigns were experiencing the same changes and altering their models for raising money.
Van Dyke said corporations also were eager to step up.
She emphasized there had always been a corporate presence in the United Way.
“The first campaign director was a banker from Old Kent Bank,” she explained.
Today, corporate support remains vital to the United Way’s fundraising efforts, with employee pledges making up 71 percent and corporate giving totaling 18.8 percent of the organization’s funding. Employees also contribute 85 percent of United Way’s volunteer hours.
But, Van Dyke said changes are on the horizon.
“We raise most of our money through employee campaigns — where employees agree to give a portion of their paycheck each paycheck — that’s been the mainstay for decades, and that doesn’t work anymore,” Van Dyke said.
She said the reason is the millennial generation doesn’t give the same way their parents and grandparents gave.
“They want to feel more connected and want a more hands-on experience,” she said.
As a result, the United Way is building out its volunteer center, which connects individuals and groups who want to volunteer with local nonprofit organizations and working to increase its online presence and mobile outreach efforts.
“We launched a new app for 2-1-1 and that connects people to the 2-1-1 database, so you put your ZIP code in and you say I’m looking for food and that will tell you what’s closest to you,” Van Dyke said.
She said United Way is working to make the search function more user-friendly.
The organization also launched a new volunteer center website in January targeting millennial users.
“It feels more like a social media platform,” Van Dyke said. “There are more elements that people are familiar with, and they can follow an issue or an organization, so any time there is a new opportunity posted, they get an email.
“We will also be piloting text to give opportunities this year, especially around events or issues.”
She said United Way’s Food from the Heart event will be a likely candidate for testing out the text-to-give model.
United Way also has narrowed its focus dramatically in the last year, which means it likely will be giving larger grants to fewer organizations in an effort to increase its overall community impact on those core issues.
“Traditionally, we’ve been this broad-based agency that is giving money across the community, which is very good, but it’s difficult to have impact with those dollars when it’s spread across many,” Van Dyke said.
She said United Way recently took a look at the needs of the Kent County community and identified where the gaps in support are, as well as where the gaps in funding exist to figure out where it could have the largest impact with its grants.
As a result, United Way is focusing on family stability, youth education and financial security.
“And we have very specific issues under each of the focus areas that we will fund,” Van Dyke said.
Van Dyke said under family stability, United Way now is focused on funding agencies that provide housing, food security, family crisis, and mental and behavior health services; under education, it will fund middle school math and science-focused programs; and under financial security, it is focused on job transportation and workforce development programs.
Last year, the United Way granted a total of $9 million to its partner agencies in Kent County.
“We expect that amount to be the same in the coming year,” she said.
Van Dyke said the goal of narrowing the focus is to ultimately make a systemic change on these issues within the community.
“We can take a more systemic approach,” she said. “How do we change the system behind this, so fewer people are hungry or have a need for nutritious food?”
Van Dyke said agencies receive United Way support through an application process.
“They send in proposals requesting funds, we then use a group of community volunteers who will look at those proposals and score them and make decisions and recommendations on funding,” she said. “It’s truly a group of community members who are deciding where these community dollars go, and then we fund on an annual basis.”
Goodwill of Greater Grand Rapids is one such agency hoping to receive United Way support this year.
Kathy Crosby, president and CEO of Goodwill of Greater Grand Rapids, said Goodwill has been a partner agency with United Way for more than a decade.
“We’ve been a grantee of theirs for all the years I’ve been here,” she said.
She said in the past, Goodwill has received grants related to its employment programs.
Goodwill’s grant is shared with its own group of partners, which has included the Women’s Resource Center, Literacy Center and Jubilee Jobs.
Crosby said she thinks United Way’s decision to narrow its funding priorities will be good for the community.
“I believe they are working hard to change United Way to meet the community’s expectations,” she said.
She added, “I think it breaks down the isolation of nonprofits when United Way is a convener of nonprofits in the community and rallies around on problems in the community.”
Van Dyke said going forward, United Way expects to continue to be a convener and to retain its flexibility, which has helped it amass a 100-year history of serving people in need.
In celebrating its 100th year, the United Way also is celebrating an investment of more than $500 million that it has raised and returned to the community.