Kentucky voices: United Way transformed into agent of change

The community spoke, and we listened.

Three years ago, the United Way of the Bluegrass board felt strongly that it was no longer making the impact it wanted in the community. The giving landscape changed and the needs of the community changed.

Central Kentucky has always been unique — full of independent spirits and character steeped in tradition. It was then necessary for the community to come together to decide what path was right for United Way of the Bluegrass.

We have seen a transformation in the last three years involving a real philosophical change. It was motivated by an interest in solving problems — not just putting a Band-Aid on them. We shifted focus from short term to long term to make sure the dollars were making the maximum impact on our communities.

Engaging the community and building consensus for where best to invest resources became an obvious role for United Way of the Bluegrass. This is a new story; a culmination of the work of many thoughtful and knowledgeable individuals. We will go a long way to build a better community where the community can participate in an active way. The ultimate goal is to develop a self-sustaining, prosperous, healthy and educated community. To do so, we have:

■ Developed a common-sense approach to community solutions.

Based upon broad community input our new focus is on four areas — critical and essential services, education, income and health. In order to make the best decisions, we engaged experts in education, finance and health to evaluate and score proposals which were then prioritized by community members.

In light of the recent economic downturn, all three groups started with a will to support basic and essential services as a foundation. Then, once people are out of crisis, they are more apt to feel empowered to succeed.

By implementing this new process, we really worked effectively as a regional organization. Bringing leaders together from the various communities allowed everyone to get a better picture of what was going on in the entire region. It was such a cooperative experience — it was kind of amazing.

■ Raised the bar in this new allocation process by using knowledgeable volunteers to measure the right programs to make the maximum impact. The model worked because hundreds of caring and committed community volunteers participated.

■ Applied creativity and innovation.

This new approach provided a great opportunity for interagency work and partnerships. The professionalism of the partner agencies is impressive; especially in these times when the need is greater than ever.

The focus became less about money and more about how we can most effectively use all of our resources: financial, individual strengths, relationships, technology, intelligence and others, to achieve results.

We are proud of our partnering agencies that have risen to the challenge of developing fresh, new, creative and innovative programs to address decades old issues while being sensitive to the critical issues and concerns for today.

■ Re-imagined how we do business as an organization.

We are adding new approaches to resources by writing grants, approaching individuals and looking for ways for agencies to work jointly with United Way and partners for maximum impact.

■ Made a commitment to long-term solutions and accountability.

The community, through United Way of The Bluegrass, is making at least a $9 million commitment for the next three years to address major health and human services concerns. The longer-term funding program will give these initiatives more stability as long as they perform. It promotes long-range planning.

We are not looking for quick fixes. Instead we are instilling a need for steady progress. So instead of just giving money, we wanted to start measuring the outcomes. It will allow us to begin to identify best practices and invest more in initiatives that really work.

This is an active and ongoing process. We want to continue a community dialogue with transparency and openness. It will involve lots of conversations about what works and what doesn't while striving to ensure the maximum return on the community's investment.

Now we have to raise more funds to support the rest of the stellar programming proposed by our community partners.

It is time to invest in your community. The more resources we have, the greater impact we can have on the community. It is our job to entice more people to invest more into this community and to build positive momentum.

We are firmly convinced that by doing so there will be better days ahead for our region.