New funding process focuses on impact giving in Watauga, Avery

United Way organizations have often been summarily described over the years as “the community’s checkbook.” But this short-hand description doesn’t come close to describing a far-sighted funding model launched by the High Country United Way (HCUW), which serves Watauga and Avery counties.

HCUW borrowed the process from the Buncombe County franchise (and other UW affiliates nationwide) that has helped form the basis for its new approach to grantmaking. Early planners adopted a “visioning process” that asked three questions: 1) What do we want to look like? 2) What are the barriers? And 3) What do we need to do to overcome these barriers?

After much community soul-searching, the HCUW determined that Watauga and Avery counties need to focus on education, income and health. Three separate vision councils were commissioned to create a strategy for each area and to ensure that efforts intersected at every opportunity. “No silos allowed,” said Nancy Reigel, who chairs the HCUW Visions Councils Steering Council. She also is a former chair of the HCUW and currently serves on its board.

The process will shift the HCUW to a grant model that funds measurable initiatives supporting these three focus areas, but traditional funding partners won’t be completely ignored. “We will continue to fund programs in the community that meet our mission, but you will start to see a gradual shift in our priorities in some ways in the coming years,” said HCUW Executive Director Linda Slade in an article published by the Watauga Democrat.

There is no formal time frame, Reigel said. “I started with a timeline, but the process is no longer timeline-driven,” she said. “This is doing-it-right driven.”

Reigel, who holds a fund with the Watauga County Community Foundation (WCCF), describes several huge “ah ha moments” as the new funding model was developed. One was realizing the power inherent in just bringing the leaders from each focus area together. Another was seeing that this effort would truly help the United Way make community impact through its targeted priorities. “It’s so much bigger than funding,” she said. “It’s developing a grantmaking process that informs our goals to strengthen our community.”

The initiative caught the attention of the WCCF, which named the United Way the recipient of its recent Spirit of Philanthropy Award. The honor came with a $2,500 grant that will help fund the visions councils’ work.  “This was not only a stamp of approval, but also a good way for us to help promote this funding model in our community,” said Brian Crutchfield, member of the WCCF board of advisors and the NCCF statewide board.

Crutchfield presented the award to HCUW at a luncheon this fall. “The United Way is using this new initiative to move forward and effect long-term change in community conditions,” he said at the awards event. “They know that it’s not just about the money; it’s about bringing the community together.”

John Francis, NCCF regional associate for the northwest, is excited about the leadership role that the HCUW is taking in the community and has been invited to join the process. Both he and Crutchfield are members of the Income Committee of the Visions Council.
“Impact grantmaking is certainly where several funders are heading, including the North Carolina Community Foundation and its affiliates,” Francis said. “I’m excited to get involved with the effort and learn more about the process that will benefit us all.” He noted that the framework encourages funders to embrace ideas of collective impact, collaboration and strategic grantmaking. “The ultimate goal is systemic change,” he said.

For more information on the new HCUW funding model, this PDF of the community presentation slide show provides more detail.

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