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The United Way of Greater Cleveland has a new strategy for tackling poverty head-on


Posted July 10, 2019
5:32 pm


Written by Annie Zaleski in Freshwater Cleveland on 7/10/2019

There are many amazing nonprofits in Northeast Ohio, and Providence House is chief among them. Founded in 1981, the nonprofit is a crisis nursery, meaning they provide emergency shelter and intervention to children in need, and then work to help families stay together by connecting them to community resources.

"We're dealing with these amazing women who are bringing the most precious treasure in their life to complete strangers and saying, 'I am going to lose my children' or 'They're going to be harmed' or 'We are unsafe, and I need help,'" says Natalie Leek-Nelson, president and CEO of Providence House. "We start with such a deep level of respect for these women who have struggled daily to feed their children, shelter their children, educate their children and deal with their own adult crises."

For the last four years, Providence House has been a major partner agency of the United Way of Greater Cleveland. "United Way started to fund us to shelter children who could not find shelter or housing with their families, and then really got on board with our family preservation work," Leek-Nelson says. But in addition to having a financial relationship, the two partners have found valuable common ground—and a deeper relationship—by having conversations acknowledging the complexities of the poverty faced by Providence House's clients.

"Places like United Way and Providence House and other partners that they have are really peeling away the layers around poverty and saying, 'You have to understand—it's generational,'" Leek-Nelson says. "A lot of our families are in poverty because policy is holding them back."

A Strategic Pivot

While the United Way of Greater Cleveland has always been known for its progressive attitude, framing poverty as a systemic issue, and having conversations about what that means for the community, illustrates a new direction for the organization. Going forward, the United Way of Greater Cleveland is dividing its work into two distinct prongs: supporting services that address the symptoms of poverty, and also working to tackle the underlying causes of poverty.

Accordingly, in early June, the organization announced a strategy pivot that positions itself as a "collaborator, convener, advocate and investor" in the region's tactics for tackling poverty. While the United Way of Greater Cleveland will invest the same amount of money ($31 million) in the community going forward, it plans to streamline where these funds are going, and focus on investing in the programs, agencies and services dedicated to providing comprehensive (or wraparound) support to those in need.

"Poverty is incredibly complex," says Nancy Mendez, vice president of community impact at United Way of Greater Cleveland. "One program hit and miss here and there is not going to do it. If you really want to have significant change in the person, in the individual in her neighborhood, we have to be much better at coordinating the right services at the right time around that individual and her family."

Where addressing symptoms is concerned, the United Way's solution is what they're calling the Community Hub for Basic Needs, which comprise organizations in the community committed to addressing things such as homelessness, addiction, violence, hunger, and unemployment—all of which are symptoms of poverty. Accordingly, the Hub's offerings go "way beyond food and shelter," Mendez notes, and encompass substance abuse treatment, GED or literacy classes for adults, or counselors for children who have been abused.

"To us, that's basic needs," Mendez says. "That's just dignity. That's just respect. That's just the most basic things that every individual in this country deserves. And we know that individuals that are living in poverty tend to need a combination of several of these programs wrapped around them."

The United Way has also started focusing more on prevention-geared initiatives and programs that are trying to make long-term changes and break the cycle of poverty by addressing systemic issues. These issues, which are dubbed "root causes," include access to quality healthcare, childhood trauma, access to quality education, racism, public policy, and access to quality housing.

Unsurprisingly, these root causes of poverty are also intertwined. "It's easy to say, 'Well these are homeless families,' but that's just a symptom of a lot of other things going on for a family to become homeless—whether it's mental health disorders or addiction or underemployment [or] undereducation," says Leek-Nelson. "We always say, parenting poor doesn't mean poor parenting."

The United Way's initiatives reflect this interconnectedness. Projects such as the recent Lead Safe Home Summit, and new initiatives such as the Impact Institute—a think tank dedicated to creating solutions for these root causes—are tailored to offer comprehensive strategies. Additionally, the United Way is also working with its existing community partners to achieve these diverse goals.

For example, the organization chose the nonprofit affordable housing developer and housing service provider CHN Housing Partners—to which it's previously provided grant support for various programs, including one that helps Lease Purchase residents prepare to move from being renters to homeowners—to be the local service provider for the national Seimer Institute’s Family Stability initiative.

This initiative, which aims to improve educational performance by stabilizing the housing in Cleveland's wrap-around schools, has been so successful that CHN and United Way are "working together with the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland to strengthen the local response to the devastating impact of evictions on the economic stability of low-income Clevelanders," says Kate Monter Durban, CHN Housing Partners' assistant director.

In response to changing technology and workforce demographics, the United Way of Greater Cleveland's approach to fundraising—and how the organization talks about its work—has also evolved.

Traditionally, their major donation model involved a workplace-based campaign that took place across several months. "We were kind of the middle man between the nonprofit world and the corporate world," Mendez says. "They gave money to us, and we gave it right back to people doing great work in the community."

However, today these campaigns raise fewer dollars due to corporate consolidation and shifting consumer giving habits. For example, technology now allows to people to donate to their chosen charities with a simple click of a button or text message. "They don't need someone to come to their job and set up a way for them to give back to the community," she says. "They are empowered to do it themselves."

As a result, the United Way is pairing these office campaigns with a robust (and ongoing) community-oriented campaign that's also aiming to bring in funds. In the process, the organization's tone is also becoming much more direct. Its marketing language sheds euphemisms—for example, saying "hunger" instead of "food insecurity"—and shares striking data points to create urgency around poverty, such as 1 in 5 local kids are food insecure.

Being blunt is helping raise awareness of the community's challenges, which Leek-Nelson thinks is crucial. In fact, the United Way's "advocacy platform is just as important as their funding platform," she says, in no small part because these conversations are moving the needle.

"[People are] no longer talking about singular issues. Finally, we're starting to understand the interconnectedness of these individual crises, and that most of them are being created because families have lived in poverty, do live in poverty, [and] don't have access to financial and even most basic needs for themselves and their children."

This directness also reinforces the United Way's ability to galvanize multiple nonprofits and agencies to induce change. "We are no longer up a pass-through or passive organization," Mendez says. "We want to be a leader in the community when it comes to combating poverty, breaking the cycles of generational poverty. We then need to have a voice. We need to be much bolder and much more direct when we do that."

Click here to read the full article at Freshwater Cleveland