Sowing the Seeds of Giving A New Approach to Addressing Community Needs Is Taking Root As the Public Sector Stumbles

Originally printed in The Reader. Part 2 in a series.

On a big picture scale, the Chamber engages in strategic planning. Rather than focusing almost exclusively on chasing “smokestack” industries, for the first time the Chamber has engaged a futurist and really expanded it’s community partnerships. For being one of the most highly awarded chamber organizations in the country, it’s not resting on its laurels.

"Right now we're going through a Strategic Foresight process. We've hired economist Rebecca Ryan from Next Generation Consulting as a Futurist-in Residence. She's helping us think about what the future of Omaha, particularly from an economic perspective, could be 20 years from now. We've asked as partners the Urban League of Nebraska and the United Way of the Midlands to be with us in this. We're all thinking about what not only the economy needs to look like but what disruptions would happen if that economy were to come to fruition or what disruptions might keep us from accomplishing the kind of future we're looking for."

United Way executive director Shawna Forsberg said, "Much to the Chambers credit they're not just looking at it from a business perspective. They've invited representation from the human services and inclusivity sides. It's very thoughtfully run. Numerous stakeholders and influences are being brought to the table during this process so that it is a community weighing in on what needs to happen."

Part of Ryan's futurist work is spent with various local nonprofit boards and planning committees teaching them strategic planning tools. Key to long-term thinking is capacity building, another emerging tactic being picked up by another key player in the giving landscape.

Helping nonprofits be sustainable is a focus of the Omaha Community Foundation, whose Nonprofit Capacity Building program's 24-month curriculum is designed to strengthen organizational and leadership capacity needs. Ten area nonprofits are chosen each year to participate. Forty nine organizations have gone through the program. Currently, 20 organizations are in the program (10 in their first year and 10 in their second year).

Education is a core focus of the foundation, the United Way and the Chamber.

"I think education is the base for the kind of development we're going to have to see in the future," Brown said. "We've got to make sure our kids, whether the most affluent or the least affluent, whether in North Omaha, West Omaha, Council Bluffs or Sarpy County, are getting the best education they can get. We have a community with about 3 percent unemployment and yet we know there are pockets of higher unemployment. What causes that higher unemployment isn't lack of jobs in many cases, it's lack of preparedness, strong education or a high school diploma.

"There are some extenuating circumstances, such as lack of transportation, that keep people from being an active part of the workforce and we've got to mitigate those in some way or another. If we don't, companies won't find the people they need here and will look somewhere else. We've got to get as many people ready to work as possible in the areas where we know people can be hired and earn a great wage. So, education and transportation are things we're paying a lot of attention to. Mass transit system improvement is pervasive in all of our conversations."

Alleviating the high poverty that persists relates back to education and workforce development, Brown said.

Long the leading organization in fighting poverty and funding human services, the United Way is evolving from being more of a funding conduit to an accountability organization. With so many community problems intertwined and with so many efforts yielding such little success over the years, a new approach was demanded.

"For people living in poverty it's not just one thing that's going to fix it. Typically, there's multiple things that need to be addressed," explained United Way Executive Director Shawna Forsberg. She said responding to complex issues means" being consistent but also flexible and nimble enough " to adapt as needed. "We're blessed that we have really strong networks and we work with so many different programs and agencies that it lends itself to really a community-wide understanding of where opportunities can arise."

She said agencies like hers recognize the "need for more qualified individuals to hit the workforce." "We want to work in concert with those who can provide those unique opportunities."

Meanwhile, the state's budget deficit has cut into public education, services and programs. Possible federal cuts to arts and human services funding loom large.

"It's a very interesting time politically trying to understand what's going to be coming regarding funding sources for many programs vital in the community," Forsberg said. "It's something we're watching very carefully. It's why advocacy and public policy is something we have to be involved with also."

"There are resource constraints today because of budget challenges at the state and federal levels that affect the sector at large and changes the dynamics of what funding might look like,” said OCF Executive Director Sara Boyd,

“What is the affect of that on some of our more vulnerable populations? There are some people who are already vulnerable we don't want to find in even worse situations. What does that mean for how we think about the work we do and how we invest as a community? Because of the uncertainty of some of the changes that may occur, it's difficult sometimes to place a bet on where to invest. I don't think there are answers yet."

Forsberg said United Way's historic mission is to "help those neighbors that need assistance" through a "safety net of services." She added, "United Way will never depart from providing funding for critical programs to help people in dire straits, whether it be food security, safe housing, access to health care, escaping domestic violence. That is core to what we do."

An example of United Way tracking and responding to such needs, Forsberg said, is its Financial Stability Work Task Force. "It identified a group of people being lost through the cracks called Opportune Youth – 16 to 24 year-olds either not working or not in school. There was a myriad of organizations working with these individuals but it wasn't a coordinated effort. Now we have 30 different agencies at the table doing essential intake. We're partnering with Nebraska Children and Families Foundation and leveraging the work of Project Everlast to extend that work into new areas because people can end up in this category in multiple ways."

The resulting pilot Alliance program launches June 1.

"A systems approach is crucial because you've got to meet the kids where they're at, but then figure out what you can do get them in a different trajectory. That may be helping ensure they get additional school, but also connecting them to a financially stable job and making sure they have the support they need to be successful in that. That can't be one program – it has to be a multitude of programs."

United Way also works across the community on education.

"The Chamber helped us convene a group conversation with superintendents from across the community," Forsberg said, "We took a really take a hard look at how you measure whether a kid is progressing and what not-for-profit support could assist school systems with.

"Where they really need help is in literacy and ensuring kids stay in school, and so those are the areas in which we're investing. Instead of looking at just graduation rates we're looking at ninth grade attainment. That's a critical pivot point for kids if they're going to get through school in a successful manner. When they hit high school, the supports are less and so to wait until their senior year it's almost too late. It's critical we give it earlier to identify a kid that needs some extra support."

Forsberg said intervention can mean mentoring support, but also building awareness within school systems and families to keep kids in classrooms.

"We're going to measure progress, not only investments United Way is making, but as a community how we're doing in these areas and bring that to light."

OCF’s Boyd pointed to the local Adolescent Health Project, led by the Women's Fund of Omaha, with support from her foundation and other players, as another example of "a broader focus" with more partners at the table.

"It's not one foundation, nonprofit, individual driving that work and there's some intentionality in the strategies being invested there. There's work in juvenile justice, on the public service side, on the philanthropic side, on the nonprofit side and people coming to a common table to try and drive that."

Input from many sources is crucial, Boyd said, but even then solutions can be elusive.

"The challenge is these are really tricky issues, so even when there's focused attention, energy and investment there's still stumbling blocks along the way and it doesn't move quickly."

North Omaha redevelopment is unfolding at an historic rate and the giving community is investing heavily there. The Chamber's North Omaha Development Strategy spurred the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan now being realized. Philanthropic dollars are pouring in to support efforts by the Empowerment Network, 75 North, Metro Community College and others.

“When conversations come together sometimes there's synergy that can create momentum," said Boyd. "I do really like the energy and the amount of real interest and attention focused on North Omaha. It would be awesome to see a tipping point. I guess i don't exactly know where that lies. To me it would be huge success to say not only are we seeing this accumulation of impressive dollars, but also a tidal wave coming behind that of all these other amazing things addressing what the people of North Omaha want that community to be for them."

She cautioned, "I'm not naive to think there aren't structural issues as a community we will need to wrestle with in order to maximize some of these investments made there that affect more deeply the lives of people who live in North Omaha."

Whatever the project, nothing happens in isolation. Boyd feels funders are ever more attuned to "the relationship between it all."

"Something we continue to work at collectively as a community is looking at projects not just as coincidentally being in the same area, but how do they they relate to and complement one another."

Boyd said her foundation's "mission is to inspire giving to create a thriving community for all. If you grow giving, you have the opportunity to strengthen nonprofits and to have more people participating potentially or at greater levels and you then have an opportunity to bring people together because of that increased engagement and participation."

United Way now takes a systemic view as well.

"We have been in the community for 94 years and the needs over that time have evolved," Forsberg said. "We represent a large donor base. Part of our responsibility is to read that and have a community-wide perspective and understand where we can invest that's really going to be meaningful. We see ourselves as convener, collaborator, information-aggregator. We really are trying to bring thought leaders in the community together to address these issues. It takes a system.

"It means being honest and transparent about what's going well and what isn't as a community and trying to figure out the best ways to address that. It's recognizing it's never going to be one organization or one funder that's going to be able to tackle this on their own. It's very much a collaborative effort across the community."

That approach has recently become more formalized.

"In 2012 a very robust strategic planning process initiated by some strong leaders in our community really drove United Way to take a harder look at how we did our investment. We initiated a community assessment in partnership with the Omaha Community Foundation and the Iowa West Foundation. ConAgra Foods stepped in for Phase II of it. It took a neighborhood-level look at where the greatest needs were."

That assessment led to United Way's 2025 goals.

By 2025, United Way aims to support the delivery of two million-plus services addressing basic needs of people living in or at risk of poverty through a more integrated, coordinated, precise and measurable system of basic needs supports.

Forsberg said, "We pulled together task forces. Part of their focus was looking at who was doing what in these various areas. Based upon input from stakeholders and others in the community we discerned where we could make the greatest difference in supporting things like basic needs (for food, shelter).

Metrics are key to the approach.

"With support from the Sherwood Foundation and the Weitz Family Foundation, we've implemented an analytics and performance team to ensure we're being efficient with that spend and not just looking at it from an individual program-level, but at the whole system. That's allowed us to take best practices in analyzing whether or not the way you're investing is driving the change you hope to make. What we've found is it helps programs we support improve and it gives them more of an understanding of whether the impact they hope to drive is also being accomplished.

"We learned we definitely need to provide those solutions, but we also need to get into prevention. If you don't have a full tummy, it's really hard to do well in the classroom. But we also know it's important we help people change the trajectory for themselves. Two areas identified are educational support and preparing people to enter the workforce."
Leo Adam Biga

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