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Society

The United Way’s Allocation Conundrum
Ottawa’s charity of charities explores new directions as competition for funds continues to grow By Rob Thomas
THE WAY ONE ANGRY convention-goer

described it, you could visualize an Ottawa version of the showdown at the O.K. Corral. On one side of the room, angry community groups; on the other, the powers that be at the United Way of Ottawa. At issue: changes to the way the United Way distributes funding to its many beneficiaries. Welcome to the annual general meeting of the United Way of Ottawa and to a room divided. The meeting is usually held in a room at the RA Centre, where the fire capacity of 300 people has never really been tested. But the meeting this past June was a little different. There was a change of venue — to the largest of six rooms at the Hellenic Meeting and Reception Centre — and a delay getting started as more than 400 donors lined up to check in and receive their voting cards. Inside the Olympus Ballroom, the atmosphere was tense. Witnesses described a room divided, virtually evenly split between disgruntled community groups and United Way supporters. Ten days earlier a group calling itself Ottawa Community Action had met with the United Way of Ottawa and told organizers of its plan to attend the annual general meeting in force. The group intended to put forward a motion calling for a review of the United Way’s new funding allocation system, as well as of the administrative costs of its programs. That night, after much heated debate, a version of the motion — with no reference to internal United Way spending — was passed by a vote of 236-192. It was a result that left many disappointed. “[The motion that was passed] did not provide an opportunity for the community to be involved in developing the terms of reference for these reviews. So everyone’s quite
ILLUSTRATION: ANTHONY TREMMAGLIA

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Society
suspicious that it’s going to be a whitewash,” says Dick Stewart, former social service commissioner with the regional municipality and spokesperson for Ottawa Community Action. “People were there to express real concern about the direction that the United Way is moving in,” adds Brian Tardif. “I would think that we’re going to see meetings like that for the next few years.” Tardif is executive director of Citizen Advocacy, a disabilities support organization with long-standing ties to the United Way of Ottawa. His organization, like many others in the city, was surprised this year to learn that the United Way had decided to cut portions of its funding. So what’s at the root of this turmoil at one of Ottawa’s most successful charities? And what does it mean for the United Way, where unity is literally written into the brand?
ON THE SURFACE, the discontent stretches

five or six years, there has been increasing tension in the relationship between the community and the United Way, and the elastic broke when all those funding decisions were announced,” Stewart says. In fact, the United Way of Ottawa has been developing its new priorities since at least 2004, when it established volunteer “impact councils” to identify major issues in the community. And it has been allocating funds based on the findings of these impact councils since 2007. (The councils, with close to 100 members in total, consulted and set priorities in six key areas:

doing it the way that Ottawa is doing it,” he says. “They’re not giving all their agencies a ‘red card’ and starting over. Everybody wants to get at the root causes. What’s at issue is how this is being done in Ottawa.” Stewart notes that the United Ways in Edmonton and Toronto also faced criticism when they began redefining their priorities in the mid- and late 1990s. But, he says, these United Way branches got organizations and individuals onside by launching extensive public consultations to discuss and explain the proposed changes. In Toronto, for example, hun-

“Other United Ways are also making this shift to being an impact player, getting at the root cause of social problems, but they’re not doing it the way that Ottawa is doing it. They’re not giving all their agencies a ‘red card’ and starting over. Everybody wants to get at the root causes. What’s at issue is how this is being done in Ottawa”
— DICK STEWART, spokesperson for Ottawa Community Action
promoting healthy development for children and youths; reducing isolation and enhancing seniors’ quality of life; reducing barriers and increasing participation for people with disabilities; strengthening individuals and families in times of need and crisis; reducing barriers and increasing engagement for immigrants; and strengthening agency, neighbourhood, and community capacity.) What the Ottawa chapter is doing is in line with most United Ways across North America, which, in recent years, have been moving toward an even more focused approach, targeting funding toward programs that achieve measurable impacts. In fact, it was more than a decade ago (1999) that the local United Way spearheaded a very targeted program called Success by Six, a broad charity partnership that aimed to improve the learning, health, and safety of preschoolers. When asked to explain why the concerns of local charities hit the headlines only this past spring, Dick Stewart explains that the shift in funding priorities is not necessarily the biggest issue here in Ottawa. “Other United Ways are also making this shift to being an impact player, getting at the root cause of social problems, but they’re not dreds of private citizens, workplace supporters, agencies, and focus-group members were surveyed. In Ottawa, by contrast, some agencies felt as if they had been blindsided in 2011, their funding stream (and access to the United Way’s funding decision makers) cut off without warning. The six impact councils, which had given charities some input into priorities and funding allocation, were phased out in 2009, replaced by a smaller panel of 38 volunteers who helped evaluate the responses to the United Way’s call for proposals. Meanwhile, newer programs launched by the United Way — Success by Six and others — now receive a growing share of the United Way’s annual revenue, while the percentage of campaign funds allocated to outside agencies has been reduced. That has fuelled a perception among some agencies that they’re in a losing competition with their funder. Finally, there is lingering concern that some key goals, such as boosting the number of disabled people with jobs, may be too tightly focused. “I understand that employment is a big issue,” Tardif says. “But how did employment become the only focus, when we know there are many things that are needed to get a job and to hold a job?”

back to April of 2010. That’s when the United Way of Ottawa announced plans to require social service agencies to compete for their share of funding in an open request for proposals. The plan was to make funding available to more agencies and align that spending with a set of tangible goals — goals such as helping seniors stay in their homes, increasing employment for the disabled, and boosting the performance of kids entering school. But while the first round of funding announcements this past spring added 24 programs not previously funded by the United Way, it was the 55 programs facing cuts that attracted the media attention. Citizen Advocacy announced that it would have to stop accepting applicants in one of its core programs, one that matched disabled people with volunteers who would advocate on their behalf. Planned Parenthood went public with the news that it was being forced to close a youth education program aimed at combatting sexually transmitted infections (the organization has since received funding from other sources). Many other agencies sent out press releases detailing the programs to be eliminated or scaled back in the wake of the United Way’s new funding priorities. Still, for all the recent publicity, it’s not as though the charities hadn’t had warning that change was in the air. “Over the past
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UNITED WAY PRESIDENT and CEO Michael

Allen has just returned from vacation when he sits down with Ottawa Magazine in the untidy meeting room beside his office. He pulls two bottles of water from an open case on the counter and offers one. “I just came in here because I was thirsty,” he jokes, surveying the disorder. The awkward setting could be a metaphor for the place where Allen finds himself today. He has faced plenty of journalists’ questions in recent months, and his message — that changes at the United Way of Ottawa are consistent with the charity’s direction for the past decade — isn’t easily parcelled into media sound bites. Even agencies that have worked with the United Way for years may not understand just how much the charitable landscape has changed, according to Allen. And funding for internal United Way programs is a prime example. “There’s an impression, based on the old model of the United Way, that that would be money that otherwise we could have invested in agencies. It’s not,” he says. Success by Six, for example, receives funding from the City of Ottawa, Ottawa Public Health, and the Province of Ontario. Hire Immigrants Ottawa — a program that connects immigrants with work in their field of expertise — is funded entirely by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. A series of homework clubs are funded, in part, through a large private donation made by Stephen Greenberg in 2008. “Those are monies that we’ve developed through Targeted Community Investments, through government investments that aren’t otherwise available,” Allen explains. At the national level, since at least 2003 the United Way has been moving away from its roots as an umbrella organization that raises funds for its members. It has also been paying much closer attention to where money goes and how it is spent. It’s a deliberate response to stiff competition from other charities, to savvy donors who increasingly want to see the results of their donations, and to new funding opportunities available from governments, foundations, corporations, and private donors. In Ottawa, much of the United Way’s success is based on the annual Government of Canada Workplace Charitable Campaign. The United Way raised $33 million through its annual cam-

paign in 2010, and $18 million of that — 55 percent — was raised through the public service. One in six residents of the National Capital Region support the United Way — remarkable generosity when compared with other Canadian cities — but that’s attributable to the fact that more than half of local public servants contribute to their workplace campaign. That’s great participation, but it means less room for growth. “We have survived and grown based on the strength of increased workplace giving,” Allen says. “It’s not that I don’t think growth is possible. It’s that I think opportunities are greater outside the workplace.”
LIKE MANY PUBLIC servants, Greg Scul-

thorpe sees the United Way campaign as an easy way to give quite a bit of money to various charities — an embodiment of the phrase “I gave at the office.” “With the payroll deduction, it comes right off my cheque and I don’t even notice it,” Sculthorpe says. “Rather than giving to everyone who comes to the door or every time the phone rings with someone looking for money — it’s just an easy way to do it.” Sculthorpe works as a project manager with Environment Canada and is a longtime United Way supporter and volunteer. He even led the campaign in his workplace up until 2008, when his wife took over from him. He has followed the turmoil at the United Way in the media but says he isn’t worried that the bad press will hurt this year’s campaign. “To be honest, I haven’t heard anything. It’s not something people are talking about,” he says. Sculthorpe also points out that federal workers are less apt to worry, given that they can designate most of their donation to the United Way charities of their choice, with 15 percent going to administration costs at the United Way. “As long as they still have a way to do that, I don’t think it [funding changes] will affect donations,” Sculthorpe says. A designated donation might help the United Way attain the campaign goals and participation rates by which a successful workplace campaign is measured. It might even help agencies such as Citizen Advocacy (if it is the designated recipient). What’s still up in the air — and will be for some time — is whether the United Way’s new direction will result in the kind of targeted community impact the agency envisions.
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