As it comes to the end of a three-year funding cycle in June, United Way of Greater Cleveland is preparing to overhaul its approach to battling endemic poverty in Cleveland.
Rather than serving as an umbrella over dozens of agencies, as it has for the past 50 years, United Way will invite specific agencies to partner with it in order to drive down specific symptoms of poverty. This flexible approach, known as the Community Hub for Basic Needs, will be data driven.
“This is not an overstatement to say poverty is at crisis level,” said August “Augie” Napoli, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Cleveland. “We have to act. And if we act and give voice to it, then others will act.”
With more than 123,000 people living in poverty in Cleveland today, the problem has worsened in spite of United Way’s attempts to reduce it by funding agencies, Napoli said.
“Everyone works with good intentions, but good intentions aren’t good enough anymore,” he said. “We really have to produce results … because 73,000 people in this region contribute to United Way every year and they trust that we’re going to do the right thing with their dollars.”
Napoli said the new approach was developed over the past year. The partnerships, goals and initiatives will be announced in September and funding allocations to the new partners will begin on Jan. 1, 2022.
United Way will provide transitional funding to the 87 agencies it supports at approximately 50% of each agency's annual funding spread over 15 months, from July 1, 2020 through Sept. 30, 2021.
A need to change
While the Community Hub for Basic Needs was under development, United Way also ramped up its Impact Institute, a think tank studying the roots of poverty.
“When you see data that tells you more than 50% of the children living in Cleveland are living in poverty – we rank No. 1 in terms of worst major cities in America for childhood poverty – that’s stunning,” Napoli said. “We rank No. 2 in (working-age adults) in poverty ... and we rank No. 3 in the nation in older adults (or) seniors living in poverty. No. 1, 2 and 3 – that’s a crisis.”
Napoli said 12 to 15 years ago, United Way funded close to 200 agencies; five years ago, about 120.
Going forward, the organization aims to identify priorities in tackling poverty over the next decade, and to find partner agencies that share those priorities.
“We are looking for partners who can meet this measure and are interested in partnering with us, and others to surround that person with who work to meet these metrics over a period of time,” he said. “So we’re putting ourselves on the line to do that.”
A 2011 Greater Cleveland Jewish Population Study by the Jewish Federation of Cleveland reported almost 19% of Cleveland Jewish households reported incomes below 200 percent of federal poverty standards (which was $22,000 yearly for a single-person household in 2011 and varies based on the number of people in the home). For context, families who bring in this level of income or below often qualify for some forms of government assistance. Among Cleveland Jewish seniors, 26% reported incomes below 200 percent of federal poverty standards, according to the Federation study.
“Start with this perspective: You can’t have a healthy Jewish community if the community around you is ailing,” Stephen H. Hoffman, a board member of United Way of Greater Cleveland and board chair of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, a major donor of United Way, told the Cleveland Jewish News Feb. 25. “So we, as a Jewish community ... have to care about the larger community in addition to our Jewish community. And United Way is one of the ways that we do that.”
Napoli said, ultimately, the new approach was developed to wrap services around individuals.
“It’s recognizing that no one presents with just one need, and many of the agencies that are out there deal with just one aspect of poverty,” he said. “No one shows up (just saying), ‘I’m hungry.’ If you ask them, yes, they’re hungry, but they’re hungry because of these 15 other things that are going on in their life.”
During the week of March 2, United Way will notify the 87 agencies it funds of the phase out.
“We’re also providing for transitional funding,” Napoli said. “So we feel like we’re giving them a soft landing. We’re giving them forewarning.”
Meanwhile, Napoli said United Way will finalize its targeted approach, part of which involves conducting a tri-county community needs assessment in Cuyahoga, Geauga and Medina counties.
“We’re getting the voice of people living in poverty,” he said, adding United Way will also analyze issues affecting certain groups of people living in poverty: children 0 to 5 years old, working adults and older adults.
He also reaffirmed United Way’s connection to the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, which allocated $1.54 million to the Federation in 2019.
“We have a long-standing, 98-year relationship with Jewish Federation of Cleveland and we remain committed to partnering with them going forward,” Napoli said.
Hoffman said he expects the funding amount to the Federation will go down.
“United Way has less unrestricted money,” said Hoffman, who also is president emeritus of the Federation, but who said he could not speak for the Federation for this story. “So the Federation and its agencies in the Jewish community, they benefit from the unrestricted money, and if there’s less of it, we’ll see less. That’s just a fact of life. But fortunately, we have the Federation as well. And I think that the Federation will be working very hard to make sure that our agencies do as well as they can in the coming fiscal year between United Way and the (Federation’s) annual campaign.”
Put another way, Hoffman offered a broader perspective.
“Is there reason for concern? Yeah, there is,” he said in the Feb. 25 interview. “But, I’m frankly more concerned about the stock market in the last two days than I am about United Way. ... I believe that United Way is going to try its level best to provide funds to the Jewish community, as it has for decades. It may not be the same level, but it’s going to an excellent allocation.”
Napoli said the single greatest problem to those living in poverty is not meeting their three basic needs – having food, shelter and clothing – but gaining access to quality human services, both in transportation and in navigating the complexities of reaching help.
The $3 million invested in United Way’s 211 referral service in the past year has grown Greater Cleveland’s helpline to the second largest in the United States, serving 15 counties in northern Ohio. United Way also handles the gambling hotline for the state of Ohio.
“Over 300,000 people call that line every year because they can’t figure out how to access the system. So, we’re investing a boatload of money in that 211 help line,” Napoli said.
United Way also received a $4.5 million grant from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in Washington, D.C. to conduct a research study that has led to the placement of 211 navigators in hospital emergency rooms.
“What we’re learning is that our 211 asset, which has been just in our call center in our building, now could also be expanded to be out in the field in various places,” he said, adding the program will be piloted with Cleveland Public Library.
A 211 navigator has also been placed at Cleveland’s District 4 police station, and one will be placed at the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.
“We identify with the caller the right service, at the right place, at the right time for them,” Napoli said, adding United Way’s staff follows up with callers. “If we see a trend in bad behavior, we stop recommending (a particular agency) because that’s important.”
In the past year, United Way held four half-day conferences for human service providers on topics related to poverty on four modules: defining poverty; serving clients with dignity; race, diversity, equity and inclusion; and fostering resilience: trauma informed services.
“The audience just grew,” he said, adding that by the final presentation, “We had over 100 agencies (in attendance).”
Despite a $71,000 hit from General Motors, which ended its corporate match to employee donations this year, Napoli said United Way’s current annual Workplace Campaign is level with that of February 2019.
“We really won’t know until the end of June,” he said. “But really, we’re on track.
“And I got to say, that’s a monumental accomplishment because in one year, we lost $2 million last year in companies just stopped being – existing. So, to maintain the status quo as far as revenue is concerned year over year, I would think we’ll probably be a little down. Where we’ve had some losses, we’ve made it up. … But still every dollar helps and every dollar counts.”
Hoffman spoke about the need to develop donors.
“United Way believes – and the board believes, and I understand it – that you need to focus in order to talk to those donors who want to be sure that their dollars are having a very strong impact on the things they care a lot about,” he said. “And one of them is lifting people out of poverty and the related issues around that. So as a board, there’s been extensive discussion over the course of two years about this process and this outcome. It’s a belief that this might help a new generation of donors understand more carefully what United Way, in fact, can do to make a difference. And getting people to understand how you can make a difference with your philanthropic dollars is very important.”
Napoli said other United Way chapters across the country are also revising their delivery systems.
“We invented the United Way here in Cleveland, and I would go so far as to say we’re reinventing it again,” he said.