ESL, United Way unveil innovative strategy

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A $5 million innovation grant from the ESL Charitable Foundation promises to break new ground in its approach to empowering individuals in need. The largest gift ever given to the United Way of Greater Rochester, the grant aims to address barriers related to poverty and improving quality of life.

“The uniqueness of this is letting the individuals prioritize what they need, and what we will learn as a community is listening and learning without judgment,” says Jaime Saunders, president and CEO of United Way. “This hasn’t happened in many places in the country because many funders, understandably so, United Way included, we have such narrow funding and we restrict it to very specific, prescribed solutions.

“This flips that on its head and is another way to add on to already existing essential funding like United Way, like the public dollars, like the great grant opportunities that our incredible funders do locally but really puts the individual in the driver’s seat, really understanding and allowing individuals to say what they need in that moment that will have the biggest impact.”

Faheem Masood, president and CEO of ESL Federal Credit Union, says his organization wanted to do its part to strengthen the community. ESL determined that it could donate $5 million and instead of doing it independently, approached United Way for its expertise on ways to help that would go beyond existing community support.

“This is not a substitution, it’s not like taking something from other spending and directing this in this way,” says Masood, who also is a United Way board member. “This is truly something new and the intent is to try being innovative and developing some community support and seeing if we can demonstrate (it’s) having the kind of impact that other communities have seen when these approaches have been tried.”

The grant will be split into two categories: $4 million for Project Uplift and $1 million to United Way’s existing Housing Stability Initiative, which assists with housing challenges and expenditures such as rent assistance. 

Project Uplift will administer direct, discretionary interventions for those in the community experiencing obstacles to well-being and economic stability. This could include help with car repairs, medical bills or a cell phone payment. 

“ESL and United way are firm believers in collective impact and are supporting initiatives like RMAPI and ROC the Future. We’re at the table and really looking at the long view on these deeply entrenched issues,” Saunders says. “At the same time, we can’t ignore the needs of today and the needs of now. This innovative partnership is how to do both, so we address the future but (also) help as many people as possible today.”

The funds will be disbursed through United Way’s network of community partners—more than 50 nonprofits with 75 programs—and provided directly to the point of payment based on a client’s need. In turn, individuals will be asked to provide documentation like a bill, for example, or a security deposit for an apartment. Individuals seeking assistance can contact 2-1-1 Helpline, a United Way partner, that will then refer them to organizations that match the need.

“What we’re looking to do is to infuse dollars right through the agencies, right to individuals and families who can prioritize their needs, what they need for their well-being, and that’s the part that’s different,” Saunders notes. “It takes a unique funder, a unique partner, to believe and trust and allow that to happen in such a thoughtful way, and we’re going to a network of our providers because we already have those relationships and it’s the quickest, (most) efficient, fastest way for us to help a lot of people.”

All partners in the network are eligible to use the funds without restrictions, based on the identified need. There are no limitations in accessing these dollars, if a family is already seeking services from a nonprofit.

“We have to recognize that people can’t make it on $25,000,” Saunders says. (The 2019 federal poverty guideline for a family of four is $25,750.)

From now through the end of December, Project Uplift will enter the co-creation and design phase with its partners, Saunders says. Funds will be available in January.

“This is not top-down, even how it will be dispersed,” Saunders says. “(We are) tremendous guardians of dollars and good stewards and so we will have that expertise to lend, but we want to learn from our not-for-profit  partners who want to participate in this effort, how to do this together and to create something that’s not an additional burden. It will be part of their existing services. So, if I’m already servicing a particular family or client, I now have access to discretionary dollars I did not have before.”

Though communities here and abroad have tried this approach, Saunders says it hasn’t occurred at this scale. One example is Springboard to Opportunities in Jackson, Miss. Its Magnolia Mother’s Trust provides 15 low-income families with $1,000 a month, with no strings attached, for a year. The Mississippi agency devised that form of help after listening to community members and hearing that families needed more cash to help them reach their goals. 

Masood is aware that measuring impact will be essential. 

“I do think we want to measure impact,” he says. “One of the things that we’re trying to be very deliberate about is not to prescribe to agencies how best to understand impact. We’re leaving that open. United Way knows that there has to be measurement so that we can learn from this. But we do want to be careful as a funder about creating our own demands on service providers about the kind of measurement that must be done. 

“We believe the United Way has a good track record of trying to understand impact and efficiency,” he adds, “and we will look to them to help us understand how this has been impactful.”  

Saunders would like what’s learned from this grant—how people prioritize needs, for example—to guide future investments and funding strategies. She stresses that this move is addressing needs of today, and not long-term, systemic issues that other collaborative efforts address in the community. Masood does the same, adding that the “system is broken and it’s still creating needs today.”

“This is not part of long-term impact,” Saunders says. “We’re not over-promising that because a mom and her three kids can afford the security deposit on an apartment and leave an abusive relationship, her journey will be beautiful from there forward. It’s a continual struggle.”

ESL’s gift harkens back to George Eastman’s efforts and intent when he established the Community Chest. Masood says the grant is “very consistent with our purpose to help our community thrive and prosper.” 

Time will tell if Rochester will rally behind this new approach, and if an infusion of discretionary funds will enable people in need to move forward. The grant not only gives the community a chance to innovate, it also bolsters United Way’s role, broadening its story beyond a workplace campaign.

“On the worst-case scenario, we’ve helped a whole lot of people,” Saunders says. “On the best-case scenario, we’ve helped a whole lot of people; we’ve empowered people to feel good about their own decisions and what’s needed for their own well-being, and we as a community would have shared learning from the voices of those in poverty, and those who are struggling.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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