Armed with data and anecdotes, United Way sharpens focus on families, kids

LoAnn Ayers

Programs that help families and kids thrive will be the sole focus of the 2022 round of grants awarded by the United Way of Benton and Franklin Counties.

The nonprofit that raises money and vets nonprofits is sharpening its focus as it addresses “gaps” that opened in the local social safety net during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The move comes with the realization that no nonprofit can do everything, said LoAnn Ayers, chief executive officer.

Charles Simpson

In 2021, United Way funded 33 programs at 20 organizations, arranged around four areas of need – basic needs, childhood success, financial stability, health care and youth success. It will solicit applications for 2022 this fall, with the understanding that supporting families and kids is its main goal in the coming year.

Applications routinely outpace the available resources.

It typically has $5 of requests for every $1 available, so it wants to get the biggest bang for its very limited bucks. And that means tackling the issues that existed before the Covid-19 pandemic and grew worse once it took hold.

A series of listening sessions showed that hunger, housing, juvenile crime, teen pregnancy, school attendance and related issues worsened.

Ayers together with Charles Simpson, a board member who chairs United Way’s Community Impact Committee, said the new focus draws on years of reviewing key statistics it compiles into its annual Stoplight report, which acknowledges progress and the lack thereof on multiple fronts.

Statistics typically lag one to two years and only go so far, Simpson said. Hence the listening sessions.

“We get data. We get good data. But it’s older,” he said. “It shows some vulnerability where we historically focus, but it hasn’t caught up with the medium and long range.”

The results of the listening exercise aren’t shocking. The pandemic exacerbated existing issues. But they are driving United Way to focus its resources on boosting efforts to help children and families who have lost access to traditional safety nets.

Simpson likens the local support network to a screen. The Tri-Cities has a decent screen via its many systems and nonprofits that help the vulnerable. But the pandemic shook the screen.

“Individuals become more vulnerable and as the screen shakes, they fall through,” he said.

Listening sessions highlighted a myriad of challenges, some short term and others more intractable.

When schools closed children stopped getting school breakfasts and lunches. The teachers and staff who might have spotted – and reported – abuse were not seeing students in person. Juvenile crime, homelessness, teen pregnancy, school attendance and mental health challenges came into sharp relief.

“They’re often the most vulnerable and dependent on the school systems that have been challenged. We heard that from the data and from our partners,” Simpson said.

A successful executive at Central Plateau Cleanup Co., a Hanford contractor, Simpson was particularly moved by the growing challenge of housing the most vulnerable residents. Families that might have bought big houses bought medium sized ones instead, a squeeze that pushed out those least able to afford a home in a market with tight rentals.

As a child, Simpson grew up relying on the support networks that the pandemic stressed and broke.

He recalled a teacher lending him her son’s jacket to wear to high school graduation. Friends would casually treat him to meals at Dairy Queen, meals he might have otherwise missed.

“As a 130-pound, 6-foot high school senior, it was a big deal,” he said. “Kids aren’t getting that now. There’s more isolation.”

The community has rallied to fill the gaps, Ayers is fast to note.

Schools delivered free meals to families, sometimes in packages, to last the week. Still, continuing isolation is only exacerbating mental health issues.

But the big picture is one of need.

“For me, it was the depth of the challenges. They’re affecting all socioeconomic levels,” she said. “The stress of the last 18 months has magnified everything.”

With the board’s backing, United Way will limit its 2022 grants to organizations that tackle those issues. That means letting go of some of its traditional supports, such as those helping seniors.

“We recognize that one entity can’t solve all the challenges. We have to choose our swim lane,” she said.

One initiative will pair middle schoolers at risk of dropping out with volunteer mentors to meet weekly on campus. The program, which will operate under United Way’s 10-year Attendance Matters effort to reduce truancy and absenteeism, is aimed at boosting graduation rates.

The pilot is supported by Community Impact Grants and a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“We target middle school because that’s the age when kids start owning their own behaviors,” Ayers said.

Ayers said United Way is communicating its priorities to the nonprofits it funds so there won’t be any surprises when grants are awarded. It will send out requests for proposals to 501(c)(3)s in Benton and Franklin counties in September. Funds will be awarded for 2022.

The process coincides with the start of the annual United Way fundraising campaign.

United Way reported $2.76 million in contributions and grants in 2019, according to the most recent report to the Internal Revenue Service. Total expenses were $3.1 million and included funding 38 programs at 23 local non-profits.

To support United Way, go to and click on the “Donate” tab at the top.

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