United Way's mission is to advance the common good by mobilizing people and institutions to invest in Education, Financial Stability and Health, so that all people in all communities have the opportunity for a good quality of life. With a network of more than 1,200 locally-based organizations in the United States and another 500 in other countries, United Way is transforming from its traditional fundraising role to work with diverse partners across the sectors to make sustainable change in communities through multiple roles, including:
- Compiling and summarizing data and research
- Engaging and convening stakeholders, community leaders, corporate partners, concerned individuals/organizations, and others
- Clarifying and advancing specific policy initiatives, and
- Realigning fundraising for specific community-identified initiatives, objectives and practices.
These roles are similar to the idea of a "backbone organization" and to David Kindig’s “Super Integrator” concept. This is not to say that United Way will always take the lead; we recognize that effective leadership can be at the front, in the middle, or from behind. Nor does it mean United Way acts alone. As a non-partisan convener, United Way ensures that all critical parties are engaged and play necessary roles to advance the common good.
The County Health Rankings’ 2010 launch was particularly opportune for United Way's transformation and resonated with our new commitment to work in three vital areas: Education, Financial Stability, and Health.
Most local United Ways are county-based (single or multiple counties); hence the Rankings are a marvelous entry point to stimulate community conversations and build a base for collaboration. United Way's business framework is also exceptionally well-aligned with the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps Take Action Cycle. As a trusted partner in communities, United Ways work closely with the business community, public sector, and community-based nonprofits. At the same time, they are learning to engage the community in a new way and reach out to non-traditional partners to identify common goals and solutions, align resources, and hold each other accountable for contributions and impact.
This starts with developing a comprehensive understanding of the community landscape by weaving together public knowledge, expert knowledge and evidence-based data – each necessary but insufficient by itself. A critical first step is to look outward to engage community residents as well as organizational partners and stakeholders in a spirit of authentic openness to build a wholistic understanding of the context. The County Health Rankings provide a common framework to help people across communities understand that many factors influence health and wellbeing. The Rankings help seize the attention of the media, the general public and decision makers. The Rankings provide a simple, elegant framework that shows that ensuring good health goes well beyond the responsibility of doctors and hospitals. As one United Way CEO said, “When I show this to my partners in the community, everyone immediately gets it!”
To advance equity, we must improve underlying socioeconomic factors and support policy, systems and environmental changes to create healthy choices where people live, work, learn, play and worship. United Way leaders see the opportunity to meet this imperative by integrating their work in all three building blocks of life – Education, Financial Stability and Health. “If we didn't connect the work, we will fail!” said one local United Way leader. “No matter how good the teachers are, and how many kids have great tutors to help them read, if their health issues are not tended to, or the fact that their family just lost their home are ignored, that child will not succeed in school.”
Our partnership with the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program creates a synergy for creating sustainable change in counties and communities throughout the country – and we look forward to reporting on our progress as this movement gains traction.
Kitty Hsu Dana is Vice President of Health with United Way Worldwide.