posted by Jeff Clarke, Vice President and Michele Brown, President, United Way of Anchorage

Effect (noun): consequence; outcome; result. Effective (adjective): producing or capable of producing an intended result.

Implicit in investing in a stock or mutual fund is the due diligence necessary to increase the odds of financial success, as evidenced by a return on that investment. Savvy investors go to great lengths to ensure that they invest successfully. For those of us working in the third sector, be it either in a nonprofit or as a funder, the effectiveness of our combined work — our investors’ rate of return — is under increasing scrutiny by the public, policy makers and the sector itself. We hear the question over and over, “how do you measure (and therefore know) that the work you do makes a difference? Show us the data that justifies our investment and your tax advantaged status”.

In our current climate of reduced resources, increased demand, insistence on greater transparency, and social, economic and political turbulence, this inquiry into accountability is rightly accelerating. Our sector should seize this as our moment to stand out, to unequivocally demonstrate and communicate that our collective work is an indispensable part of improving the quality of life in our communities.

One of the most visible transformative responses to this challenge in our region is that of United Way of Anchorage (UWA). The profound changes in social conditions, investor expectations, service delivery realities, and the financial environment propelled UWA to fundamentally re-envision both its role in the community and its business model. Six years ago, Rasmuson Foundation was an early investor, supporting UWA as it undertook the process of reframing itself to facilitate social investors ability to achieve specific, measurable community goals; goals like increasing high school graduation and reducing family homelessness.

A natural outcome of UWA’s new business model is an emerging expertise in taking on multiple roles to achieve the goals: it is at times a “social” market maker, a funder, a grantee, an implementer, and a convener. UWA works to align the partners and systems that must operate in tandem to make measurable progress on social issues. That alignment includes a proactive social investor model, coupled with organizing continuums of service and client outcomes that cumulate to population level change. Here are a couple of recent examples of United Way’s different roles:

  • Last fall, in its implementer role, United Way of Anchorage administered and distributed Rasmuson Foundation’s $500,000 Safety Net Assistance Grant to nonprofits statewide to provide immediate support to those most in need.
  • Two weeks ago, in its funder role, United Way of Anchorage announced a $2.93 million investment to advance specific community goals that improve the well-being of all Anchorage residents. These investments directly support strategies and services that measurably improve the lives of the people served and contribute to community-wide improvements in: Kindergarten readiness; High school graduation; Access to health care; and Family financial stability.

We in the sector may not be able to play all those roles in our individual organizations, but this concept and methodology is one the sector would do well to consider. The productivity, social impact, and economic health of the sector might well be improved if we saw ourselves more as a system, encompassing all roles in a network-based goal-directed approach rather than as separate camps. In short, the process and accompanying dialogue should challenge the often closely held and traditional perspectives of who we are and what role we play. Doing so might well make the sector more sustainable, responsive, and accountable, as well as a stronger partner with the for-profit and government sectors as we work collectively to improve our communities.

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