The organization known today as the United Way of Central Alabama formed nearly 100 years ago as the Birmingham Community Chest, a way of raising money to fill charitable needs. The organization adopted its current name in 1992 and continues to work with a growing number of local charities and nonprofits in Jefferson, Blount, St. Clair, Shelby and Walker counties.
The list of United Way partner agencies touches on nearly every basic need being addressed by nonprofits in the community — child and family issues, domestic violence, poverty, literacy, disability rights, HIV/AIDS, other health issues, senior issues and on and on.
In recent years some nonprofits have trod a path independent from the large umbrella of the United Way. Nevertheless, the organization and its familiar appeals for donations through corporations and widespread media campaigns remain a major force in the giving arena in Birmingham.
United Way CEO and President Drew Langloh, whose history with the local United Way dates back to 1991, took the leadership role in UWCA in 2008. He talked about how the United Way is making its impact felt across a range of issues nearly a century after it began in Birmingham.
Weld: Even though the United Way is such a fixture in the community, tell us what you do for the benefit of those who may not know.
Langloh: Many people know us as a fundraiser that allocates money to member agency nonprofits in five Central Alabama counties. We started in 1923 with a goal of $450,000 for 31 agencies and just last week, 93 years later, we announced a goal of $39 million dollars for over 80 allocation partners and initiatives. There are few organizations public, private or nonprofit that can claim that type of positive, sustainable impact.
What they may not know is about the direct services when the need arises and we work strategically with other organizations in the community. What most people don’t know is how United Way improves lives by mobilizing the caring power of communities, advance the common good though its own initiatives. We have a legacy of showing that when we come together to share a little of what we have, together we can create the power to change lives.
Weld: Tell me a story or recount an incident that illustrates why the United Way is so necessary in Birmingham today.
Langloh: Our work responds to the ever changing needs in our community by building collaborations and developing critical systems and strategies and taking them to scale.
Earlier this year the agency ran the Meals On Wheels program. [It] went bankrupt and on short notice we were asked to step in and keep it going. We were able to transition this vital community program in two weeks and kept it up and running. We continue to serve over 700 meals a day to seniors in Jefferson County. We are proud that United Way is recognized for its strong managerial capacity, access to new technology, accountability and specialized skills in social services.
Weld: How did the United Way come to be the biggest nonprofit funder in the area?
Langloh: An obvious answer might be that we’ve always set aggressive fundraising goals and meet those goals — but it’s because we are a community-owned organization. Our success rests on generational leadership and donor support. We also involve hundreds of local representatives from communities in Central Alabama in decision making. For example, each year over 500 volunteers help us evaluate our programs and agencies and advise us on spending decisions. Ours is a shared mission-we continue to grow because our donors and volunteers challenge us to set higher standards.
Weld: Has the focus of the United Way kept up with the changing needs of the community? If so, how?
Langloh: We are transitioning from an organization that provides just a safety net for individuals to igniting a movement that is committed to creating opportunities for everyone. You need a quality education that leads to a stable job, enough income to support a family and good health for a good quality of life. United Way is creating the changes. We are working upstream trying to get to the root causes of our biggest challenges.
Weld: How is United Way creating the changes? What exactly does that mean in the real world?
Langloh: Our work in veterans’ homelessness, 2-1-1 Connects (information and referral), financial stability and early childhood education produced statewide collaborations with positive results.
A few years ago we launched the Bold Goals Coalition, a community based initiative to align resources, efforts, and best practices to address disparities in education, health and financial stability. Workgroups, represented by leaders from various industries and organizations, were created to identify and address specific needs. Collectively, each group set goals for positive change within our community by examining root causes, establishing measurable goals and aligning current efforts. The coalition’s leadership council consists of some of our most successful community leaders who are guiding steering councils in the areas of education, financial stability and health. To learn more about this new strategy visit uwca.org/our-impact/bold-goals/.
Weld:Is it true that many nonprofits are not working with the United Way?
Langloh: We’re working with more nonprofits than ever and we’ve expanded our reach outside just our traditional five county fundraising area to providing services statewide. A few years ago we launched a Bold Goals initiative with over 200 community organizations. Those volunteers are aligning efforts in the areas of education, financial stability and health in a collective impact process that encourages collaboration for bigger impact. The coalition’s leadership council consists [of] some of our most successful community leaders who are guiding our aggressive workgroups.
Weld: How do these groups work?
Langloh: For instance, in our education focus there is a Pre-K, K-12 and Post-Secondary Council supported by action networks. They do meet regularly and regularly publish progress reports. The Education Coalition was instrumental in expanding the number of high school students who were exposed to a program that provided incentives to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). They set a goal to reach 3,900 high school seniors in 7 school systems and successfully reached 9,064 high school seniors. That’s compared to just 1,400 seniors reached the prior year.
Weld: There are other organizations now which focus on nonprofit giving — the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, for instance. What distinguishes United Way?
Langloh: Our value proposition sets us apart. We provide the donor access to the broadest network of people, expertise and resources to improve our community. We provide unmatched scale of resources; support services to address immediate needs; develop strategies for measuring outcomes and we have proven long term success in changing lives within our community. In addition we add value through our 80 partner agencies; direct services programs and initiatives (such as 2-1-1 and Priority Veteran) and our Bold Goals Initiative. We measurably improve lives and our community. In 2015 we:
- Prepared 3,539 tax returns for low to moderate income individuals generating over $2,548.478 returned to the community
- Connected 700 homeless people to services
- Supported 680 homeless veterans through Priority Veteran
- Improved early childhood learning via Success By 6
- More than 50,000 donors gave over $38 million
- Mobilized 5,100 volunteers to generate 16,000 service hours
Weld: What are the new initiatives underway or in store from the United Way? Feel free to elaborate.
Langloh: Our newest program improvement is in the area of senior services. In cooperation with the Alabama Department of Senior Services and the Jefferson County Commission we are now a partner in the Area Agency on Aging services in Jefferson County. We are excited about this opportunity to extend services to Jefferson County’s senior residents.
Weld: What does the United Way need from the community?
Langloh: Get involved. Our call to action is to “Give. Advocate. Volunteer.” If someone is not asked to give through a workplace campaign then they can donate on our website at uwca.org. They can stay current on social issues by signing up for our e-newsletters and on social media. Helping United Way advocate on important social issues makes [sure] all our voices are heard. Volunteering is easy through our Hands On Birmingham partner. On their websitehandsonbirmingham.org, you can find individual or group projects from our United Way and non-United Way agencies.
Weld: What do you want readers to understand about the United Way?
Langloh: United Way still provides solutions to communities’ toughest problems. But we’re not the United Way your parents or even grandparents supported.
Today’s United Way is bringing people, organizations and communities together around a common cause, a common vision and a common path forward. In many communities, we’re one of a few nonprofits building up the cornerstones of education, financial stability and health. Our “Live United” theme is a call for people from all walks of life to be a part of local solutions. We’re engaged in our communities on many levels powering big ideas with big action.
Weld: Is there anything about the United Way that we need to address that we haven’t?
Langloh: United Way of Central Alabama’s is in a select group of high performing nonprofits. For 14 consecutive years we have earned a 4-star rating from Charity Navigator, America’s largest independent charity evaluator. This is Charity Navigator’s highest possible rating and indicates that United Way of Central Alabama adheres to sector best practices and executes its mission in a financially efficient way. Less than 1 percent of the charities evaluated have received at least 14 consecutive 4-star evaluations, indicating that United Way of Central Alabama outperforms most other charities in America.
We are proud of our fiscal management practices and commitment to accountability and transparency.