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Deciding where the money goes

03/17/2015 08:44AM ● Published by J. Chambless

Carrie Freeman, the CEO of the United Way of Southern Chester County, talks to this year's panelists at a training session held last month.

This week and next are anxious ones for virtually every non-profit in the region while the United Way of Southern Chester County decides how its money will be allocated. The hardest part? Every agency that comes asking is doing good work that deserves to be supported. But there's only so much money to go around.

Every year, the agencies funded by the United Way line up to make their pitches to a board of volunteers from the community, as well as to board members of the local United Way. Carrie Freeman, the CEO of the United Way of Southern Chester County, said the system that has worked well for them for a long time is unique to this area. She sends about 300 invitations to people in the community. Between 50 and 75 eventually accept.  

When it comes to deciding where money donated to the United Way will be spent, it's the community -- not the board members -- who steer the ship.

Those who serve on the panel -- men and women, retirees and working people -- cannot have any ties to any of the organizations asking for funding, and they must live in Southern Chester County. They have to commit to a training session, as well as to their share of eight days of deliberations. 

On March 16 at 1 p.m., the annual process kicked off in a meeting room at the Exelon Corporation in Kennett Square. Fourteen people sat around several tables and listened attentively as three community organizations presented their pleas. Each group got 20 minutes, then answered questions for 20 minutes. After each non-profit's staff left the room, the panel deliberated for another 20 minutes before recommending how much money should be allotted.

Each day, Monday through Thursday, and then again from March 23 to 26, panelists will hear from three agencies each day. Any more than that would be overload, Freeman explained. She has the process down to a smooth-running machine.

Funds that are donated to the United Way stay right here, Freeman said. The service area covers four school districts, 19 townships and four boroughs.

"It's an area of socio-economic extremes," Freeman said. "It's one of the richest counties in the United States, but almost 20 percent of all homes bring in less than the self-sufficiency standard. There are almost 2,000 children living in poverty."

That kind of need means a big reliance on the agencies that count on United Way support.
"Not every charity in the area asks for United Way funding," Freeman said. And those that do cannot rely solely on the United Way. Too much reliance means that in a lean year when funding support has to be reduced, the non-profit could go under.

Money comes into the United Way through donations, and from two big fundraisers -- the Chocolate Festival, held in February, brought in $15,000. A wine and chocolate evening, to be held on April 25, is another big annual source of funds. But with agencies asking for anything from $6,000 to $115,000, "the range of requests is pretty dynamic," Freeman said.

This year, agencies are requesting $1,067,386 from the United Way of Southern Chester County. There is only about $900,000 available, though, so $167,386 has to be trimmed. And those cuts will come from recommendations by the panelists.

On Monday afternoon, Freeman firmly repeated that the panel was looking at reduced money, and had to keep in mind that someone will have to walk away with less funding. 
Toward that end, in rich years and lean years, panelists recommend a range of funding they would like to give. One number is the ideal allotment, and the other is a minimum that they feel would be necessary. The United Way board takes the panel's recommendations to heart. "In all the years I've been here," Freeman said, "the board has always followed the panel's recommendations."

Last year, seven non-profits got what they asked for. The rest had to make to with less. "You have to harden your hearts, people," Freeman said, smiling. But the fact remains that deciding which of so many worthy efforts gets less money is a time-consuming, and often emotional, matter. The decisions made this week and next will take effect in September, and will directly impact some of the neediest families in our region.

On Monday afternoon, the first agency to come before the panel was the Oxford Area Neighborhood Services Center, which began in 1971 and has a long history in the region. Executive director Cheryl McConnell, along with two case managers and board members, sat at one table, facing the group of panelists.

The Services Center is a kind of community center, with several agencies under one roof, McConnell explained. They connect people in need with social services, some of which are located outside the area. They also deal with immediate needs of those in crisis, offering food, shelter and clothing, as well as health care connections. The staff is bilingual.

"We're the only agency in the Oxford area that provides these services," McConnell said. When a family comes to them, she explained, Neighborhood Services will, if they can, pay a landlord for past-due rent, or pay for crucial heating oil. Money never goes directly to the family who is asking for support. Applicants are carefully screened, incomes are checked, and case workers personally box up any requested food, using the opportunity to talk to the family and see what other services they might need.

Recently, the agency has helped a family whose budget was threatened by an unexpected illness, a family displaced by a fire, workers who have had their hours cut, and a senior citizen on a fixed income who could not afford extra heating oil for the brutally cold winter. There are people coping with unemployment, grandparents raising young children, servicemen and women returning to civilian life, or ex-prisoners looking for a way to fit back into society. 
Factors working against the agency include the lack of jobs in the Oxford area, the lack of reliable public transportation, and an increase in those seeking help. "Of the families who asked for help last year, 34 percent were new to the program," McConnell said. Typically, each family will get about $500 in support to get them over whatever crisis they are experiencing.
"Without the United Way's help, we could not do all the things we do," she said.
Panelists thoughtfully questioned McConnell and other representatives of the agency, getting down to a line-by-line study of income, costs and staffing levels. The dialogue was timed to exactly 20 minutes, after which the agency representatives left the room and the panelists talked amongst themselves.

From the 14 voting panelists in the room, Freeman eventually asked for recommendations of how much money should be allotted. By a show of hands, a maximum level was agreed upon. Then a lower figure was solicited -- the minimum amount the panel would recommend. While the exact questions and the dollar amounts are not made public at this point, everything will be revealed in May, after the United Way board formally votes. 

"I usually tell the agencies themselves after April 27, because they are all dying to know," Freeman said, "but the final figures won't be announced publically until May."

The process of allocating money may be carefully planned, but the fact that the scale of the financial help is entirely decided by members of the community is unique to Southern Chester County. It was clear from the debate among the panelists on Monday that everyone in the room wanted to help as much as they could. 

Later this week, other groups will face the same deliberations, and anxiously await the verdicts. The process of giving, so that others can give, will continue. 
For more information, visit www.unitedwayscc.org.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail jchambless@chestercounty.com.


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