“The best way to help the most people is to make changes in the community conditions that lead to need in the first place. A change in conditions at the community level – be it an attitude, behavior, process or system, not only alleviates today’s troubles but also reduces tomorrow’s needs. The work of changing community conditions is different and more difficult, than our previous work of raising and distributing funds.”
– United Way of Anchorage President Michele Brown, Board Chair Carol Comeau, and Board Vice Chair Ernie Hall, in the 2004 United Way of Anchorage annual report
When I began at United Way of Anchorage in 2003, the Board of Directors initiated this strategic shift. We didn’t need to build a new foundation. We had bedrock – community generosity in compassion, dollars, expertise, and volunteerism. Decades-long relationships with thousands of individuals and hundreds of nonprofits and public and private sector organizations motivated us to expand our focus beyond just fundraising, to set our sights on leveling the opportunity playing field for too many left behind, and to tackle head-on some of our toughest social challenges.
We organized over 1,000 community leaders and volunteers to survey thousands of Anchorage residents to discover a shared vision for Anchorage. We learned that everyone wants a community where all of us enjoy the fruits of education, health care, and financial stability that, in turn, lifts us all. The surveys also gave us a sobering view of some of our most serious challenges and prompted the realization that these problems could not be addressed using the same old practices.
What we needed for lasting, community-wide change was a clear set of long-range goals; rigorous, sustained collaborations to implement best-practices; and a community mobilized to take action. UWA stepped up our own role to deliver on these goals as a convener, facilitator, and jump-starter, and realigned the investment of UWA resources for outcomes rather than services.
While our hearts still inspire the work, we’ve learned the benefits of a methodical, analytical assessment that gets at root causes and provides effective solutions. We shifted our focus from “how much money have we raised?” to more accurate measures of the return on the investment in terms of lives improved and conditions improved. Convening people for deep collaborative action plans, using rigorous data to determine strategy and report results, inspired what has become the new norm for United Way. It is the marriage of heart and head, compassion informed.
We call this the power of living united, and here’s just a part of what living united has yielded:
• Raised the four-year high school graduation rate 25 points from the alarm-bell rate of 59 percent in 2005 to 84 percent today. The five-year grad rate is 88%.
• Made sure that for the last 10 winters no child has had to sleep in the cold because a network of churches began providing emergency cold weather shelter for families seven-days a week.
• Launched a supportive housing initiative to lift many of our most vulnerable and visible houseless neighbors from the streets to stable housing. 90% of the people served in the pilot remained stable in housing for a year; quite an improvement after often decades on the streets. And, because they were stable, they experienced 85% less arrests, 85% less safety center intakes, and 44% less emergency medical service transfers than when they were on the streets.
• Joined with partners to implement Anchored Home, Anchorage’s ambitious plan to make homelessness rare and brief, and coordinated the homelessness prevention goals.
• Stood up federally funded Affordable Care Act navigators to help thousands of Alaskans secure health care coverage.
• Helped thousands of Alaskans receive tens of millions in tax refunds and earned income credits with free tax help.
• Sustained Alaska 2-1-1, the helpline started in 2007, as a lifeline that connects Alaskans to thousands of resources for help.
These broad, cross-sector coalitions did more than make those major changes. They helped grow a resilient community, ready to meet whatever came our way.
In March, when the pandemic struck with its economic gut punch, we could quickly deploy those partnerships to address the twin emergencies. Alaska 2-1-1 took 19,000 calls for help in all of 2019. So far in 2020, we’ve taken close to 50,000. We stood up rent and mortgage help long before the feds cut the first stimulus check. More than 4,500 housing assistance payments have been made, and it grows daily.
Your inspiration and support over the last 17 years have coalesced the skills and relationships for United Way to be there – in moments of crisis and for the long haul to face our most vexing problems and to transform our systems of care.
We often like to hope for a superhero or a magic solution to fix things. The real superpower is knowing that we, together, can honestly and collectively confront our challenges. We, together, will envision a better future that includes everyone. And we, together, will join hands and hearts to make it so.
Through all these years, I’ve been so grateful to unite with you to do so much more good together than we could ever do alone. What I have learned from you is that a community that knows how to Live United has all it needs to tackle any crisis or challenge.
Thank you for making this an extraordinary community, and thank you for joining me on this 17-year journey!