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United Way volunteers gain deeper understanding of community needs

by Mavis Chan | March 19, 2023 at 4:02 a.m.
United Way of Central Missouri Ann Bax sat with panel members to discuss fund allocations for the organization's partner agencies on Wednesday.

Volunteering for the United Way of Central Missouri's fund allocation process may be a significant time commitment, but it is a great way to understand how your donation is being spent.

The United Way raised $2.53 million for this year, a majority of which comes from payroll deduction giving by individuals, according to previous reporting.

"There's people out there who might question exactly how are those funds being spent," said Arlene Vogel, one of the volunteers for the process.

Serving on panels allows voluteers to step into the shoes of the staffs at agencies who serve the community. They see first-hand how dollars are spent to provide medical equipment, children's shoes, medical services, child care, and other services.

Serving on a panel during the process can clear up those uncertainties, as volunteer Britt Smith found out. He also helps organize United Way fundraisers at his workplace, Jefferson City's Department of Public Works.

"When I'm standing in front of my coworkers," he said, "and I ask them to give us $1, or $5, or $10, or whatever, they can fork out of each one of their paychecks, I can say without any doubt in my mind that those dollars are going to be put to the best good that they possibly can be."

Fund allocation process

The fund allocation process at United Way takes place every year for five weeks, where volunteers review all the partner agencies and recommend how much money United Way should give to each in the coming year, according to previous reporting.

In 2022, United Way funding contributed anywhere from around 1 percent to about 67 percent of the revenue for its 28 partner agencies.

This year, there are more than 70 volunteers serving on six panels, United Way Marketing and Events Director Amber Brondel stated in an email. The process began during the last week of February, President Ann Bax said.

Each panel has around 13-15 volunteers, and is assigned four to five agencies, Bax explained. Furthermore, every member is assigned to a specific agency, visiting the latter's site and talking with its executive directors.

United Way administrators want the volunteers to become experts on agencies they visit because the volunteers are required to absorb a lot of information, Bax said.

"You're looking at their audits, you're looking at their application, you're looking at their board of directors," she said.

After the panels have looked through and discussed the agencies' applications, agency leaders go to United Way to present their organizations and answer questions, Bax added.

"At the end of that process, we'll make recommendations," she said. "It's not just recommendations for funding for next year, it's also recommendations about what we saw as maybe strengths and maybe opportunities for improvements in some areas."

Reasons for volunteering

The three volunteers interviewed, who have all participated in the process for a decade or more, gave a variety of reasons for joining the process, including a sense of personal fulfillment and more social reasons.

For Chris Medlin, it gives her something to look forward to. Panels gather on Fridays, she said.

"Every year that I spend with United Way, I look forward to Fridays. Fridays are my United Way day," she said. "It energizes me to participate in something that I feel like it's bigger than myself."

The process also taught Medlin to not take things for granted anymore -- such as personal care, she said.

"I think it's brought me through the years a heightened sense of compassion, humility, kindness and patience," she added.

Vogel first joined the fund allocation process because she wanted to know more the uses of her payroll donation to United Way. She became "hooked" once she started volunteering for the process.

"I just feel like I can speak with more confidence as to say, 'Here's I know one piece and how they use the United Way funds and how they stretch those dollars to service as many people as possible within the community," she said.

Agents of change

Medlin's work as a nursing manager at the Capital Region Health Center gave her knowledge of "Who has the resources? Where are they? Who is the easiest person to talk to?" which helped agencies with their programs in the past.

Medlin gave the example of her contribution to Homemaker Health Care's Caring Chair program. The program provides breast cancer patients recovering from a mastectomy with an automated recliner to help them stand, according to the agency's website.

"The chair has an actual electronic lift that helps (lift the users) forward and up, so that they don't have to use their arms and actually put stress on that surgical side," Medlin explained.

Homemaker Health Care originally discussed the program with oncologists, but they were not the doctors responsible for the surgery, Medlin said. She instead put the agency in touch with breast cancer surgeons at the hospital where she works.

"We saw the utilization of that chair go up, then (the agency) saw the need increased and they were able to actually get more chairs to serve the community," she said.

Similarly, Vogel helped with the Sneaker Project's transition and collaboration with another partner agency while serving on Panel 5, which looks into Homemaker Health Care, Community Health Center, Compass Health Network and The Sneaker Project.

The Sneaker Project started out as The Dental, Eye and Shoe Fund in 1954, according to its website.

"They provided dental and eye services for needy children as well as shoes for those," Vogel said.

However, the Community Health Center developed and began providing health care to children. As part of its health services, the center offers vision and dental care.

The panel members saw the overlap in services provided by the two agencies, so they decided to "think outside the box" and "come up with other ways to stretch (their) dollars even further," Vogel said.

As a result, the fund rebranded as The Sneaker Project in 2019, according to its website. It now focuses solely on providing new shoes for Central Missouri youths in need, while the Community Health Center takes over the dental and eye care parts, Vogel said.

She credited the success of this transition to "collaboration within the panel," as well as United Way staff and the two agencies involved being open to the idea. This transition allowed The Sneaker Project to restructure and become more focused on its mission, Vogel said.

Different jobs for different folks

United Way assigns volunteers to a panel every few years, but it takes the volunteers' wishes into account as well, Vogel said. She thought switching panels is beneficial.

"I think one of the benefits of switching from one panel to another is getting to learn more about the agencies and programs that the United Way supports, rather than only learning about a small few," Vogel said.

In fact, Vogel herself has served on three different panels during her time as a volunteer, including ones focusing on senior services, health care and youths. The frequent switches led her to read up on the different United Way partner agencies.

"One of the true benefits that I see by moving around from panel to panel is it brings in people with new insight and bring things to light that you might have not even thought of," she said.

Some volunteers may have a chance to chair to entire fund allocation process, like Smith.

"When you're a panel member, you really get involved with the agencies that are on your panel, you really get invested in that particular panel," he said, while as the fund allocation chair, he tried to be more objective.

Smith summed up his experiences volunteering at the United Way in different capacities as fun, enjoyable and fulfilling.

"It's the opportunity to know that you have the ability to give back, and just like everything else, every time you try to give back you get in return," he said.

  photo  Panel member Adrian Heckman presented her report into Boy Scouts of America, Great Rivers Council.
  photo  Bax and panel member Gaye Suggett listened and took notes as others talked about their assigned agency.
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