The United Way of Central Missouri is in the midst of its five-week fund allocation process, in which volunteers review its 28 partner agencies and make recommendations for how much money each is to receive in the coming fiscal year.
Every year, the agencies reapply for partnerships with the United Way.
United Way staff divide about 100 volunteers into six panels. Each of the panels is responsible for reviewing four to five agencies.
Many of the volunteers have participated in the process for more than 20 years, according to Ann Bax, president of the local United Way chapter.
Until recently, there wasn't much turnover on the panels — especially for leadership, she said.
"We started talking about it several years ago," Bax said. "We have a chair and a co-chair in each panel. Some of those panel leaders have been leading 20 years."
But that can be a problem, she said.
"If you've been on a panel for a long time, you might have blinders on about something," Bax said. "You might have heard, 'This agency has always done something this way.' It brings fresh perspective."
The chapter is adamant about getting at least two new people on each panel (which may be up to 15 members) every year. Last year, the chapter implemented a succession plan for panel leadership.
The chapter had a lot of new people who wanted to lead.
"Now, like our board, you can serve in a leadership role for only so long," Bax said. "There were a few (hard feelings about the change). But we talked about it for several years before we did it last year. Now, they love it."
The important point is the panels not get complacent or fall into a rut — and members begin to think outside the box.
The review led to last year's transformation of a nonprofit partner agency, which became The Sneaker Project. The Dental, Eye and Shoe Program was a long-time United Way agency.
Eleven years ago, when Bax became the president of the chapter, the program was a strong agency, which was doing a lot of good work in Central Missouri.
But it was entirely run by volunteers.
"We continued to see the struggle with the processes," she said. "They would sometimes overspend and underspend, and overspend and underspend. We talked about — No one is getting up every day and thinking, 'This needs to happen.'"
The United Way kept encouraging the nonprofit to carve out some of its funding and put it toward a part-time administrator. But volunteers with the nonprofit "dug their heels in."
They were being idealistic, Bax said; however, they continually returned for emergency grants — or, at the end of the year, hadn't spent all of their money.
The volunteers weren't attending United Way meetings regularly and didn't provide required quarterly reports.
"We knew it, and it was apparent. We were trying to say, 'We're serious,'" she said. "This is where one of those new panel members said, 'Why are you bending the rules for this agency? All the other agencies have to do this. Why is Dental, Eye and Shoe allowed to not?'"
The volunteers weren't doing anything wrong, Bax said. They just weren't doing everything they could to make their nonprofit the strongest agency it could be.
The United Way then carved out the funding used in the dental and eye portions of the nonprofit and gave it to the Community Health Center of Central Missouri.
"That's what they do. That's their wheelhouse," Bax said.
The next year, the United Way gave Dental, Eye and Shoe an ultimatum: either spend $5,000 on a part-time executive director or lose the remainder of its funding.
"It's not a lot of money, but I'd already talked to our Dreams to Reality executive director (Lorie Smith)," Bax said. "She already knew the struggles. We knew we had an answer. All of that came out of the process."
Some of the volunteers thought they were getting picked on. But others recognized the program previously had not been handled properly.
The annual allocation is mostly a financially focused management review. Panel members access agencies' applications through an online system. The agencies are required to provide an annual audit and three years of budgets.
Volunteers look at the organizations' policies and procedures.
Last week the panels conducted site visits for each of the four to five agencies for which they are responsible.
During meetings within the next two weeks, the panelists will take "deep dives" into their agencies.
Panelists will provide presentations on their agencies.
"They'll talk about good things they observed and things that may be challenges that we'll want to talk about. They can go and place the questions on the online system and just bring it to the next meeting," Bax said. "We'll bring the questions back to the agencies and ask them to be prepared to speak to those."
The following week, each agency will be face-to-face with its panel. They will spend half of the time presenting to the United Way and the other half looking at changes within their organizations.
"Do they have any new programs? Have they had any new challenges they want us to know about?" Bax said. "We have an open dialogue. Be prepared to speak to the questions."
In a few weeks, another committee recommends community support grants or increased funding for agencies in 2021.
The Strategic Funding Committee takes those recommendations, analyzes them and maybe tweaks them.
That's what happened with this spring's Community Support Grants. A finance and audit committee recommended $200,000, and Strategic Funding bumped it up a little more to $225,000.
And the United Way Board agreed.
"The funding pool — we keep close to our chest," Bax said. "We don't tell the Fund Allocation Committee if it's an increase."
So for 2021, whatever that anticipated increase looks like, the United Way hasn't released it yet.
"We don't want the panel members to know what that is until the very end," Bax said.
Because the United Way doesn't want the committee to be looking at The Salvation Army, Rape and Abuse Crisis Service, the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri or any of the other 25 agencies and have an idea of how their funding should change based on contributions.
"We want them to look at them based on their own merit and what they did last year," Bax said. "How they're performing. All the things they say they're doing — are they doing them? Are there issues that we have to have concerns about?"
At the last meeting, organizers will let the committees know what the anticipated contributions look like. Then they'll have recommendations for funding in 2021.
And that goes to a Steering Committee again. Then it goes to the board.