Hunger. Mental illness. Catastrophic death. Educating and caring for disadvantaged children. Cancer, AIDS, terminal illness, physical disabilities of various kinds. Domestic violence.
These may seem like intractable problems, but United Way of Spokane County, through the fund-raising and facilitating it does for its 37 member agencies, routinely makes intolerable situations a bit more bearable. The local agency collected $4.1 million just in Spokane County last year, primarily through its workplace campaign involving payroll deductions. The money goes to a wide variety of nonprofits.
Jerrie Allard, vice president for community initiatives, points to the range between "NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, which is very small, with no paid staff, an all-volunteer organization, to an agency like the Second Harvest Food Bank," with its 32 full-time-equivalent staff. Allard also mentions a difference in the missions of local agencies, "from SAFeT, the safety response unit out of Lutheran Family Services, providing help to victims of sexual assault, versus the YMCA's Youth Development Program. So we serve everything from intervention to crisis, from pre-natal to hospice."
More than 90 percent of the funds come from the workplace campaign, which this year officially kicks off on Sept. 18. Moreover, United Way of Spokane is efficient, keeping administration costs down so that more than 86 cents of every dollar donated goes to helping people directly and/or supporting community-building initiatives (including meeting basic needs, strengthening families, nurturing children, caring for the elderly or those with special needs).
Still, because United Way is an umbrella organization serving the needs of diverse agencies, misconceptions abound. Josh Falconer, director of marketing and communications, explains that, "We are a local organization, so all the money that we raise is invested in Spokane County. It doesn't go anyplace else. People see the commercials during football games on Sunday, and they assume that we're a national organization, and that their dollars might go elsewhere. That's probably the biggest misperception that we face.
"Second, because we're not a direct service organization, like Second Harvest Food Bank, which is directly distributing food to people who are hungry, sometimes people have a hard time wrapping their minds around what it is exactly that we do, and how our organization works, and what our funding model looks like," says Falconer. "Our focus is broad, based on the desire to impact the most people possible in the best possible way."
In achieving that goal, one solution lies in the United Way Volunteer Solutions Web site. As Mary Mapes, director of the Volunteer Center, explains, "We have a new online database of our volunteer opportunities through our www.unitedwayspokane.org Web site. We launched last September, and presently we have 101 agencies, with 166 opportunity volunteer positions available."
Challenges persist, of course. The most common reasons given for not volunteering -- "no one asked me" and "it won't make any difference" -- are countered by the example of Spokane's hundreds of volunteers.
One local boy, for example, was helped by a variety of United Way organizations. Recently, he graduated from Gonzaga Law School. Obviously, many factors contributed to his success, but along the way, volunteers in this community made a difference in his life. Because of United Way volunteers, in fact, a lot of difference is being made in a lot of people's lives, right here in Spokane County.