Cities and United Ways: Aligning Community Leadership for Children and Families

May 2, 2011

by Michael Karpman

Throughout the country, cities and United Ways are working together to improve outcomes for children and families by leveraging each other's capacity to engage residents and organizations around common goals, track progress and sustain momentum over time.

To identify opportunities for enhancing these partnerships, NLC's Institute for Youth, Education and Families and United Way Worldwide (UWW) co-hosted a meeting of city and United Way leaders April 20-21 at UWW's new Mary M. Gates Learning Center in Alexandria, Va., with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Jacksonville, Fla., Mayor John Peyton, Hartford, Conn., Mayor Pedro Segarra and Alexandria, Va., Mayor William Euille joined senior staff from two dozen cities and 15 local United Ways across the country for this day-long series of peer learning and discussion sessions. In addition to highlighting effective city-United Way collaborations, participants discussed the role that national initiatives such as the Mayors' Action Challenge for Children and Families and UWW's Campaign for the Common Good can play in supporting efforts on the ground (see below).

"The City of Hartford's relationship with our United Way can be described as pervasive because they touch a broad spectrum of services and needs," said Mayor Segarra.

Convening Stakeholders

Among their many complementary strengths, cities and United Ways are in a unique position to convene public and private entities that can help improve child and family well-being.

Mayors in particular have a visible "bully pulpit" from which to engage other leaders and residents, while United Ways have strong relationships with the business community, nonprofit grantees and other philanthropic organizations. Together, they can align key systems around shared objectives.

For instance, in San Antonio, Mayor Julián Castro worked with the local United Way and largest school district to prevent a school closure that was scheduled to take place in the city's Eastside neighborhood just as the San Antonio Housing Authority was bringing 500 families into the community and United Way was stepping up efforts to engage families in schools and services. By convening local stakeholders, the mayor helped open lines of communication around revitalizing the neighborhood. The school now serves as the hub of a federal Promise Neighborhoods initiative led by the United Way.

Setting the Agenda

Municipal and United Way leaders also have a special ability to set a citywide agenda for children and families and back that agenda with valuable information and resources.

For example, ever since Mayor Peyton took office in 2003, he has made early literacy a top priority in his quest to improve education in Jacksonville. "We know that those first five years are so critical to the learning continuum," said Mayor Peyton. "The story is often written in those first years."

To improve the standards of local child care centers, the mayor worked with representatives from United Way, Head Start programs, universities and other entities to develop a five-star quality rating system and then provide child care centers with resources and coaching to offer quality early learning experiences. While the mayor's office coordinated the RALLY Jacksonville! initiative, "what we learned is that partnerships enabled us to succeed," said Peyton.

In Boston, the city and school district have joined the local United Way and other foundations to fund services that align with the Boston Opportunity Agenda, a data-driven effort to strengthen the city's early childhood-to-postsecondary education pipeline.

Mobilizing the Community

As these efforts show, few individuals are in as strong a position to rally the community as mayors and United Way leaders. City staff from Grand Rapids, Mich., shared how the Heart of West Michigan United Way engages mentors in public schools while the mayor uses his state of the city address to reinforce these partnerships.

Representatives from Boston, Newark and Philadelphia discussed how their mayors and United Ways personally urge employers and nonprofits to provide summer jobs to youth.

Taking a Regional Approach

United Ways help municipal leaders work across city lines to address regional issues, particularly when structures for regional collaboration do not exist. Mayor Segarra pointed out that although Hartford's tax base is constrained by high poverty and a surplus of tax-exempt property, the city serves most of the region's homeless and ex-offender population.

The United Way promotes cross-city collaboration and helps align city agendas on jobs and early learning with state policy. In St. Louis, United Way plays a similar regional coordinating role through its 211 information service.

In Virginia's Hampton Roads region, the United Way helped mayors of several cities better serve the area's homeless population by developing shared use policies for single-room occupancy spaces at local homeless shelters.

Sharing Accountability

Cities and United Ways can foster accountability around measurable goals - a critical factor in sustaining funder support. Participants discussed how they are sharing data across systems to track progress. In Louisville, Ky., a new early warning system will help the school district identify and suggest possible interventions for potential dropouts as early as fourth grade. Because all afterschool programs that receive city and United Way grants to offer reading help are required to enter data in Louisville's KidTrax system, school principals can assess the impact of these interventions. In Hartford, local partners are developing policies and procedures to embed a shared data infrastructure into the way they do business.

Ensuring Sustainability

Participants agreed that demonstrating progress and having the right people at the table are both critical to sustaining efforts through leadership transitions. Mayor Peyton built a coalition of support for early learning that includes the business community, and recruited influential leaders to plan his successful Jacksonville Journey anti-crime initiative, which has helped reduce violent crime by 23 percent since 2008. Participants from Savannah, Ga., and Orlando, Fla., discussed the need to recognize people who have been working on issues for a long time and invest in grassroots neighborhood leadership. A Heart of West Michigan United Way leader emphasized the importance of developing champions within and outside local organizations.

Attendees also explored strategies for sustainable financing. The champions of community-wide family strengthening efforts often provide seed money, but then leverage a diversified mix of funding streams. In Boise, Idaho, United Way of Treasure Valley and Mayor David Bieter engaged a region-wide coalition of public and private partners in opening a detox facility funded by federal, state, county, city, United Way and local hospital resources. Voter-approved sales taxes in Denver and St. Louis sustain universal preschool and child mental health initiatives, respectively. In Orlando, the city used startup grants to focus on achieving results in one neighborhood, building a model that can be brought to scale as the economy recovers.

Finally, formal connections can help sustain city-United Way partnerships. City officials from Boise, St. Louis, Hartford and Louisville reported serving on United Way boards, community impact cabinets or investment review committees, while a United Way participant from Hartford serves on the city Office for Youth Services advisory group.

The Mayors' Action Challenge for Children and Families and United Way Worldwide's Campaign for the Common Good

Launched by 26 founding mayors in November 2008, the Mayors' Action Challenge for Children and Families calls on cities to set bold, measurable goals to ensure that every child has opportunities to learn and grow, a safe neighborhood to call home, a healthy lifestyle and environment and a financially fit family in which to thrive. United Way Worldwide's Campaign for the Common Good, unveiled in October 2010, will mobilize millions of people and organizations across the country to take action and improve the education, income and health of families in America's communities. The campaign recently kicked off with a focus on education and an ambitious goal to cut the nation's high school dropout rate in half by 2018.

City and United Way leaders who participated in the April 20-21 convening highlighted several ways in which these parallel national initiatives can support local efforts, including: providing a national context and framework to address local challenges; helping galvanize residents around community goals for child well-being; encouraging local leaders to challenge their peers in other cities to take action; offering recognition to effective local collaborations; and creating opportunities for peer learning and technical assistance.