//The Real Low-Down on United Way (Fresno and Madera Counties).

The Real Low-Down on United Way (Fresno and Madera Counties).

By Haley White |  hwhite@uwfm.org

United Way is an international brand name, though I’m guessing many people only have a vague sense of what the organization itself actually does. I was once like that. Before I started working for the local chapter of United Way, I only knew the non-profit as an entity that…helps people? Somehow? I wasn’t sure who got help or what the help was, and, even as I applied for an open marketing consultant position at United Way Fresno and Madera Counties last year, I found myself wondering if the whole thing was just some sort of cover for a more nefarious secret operation. Drugs? The mob? Or, perhaps most likely, one of those non-profits where the CEO gets a ridiculous wage while underpaying their staff and not really doing anything to assist the community they claim to support?

Boy, was I wrong.

Now that I’ve been working for United Way Fresno and Madera Counties for over a year, I realize it’s hard to pin down what United Way does, simply because they do so much. And with over 1,800 independent chapters across the world, spanning 40 countries and territories and six continents, the problems addressed by each of those individual organizations varies quite significantly, depending on the high-priority needs of residents in any given location. 

The overall United Way mission is to “fight for the health, education, and financial stability of every person in every community”. That goal is the same regardless of what any single United Way chapter may be dealing with on a local or regional level, but there are three primary ways various chapters do this work. One way is by serving as a central resource hub. By partnering with trusted community organizations and promoting programs like the round-the-clock 211 helpline (available in multiple languages), United Way can connect people to the help they need, all at once. (Food drives? Utilities assistance? Child development tips? Call 211 and be directed to resources for all of those things in one fell swoop.) Another way is by creating their own internal programs to assist community members in ways that relate to their mission’s education, health, and financial stability goals (this is how the very successful Free Tax Prep program was developed). The third method is the one employed by our local United Way. It involves doing both external partnerships and internal programming to create wrap-around support for families and individuals who struggle to get by.

How did these three different operational styles come to be? Basically, United Way was first established in 1887 when a woman, a priest, two ministers, and a rabbi got together in Denver, CO (sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it’s true!), to collect funds for local charities, coordinate relief services, and refer citizens to vetted agencies. From here, similar chapters developed. Eventually, some of the United Way chapters decided to add their own programming into the mix. From there, many United Ways decided internal programming was more viable for their organization, while others (with less resources) went back to serving only as a connection hub. Still others, like our very own United Way Fresno and Madera Counties, understood the growing needs of their local population could only be served by employing both tactics simultaneously. 

While we have different priorities throughout the year and are continuously altering what is on our front burner depending on whatever recent disaster has taken place, there are several programs we are particularly proud of right now. They include:

• Being part of the Creek Fire Recovery Collaborative, a collective of over 40 state and community agencies dedicated to addressing the needs of survivors impacted by the Creek Fire. For our own part, we’ve established the Creek Fire Community Relief Fund and are working directly with 46 families who need long-term support.

• Promoting and supporting the work of our partners at Listos California, a program from the Governor’s office that is meant to provide valuable emergency preparedness information to California’s most vulnerable communities. Since the start of 2019, we have been helping Listos California get word out about preparing for natural disasters like fires, earthquakes, and floods, and have joined them in providing pandemic-related tips and PPE for underserved demographics like seniors, agricultural workers, Communities of Color, rural populations, and more.

• Offering Free Tax Preparation services from IRS-certified volunteers to low-income families. In addition to helping families save on their tax returns, our volunteers also check if tax payers qualify for cashback credits like EITC and CalEITC and, due in part to United Way’s recent advocacy, some of these credits are available to ITIN filers as well.

•  Providing direct cash aid to 1000 families with our Coranavirus Relief Fund, allocating $140,000 to local food banks and college pantries to assist them with the increased food insecurity demands, and distributing PPE to 17 different agencies.

• Developing a “Prosperity Coaching” model to help BIPOC residents with individualized, long-term assistance to address issues with our nation’s systemic wealth gap and allow them to achieve financial stability long-term. After seeing the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, both in the Central Valley and the rest of the country, as well as watching the push for social and economic justice rise to the forefront of the American consciousness since the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others like them, we are doubling down on our commitment to help improve the radical wealth, health, and educational disparities that have been negatively impacting our Communities of Color for far too long.

• Operating a 24/7 helpline, available in 130 different languages, where people can call and be connected to resources and programs in their area that can help address immediate needs like food, shelter, clothing, and utilities, or provide more nuanced assistance like child development skills, job preparation, translation services, and more. People can call 211 (or 1-866-559-4211, tollfree) to get assistance.

These are just a handful of the things we offer local residents through United Way Fresno and Madera Counties, and our work often includes partnering with other community groups (such as Poverello House, The Boys & Girls Club, Central Valley Community Foundation, Marjaree Mason Center, and others) as well as other corporate sponsors (like AT&T, Wells Fargo, and UPS). We believe that working together, we can create lasting positive change in our neighborhoods, as well as the world at large. That’s why our motto is Live United.

We welcome volunteers and donors to join our family and be a part of the work we do. Every penny we earn stays in Fresno and Madera Counties and directly contributes to our goal to provide solidarity, not charity, to local residents. Potential volunteers can reach out to to Emily at uwfmvolunteer@gmail.com in order to learn about the various ways they can help. We also offer Workplace Giving, an easy and efficient way to have donations directed to us (or your other favorite legally recognized non-profit) by simply having the donation deducted from your paycheck. This method of community care helps ensure the needs of our most marginalized residents are met when, unfortunately, our government is not set up to meet those needs alone.  If you are interested in potentially bringing Workplace Giving to your office or company, please email Coreen, our VP of Resource and Development at ccampos@uwfm.org. If you would simply like to follow along and keep updated on what we’re doing, we can be found on Facebook and Twtiter at @uwfmc or Instagram at @uw_fmc.