One recent evening, a woman knocked on my door, complimented me on the flowers on my porch, told me she was desperate and depressed and asked for money.
I could have told her to get lost. Or decided she was scamming me. Or I could have given her a little money to get something to eat, or recommend she go somewhere with more help.
Or I could have said: I’m not going to give you money, because it won’t help you at all until we actually undo historic economic and racist structures that perpetuate inequality and generational poverty.
That response is really the right one to her problems, but not in that situation. I gave her some money, though I knew nothing would be different tomorrow.
The next week, I was talking to Moira Weir, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Cincinnati, who has dealt with these same choices on a much larger scale during her career as a social worker and director of Hamilton County Job and Family Services. JFS’s job, as dispenser of state and federal assistance money, is to give help to people who need it to live on right now. Their immediate problems are helped. But the problems persist, and the money continues to be doled out.
So, since early 2020, when Weir started at the United Way, she has concentrated on longer-term solutions. The organization has changed its goals to focus on one important thing: addressing income inequality and the barriers to economic stability and building wealth. “We are focusing on the poverty rate, which has remained flat since 2016,” she said. “We all want to be a tier 1 city, a place where kids stay, or come back, where it’s equitable and inclusive, and everyone has the same opportunity.”
“I thought, let’s do something a little courageous. Let’s break some traditions,” she said.
The new approach is to support nonprofits focused on the work of changing systems. Many are new to the United Way, and many are Black-led. Many of the traditional, old-line United Way grantees will be losing funding if their goals are different.
“You have to wake up every morning and demonstrate that you’re thinking about real economic change. If you don’t want to roll up your sleeves and think about change in the whole region, maybe this isn’t your time, and we can work with you in a different way,” she said.
It was not shocking to take a new approach. The United Way model of giving is going out of date everywhere. The organization began as a way to simplify fundraising by sponsoring workplace donation drives, then funneling money to community organizations. But now, people can easily give directly to the groups they care about, and don’t necessarily want someone else to choose how their donations are allocated. If my experience of workplace giving is typical, they can be turned off by workplace drives.
The new way is also in line with many newer ideas in philanthropic circles, about being less paternalistic, trying to change the power differences between givers and receivers, inviting the community to the decision-making and listening to the people in need actually explaining what the need is.
There’s someone else who is changing how philanthropy is done, and she is contributing to this project in a big way. MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire giving away huge amounts of the money she earned from Amazon, gave the United Way a surprise gift of $25 million in March 2022.
Scott’s giving is trust-based. There are no strings attached to the money, no applications, no extensive reporting. She trusts the organizations she chose to receive the money. The same is true of how the United Way is now making grants. It’s not given for specific programs, it’s for whatever the nonprofit thinks will further their goals – though still with reporting and accountability. The United Way is now working on a dashboard that will collect all the economic and social data relevant to the goal of reducing poverty, in order to see whether the needle is being moved.
Weir is uniquely qualified to lead this change. She spent years sitting across from people in need, helping them get benefits, or resolving child custody cases. “I know the stress, trauma and fear that hang over families in crisis,” she said.
But before that, at the beginning of her career, she had an MBA and a job in the financial sector. When she became a mentor to a Black girl in the foster care system, she found that so much more rewarding that she got a social work degree, quit her job and began over again.
So she has the compassion and the savvy to take on these changes, which do take from some and give to others. “It involves a shift in power, and that’s uncomfortable and scary for everyone,” she said. “But it wasn’t as bumpy as I thought it would be. The board is behind the program.” They gave the organizations that are not being funded in this cycle six months to make adjustments.
“We want to think from a growth, not a scarcity mindset,” she said. “There is enough work for us all to do.”
Polly Campbell covered restaurants and food for the Cincinnati Enquirer from 1996 until 2020. She lives in Pleasant Ridge with her husband, and since retiring does a lot of reading, cooking and gardening, if that’s what you call pulling weeds. She writes monthly on a variety of topics, and she welcomes your feedback and column suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.