Live United: Community support vital for work of United Way, nonprofits

Published 8:45 pm Friday, September 17, 2021

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Live United by Erin Haag

I’m always gratified to hear the results of my columns. My “return on investment” shows up in the form of phone calls, of emails, people stopping me at the farmers market and more. Previously it’s been community members who want to donate, or learn more about the programs I write about, or simply to send encouragement for the work we’re doing.

Erin Haag

I had a new one this week though. I received a phone call from a nonprofit. This particular nonprofit has not applied for funding from United Way in the past, but after reading the article, the coordinator reached out to me to see if I would be willing to help her define outcomes for her program. She is in the middle of writing a significant grant, and the grant requires outcomes.

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What a moment! It encompasses much of what I’m trying to do — to build relationships with nonprofits, to provide that support system and to be relevant beyond just a funder. I also strongly feel that it was a sign that I’m on the right path on a couple of different levels. 

The first is good stewardship. We encourage donors to give to United Way because we fund programs over agencies — and we hold those agencies accountable. It gives us leverage, a challenge to our agencies to improve from year to year. That’s the way to make lasting change. By the way — that’s true for United Way as well. I tell my co-workers that I’ll never ask them to do something that I’m not willing to do myself. It’s the same for my agencies. As we write about these outcomes, we’ll be establishing some of our own outcomes, and measuring them year after year.

The second is training and support. Outcomes is a standard of measurement that grants usually ask for. There are entire resource documents at the state and federal level that cover this. For our agencies that are experienced at grant writing, this is old hat to them. They’re not going to be too worried about this new application that is coming out. For our agencies that might not have their program outcomes already articulated, it’s new territory, but they get to learn in a nonthreatening environment with support at the local level. This will help them prepare to be able to expand their funding stream and apply for some of those larger grants. Once they’re comfortable with the concept, grant writing will be easier, and hopefully that will expand their capacity.

Recently, someone asked me what my grant writing experience was. It’s a family thing for me. Both my parents worked in nonprofit organizations and were responsible for writing and administering grants at a local and federal level. As early as high school, I used to write or review grants being written on behalf of the nonprofits my parents were involved in. My daddy’s been gone for several years now, but even today, I call my mom when I’m debating how to phrase something for the purpose of the grant. We commiserate over the challenges of grant writing, and I’ve taken those lessons to heart as I built this grant application. Beyond the family and early years’ experience, I’ve written grants for nearly every single job position I’ve had, from basic grants for classroom supplies, to state and federal grants for staffing positions for the non profit I was with at the time.

Am I an expert? I certainly don’t call myself one. I can only share my experience from both sides of grant writing, and work to learn more. Professionally, I’d like to take a few grant writing classes and be able to bring that knowledge back to our nonprofit community. I’ve had the opportunity to attend one in the past, but unfortunately, it was a little too basic for what I was looking for. In the meantime, I’m happy to be a listening ear, to help walk alongside another nonprofit as they navigate this world.

This season is a little different for us. It’s a combination of what would normally be a spring season of grant applications and our regular fall season of campaign season. But it’s an opportunity to remind our donors of the work that’s going on year around. I’m hopeful that our community will be following the journey of the  new application process to see what it means to be a partner agency, and understand why community support is so vital to the work that United Way and all of our nonprofits are doing for Freeborn County. If you’re interested in learning more, as always, the phone lines are open at 507-373-8670.

Erin Haag is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.