Live United: Majority of United Way work happens behind the scenes

Published 8:45 pm Friday, October 1, 2021

Live United by Erin Haag

Several months ago, a community member stopped in our office. She toured the office, and we chatted about the needs of our community. This community member is typically pretty up to date with what’s going on, both at UWFC and several of our partner agencies. However, she made a comment that surprised me. We had been discussing pop-up pantries and how the Winter Gear Drive went last year. As she looked around at the coats we had piled up that we were inventorying to prepare for storage she said, “I guess all you’re really doing now is clothes and food huh?”

Erin Haag

I was flabbergasted and dismayed. I remember thinking, “if she doesn’t realize the extent of what we do, then the majority of our community doesn’t know either.”

I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was a pretty empathetic, “no, there’s quite a bit more that’s happening.” I talked about the programs we fund, the grant writing that I work on, the engagement with community partners and the education on best practices in a variety of areas.

The thing is, often United Way work isn’t easy to see. You’ve heard recently about the grant cycle that was restructured, and how that was a two-year project in the making. I’ve talked often and loudly about food security in the past year, holding up pop-up pantries, the revamped NAPS distribution with the Y and our partnership with Channel One Regional Food Bank as the tangible results of our efforts. I’ve quieted down a little bit about food security because pop-up pantries ended in May.

Several months ago, I learned of a potential project that would be coming to Freeborn County centered around food security. I was asked, “What do you think Freeborn County needs?” I thought we needed a food focused community needs assessment. I envisioned a consultant to come in and pull the data together and package it in a nice, unbiased presentation. I talked about how I hear stories every day from our community members. I talked about our pop-up pantries and how I walked the line of cars listening to stories about how the pantries were important. I learned so many things, and I wanted a way to compile all of those stories, to make them more impactful, to fully illustrate the needs.

Channel One heard what I said and took it a step further. They worked with Design Center from the University of Minnesota and came up with the idea of co-designers. We want to design new food solutions for Freeborn County, right? Who better to design that than the people who use it?

So we got to work. We identified individuals in our community that use food resources. These individuals participated in group discussions where they formulated their questions, shared their own experiences and then went out into the community to ask their friends, their neighbors. I was invited to listen to a group, and it was a sobering experience.

This summer was the time for listening. Next week, we’ll be hosting a forum for community leaders and organizations to attend to hear the results of that group. Our food shelf providers are invited, along with other partners invested in food security. After we hear the themes, and hear from a few of the co-designers sharing their story, we’re hoping that an organization will raise their hand and say, “we could do this.” We’re hoping that community leaders will play “What if we could….” And help us make those what ifs into tangible solutions with tangible results.

It’s not as flashy and public as pop-up pantries or the Winter Gear Drive with the media filming volunteers loading boxes into cars. These things are the direct services that happen. The bulk of our work is indirect services, building the infrastructure, recognizing best practices in this sector and working to bring those best practices and support those programs trying to implement those practices.

In fact, one major change we made with our grant cycle took this into consideration. The Community Investment Committee used to do site visits for programs asking for funding. We struggled with the scheduling of site visits. We learned that there was an implicit bias about these site visits. After all, my work often consists of my laptop and my messy desk. Other people’s work consists of cute children happily playing, or the dramatic vision of a homeless person being sheltered. Instead of site visits for the CIC, we’ll be doing panel reviews, which means that programs will come to a central location and present. It’s their chance to tell their stories, to make their programs be more than a black and white grant application. In the future, we hope to bring back site visits as a community opportunity, as a way to celebrate the work that is happening, rather than relying on the visual glamor to factor into a grant award.

I anticipate that there will be some flashy things happening in the next six to nine months. When that happens I’ll be telling you, “this is the result of over a year of work.”

We’re always going to have a few things that stand out more than the rest in terms of “what we’re doing.” At the same time, we’re always going to be working harder on other things in the background, building infrastructure, making connections and building relationships that lift programs up to do the flashy work. The support of our community help us do that work and we appreciate that support every single day.

If you’re an organization or community leader who would like to learn more about the co-design process and join on the food security forum happening on Oct. 6, give me call at 507-373-8670 for an invitation to the virtual meeting.

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