Originally Posted: November 23, 2023
United Way of the Midlands: Celebrating a Century of Helping People in the Community
In 1923, community leaders and residents in Douglas County created an organization called The Community Chest to support local health and human services efforts, distributing funds to 30 participating nonprofit organizations. In 2023, the fundamental purpose of helping local citizens overcome obstacles to creating a better future is much the same, but the name has been United Way of the Midlands (UWM) since 1975, the organization now serves the entire greater metro area, and the funding distribution model has evolved.
“One of the things that we’re most proud of is that we really bring people together — whether it’s businesses, not-for-profit foundations, government, or individuals — to work together to ensure that our health and human services programs have the resources they need to address some of our biggest challenges in the community,” said President and CEO Shawna Forsberg. “One of the things I think people might not understand about United Way is that we fund a ton of very important programs, but we also do direct services. So, it really is looking at the entire community, identifying where needs are and leaning into that, whether it’s finding a program that addresses a need or delivering that service.”
In the early years, as The Community Chest and, later, United Community Services, the organization raised thousands of dollars annually for its member agencies. Most recently, UWM raised $40 million in a campaign year to support programs and direct services addressing social and economic disparities and essential needs from nutrition and housing to physical and mental health services and employment preparedness. Thousands of individual donors, many through workplace giving campaigns organized for more than 600 employers, along with corporate and foundation donors support more than 150 programs of over a hundred nonprofit agencies.
“You’re going to know best in your community the nuances of what that community needs,” Forsberg said. “United Way only works if there’s a lot of people coming together — donors, people on the front lines delivering the services, the volunteer hours. I think that’s the beauty of it: it’s a community-led organization.”
UWM is part of a larger organization, United Way Worldwide.
“We’re part of the largest nonprofit in the country, but we’re independent 501(c)(3)s. I think it’s like the secret sauce for United Way because you take advantage of everything that a large organization has: best practices, connection, professional development, branding,” Forsberg said. “But the work is done at the community level. All of us have our own 501(c)(3) designation. We have our own governing board. Really, the decisions are made at the local level with top leaders from that community.”
In 2012, a committee of local leaders explored the area’s needs and UWM’s role in the community. A strategic plan emerged to expand fundraising and launch an open grant process, which made more organizations eligible to apply for funding. The Community Care Fund allocates dollars toward a variety of programs in what the organization calls a Circle of Support, and awards are determined by a review committee of subject-matter experts and other volunteers.
“We’re able to not only support those amazing 32 (member agencies) that were partners with us forever but also invest in programs that are doing new and innovative things that maybe weren’t in that long tenure with United Way. I think that was a really smart change,” Forsberg said. “We’ve really diversified how we fund and we also have really expanded some direct service programs. It’s allowed us to be community-impact driven. We identify where challenges are at and figure out the best way to fund and address those challenges.”
For instance, UWM’s 211 Helpline, a free service that provides multiple channels for individuals to seek assistance, now serves both the entire state of Nebraska and the entire state of Iowa.
“I don’t know that those things would have occurred if we wouldn’t have really changed directions back in 2012,” Forsberg said.
In 2019, JAG Nebraska was established in collaboration with Governor Pete Ricketts and the Nebraska Department of Labor to help students develop skill sets to overcome challenges in the classroom that later translate to personal and career success. In 2020, UWM began partnering with the Omaha World-Herald to administer the longtime Goodfellows fundraising program. In 2022, together with Mayor Jean Stothert and the city of Omaha, UWM was selected to distribute $5 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to agencies in the metro area.
“We’re very, very proud of our heritage. But I think where United Ways do the best work is that they’re very entrepreneurial and adaptive to what that community needs,” Forsberg said. “When we had flooding in 2019, we raised extra money, we were very intentional about funding programs that help families get back on their feet. When the pandemic happened, we actually reevaluated the investments that we had, and we worked with agencies to switch dollars to things that were really needed during the pandemic. You don’t want to be complacent. You really want to, as an organization, be listening and learning and have that continuous-learning mindset so that we can make the most of the previous treasure that people invest in the community through us.
UWM had a lot to celebrate in its 100th anniversary year, and corporate sponsors stepped up to allow the organization to host several community events.
“We wanted to showcase the amazing programs that we have the joy of funding. The work they do on the front lines to help stabilize families every day is just simply amazing. We wanted to be able to celebrate that because sometimes you only hear the negative,” Forsberg said. “There’s a lot of good going on. And you want people to have hope.”
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