Monday, May 12, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
The Las Vegas Valley’s wealthiest private supporter of social service programs has changed the way it hands out money, making a tough transition that will cut a total of $2.1 million from 20 organizations over a two-year period.
The United Way of Southern Nevada is redirecting that money to target what it sees as the community’s most pressing needs. In the past it had often funded many of the same organizations year after year.
Dan Goulet, director of the local United Way, says the change is “a major shift” that took time and lots of research. He began warning organizations seeking support from the United Way that this would happen way back in 2003. In that year and then in 2007, two studies identified three main needs in Southern Nevada: financial stability for more people, better education for children and expanded health care. The idea is to repeat the studies about every three years, support work in areas the studies identify, and reach measurable goals during the next decade. So funding requests aimed at those needs now are given higher priority, Goulet said.
Goulet’s organization will hand out $11 million in donations to organizations around the valley this year. It also manages $24 million in government funds, including a program that provides affordable childcare to low-income families.
About half of the $11 million is already spoken for because donors can give money with instructions on how it should be spent. Then there’s as much as $2 million that Goulet says will go to “emergency needs” that have intensified due to the current economic downturn — shelter and food, for example.
The end result: about $3.5 million is affected by the new funding policy.
The shift will also impact how United Way raises money in the future, because it will seek donations aimed at the community’s main needs.
Goulet launched this new era in September, cutting back $300,000, a 15 percent reduction for the organizations affected. There will be $800,000 more in cuts come July, followed by $1 million worth of cuts in 2009.
Goulet points out that organizations hit by the cuts can apply for funds to support programs in the three categories identified. He also says the drop in funding should not come as a surprise to those organizations because the local United Way has been talking about the anticipated change since the 2003 Southern Nevada Community Assessment study.
Back then, only a year into his assignment at the local United Way, Goulet told the Sun: “For the last 8 to 10 years, agencies would come to us and say ... ‘You’ve funded us before, here’s what we need this year.’ The problem is, we’ve been putting Band-Aids on things, without looking at the root causes.”
Similar processes were launched in several other states as far back as 1998, he says.
Whether or not these changes are good may depend on whom you ask.
“Usually people who think it’s not a good idea are those affected by the cuts,” says Linda Lera Randle-El, director of Straight from the Streets, an organization that works with the homeless and doesn’t receive United Way funds.
Lera Randle-El has worked around nonprofit groups in the valley for 25 years. “Years back,” she says, “funding was very incestuous.”
United Way’s new outlook on funding amounts to “rearranging comfort levels,” but the change was needed, she said. With the economy in such bad shape this year, smart choices about how donations are spent are “extremely important,” she notes.
One example of where the United Way wants to put more money is in programs that give low-income people free help preparing tax returns and seeking earned income tax credits. Goulet says he funded 18 such programs this past tax season, up from four programs the year before. That brought back an estimated $1.2 million to the community in earned income tax credits.
One organization that got funding from United Way for years is the Boys & Girls Club of Las Vegas.
Jim Richards is new to the valley, having taken over in January as president of the local Boys & Girls Club.
He says the Boys & Girls Clubs of Las Vegas and Henderson got a combined amount of $460,000 in 2006-2007 and now receive $196,000. At the same time, he expects to apply for more money under the new funding regime.
“You hope the services you provide are reflected in their needs assessment,” he says.
Richards spent 30 years with Boys & Girls Clubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles, places where he saw similar changes in United Way funding.
“It’s a useful shift ... at some point you have to draw a line in the sand and try and be more objective,” he says. Richards notes that the valley’s demographics are different from what they were 10 years ago and that new people bring new needs.
Under this system, however, the studies on which the funding decisions are based are critical, Richards warned.
“You run the risk of getting the assessment wrong. But hopefully you’ve thought it through and it’s not skewed.”