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Post by Ethan Gardner, Honors Civic Engagement


United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham hosts community conversations around the ALICE Report. Photo credit: United Way.

United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County (HR) is the local entity of the global network of United Way. The organization is structured and encouraged to be autonomous at the local level, in order to best address community needs. It situates the organization in an interesting form, as United Way is a global network with around 1200 local offices, which raises and allocates massive amounts of funds to give to local non-profits. United Way HR is focused on the local community and expertise than many non-profit organizations in the area. It plays a significant role in the community by investing in various non-profit entities that are working on goals that align with theirs. It works to connect stakeholders in various fashions and has become an influential force in local decision-making.

United Way attempts to build relationships in the community by bringing together various stakeholders on a variety of issues. A prime concern of United Way in Harrisonburg has been the ALICE population, which refers to individuals who are asset limited, income constrained, and employed. ALICE is a population that has been identified and quantified by United Way in a number of states. The ALICE report on Virginia was released in 2017, which prompted a community meeting over 100 community leaders of various sectors, including leaders of nonprofits, businesses, city government officials, and JMU faculty, to discuss the report and brainstorm solutions. Facilitated by the Institute for Constructive Advocacy and Dialogue, small groups of these leaders discussed the needs of the community and how to deal with the problems presented in the ALICE report. I attended this event and witnessed the brainstorming and discussion of the report with one small group, which included Sal Romero, Jr. as a representative of the public schools, leaders from a health nonprofit, businesses, as well as Dr. Robert Alexander. The ideas generated in these discussions became the foundation of activity by United Way on this issue, according to Executive Director of United Way HR Laura Toni-Holsinger. This is one example of the way that United Way approaches an issue and engages community stakeholders in addressing it.

The ALICE report has made an impact in the Harrisonburg community in some tangible ways. The Harrisonburg City Council used ALICE data in putting together the city plan. The local free clinic changed policy to raise their eligibility threshold from the Virginia poverty line to the ALICE threshold, which is significantly higher than the poverty level. In recent elections, candidates for city council have mentioned the ALICE data, as well as candidates for the House of Delegates. For example, Chris Jones, when running for re-election to the City Council in 2018, included “helping the 60% of people in Harrisonburg considered … ALICE” as one of his four priorities on his platform (HBurgCitizen, 2018). Laura Toni-Holsinger, Executive Director of United Way, said in a conversation that I had with her that she has seen many non-profits and even individuals discussing and sharing the ALICE data. This study, in which Virginia is one of nineteen states that it has been conducted in, has become commonly known on some level, which is a success for the organization.

Another new initiative by United Way HR is the EmpowerHR program, which is a community-wide network to connect Harrisonburg residents with needed services. The essential function of EmpowerHR is for residents to be able to “access healthcare, housing, behavioral health, and substance use counseling” in a single place. It falls in line with the organization’s work with ALICE population to better facilitate accessibility to services available in the area. United Way says that one of their “biggest needs” was for “for service providers to connect with each-other” so that residents can reach the services that are already provided in the area (“Empower”). This is the most recent example of United Way approaching and attempting to solve a community need. It also highlights the organization’s focus on building relationships with stakeholders and residents in the community.

One of United Way’s prominent activities is its investments in local nonprofits. Its investments fall into four categories: Early Childhood Readiness, Grade Level Reading and High School Graduation, Financial Stability, and Community Health and Wellness. In the 2018-2019 fiscal year, United Way invested $506,630 in grants. The funding goes to many of the most prominent and well-known non-profit organizations in the community, including Big Brothers Big Sisters, Boys and Girls Clubs, Blue Ridge Legal Services, Mercy House, and many others.

A fundamental aspect of United Way is their ability to engage various members of the community toward goals that would improve the quality of life of Harrisonburg residents. United Way prides itself on the networks it creates and the funds it is able to disperse. It runs some of its own events, such as the Day of Caring and Stuff the Bus, but also facilitates involvement with many other groups in the community. Laura Toni-Holsinger also said that this is an area that can be a challenge, as their activity is constantly trying to get people to care and act on things that do not have a direct benefit to them. Specifically, on the ALICE work, it involves getting individuals outside of the ALICE population to care and act about those individuals.

In many ways, United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County falls in line with traditional ideas about civic associations. Insofar as the organization promotes volunteerism, engagement with the community, and social goods in the community, it contributes as a civic association that are “a critical source of social capital” (Davenport and Skandera). They also assert that 3,776 volunteer hours were done through United Way, at events like “Summer Reading Parties and Day of Caring.” Volunteer programs and active community involvement by residents on local issues is a major focus of United Way HR’s efforts in the community, making it one of a network of civic association-type groups in the area.

The organization takes a holistic look at problems facing the community, and approaches them by promoting involvement of various stakeholders to address issues. Its ability to bring together many groups in the community to address public problems is evidence of its effectiveness and the salience of research like the ALICE report shows its ability to influence public decision-making. In the context of research into philanthropy and private solutions to public problems, but the local office takes a number of steps to involve community perspectives.