“Uniting” For the Better

By Al Parker

Despite a steep decline in donations over the past few years, the mission of the United Way of Northwest Michigan hasn’t changed.

“Our goal is to improve the lives in our five-county region by mobilizing the caring power of communities to advance the common good,” said Executive Director Ranae McCauley, who just completed her first year on the job. “We do this through a three-prong approach of asking the community to give, advocate and volunteer.”

McCauley is energetically taking on the challenge of maintaining an array of United Way programs and services despite reduced donations. It’s a tall order, but she’s optimistic – having witnessed firsthand the wealth of spirit and goodness in people across the region.

McCauley came to United Way after a long career with the Michigan State University Extension Services, serving Antrim and Kalkaska counties. In 2012, she was chosen as the ATHENA Grand Traverse Award recipient as well as the Citizen of the Year Award in Kalkaska County.

“We have a good team and I’m just a part of that team,” she said. “The United Way is an important and relevant player in creating a nonprofit network.”

The organization’s foundational structure is focused on three areas: health, education and income stability – areas that McCauley brought extensive experience in when she was hired to replace former director Steve Wade, now director of donor relations for the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation.

Much of the public is aware of the giving aspect, through United Way’s annual campaign for donations. Employees at workplaces throughout Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska and Leelanau counties are enrolled annually to make generous payroll deductions to support the organization and its efforts.

But for a variety of reasons, those donations have been declining in recent years, according to McCauley.

“We’re seeing this trend nationally,” she said. “It’s getting harder and harder to raise money. There are more nonprofits competing for donations. Costs are rising and needs are greater than ever. In a sense, we’re the original crowdfunding. If everybody gave a dollar or two, it can make a big difference.”

McCauley estimated that over the past few years, United Way’s donations have dropped from more than $800,000 a year to $585,000 now.

The bulk of those donations go out in the form of grants to community groups who apply for the funds each year. In order to qualify for funding, applicants must be a tax-exempt, health or human services group that provides direct services to residents of the five-county region. It must have a volunteer board of directors and been in operation for more than two years. The group must also have an annual audit and its administrative and fundraising efforts can not exceed 25 percent of its annual gross revenues.

The application process begins in late June and runs into mid-October when a team of United Way volunteers makes the final decision on funding the projects. This year’s Citizen Action Team (CAT) had 19 members from a cross-section of the community. Typically, applicants give a five-minute explanation of their grant request and then three or four members of the CAT team will ask about the request.

“Applicants are looking for funding for a specific program,” explained McCauley. “Then the CAT team decides the areas of greatest concern. It could be jobs, education, housing or something else. The CAT team is incredibly committed. They are rigorous and thoughtful and donors themselves.”

The process is similar to the TV show “Shark Tank,” in which entrepreneurs seek support from a panel of financiers.

Following the interviews, the CAT makes its funding choices and the final decision goes to the full United Way board of directors for formal approval.

“We’re definitely not the biggest player in philanthropy,” McCauley said. “But we hope to be really good investors. We want to strengthen the dollar that comes in the door through matching so it turns into $4. It’s neighbors giving with neighbors to help neighbors.”

United Way’s advocacy tenet is, perhaps, its least publicized.

“We are committed to giving voice to those in our community who have no other forum for their platforms,” said McCauley. “We do that through programs we support.”

United Way’s most wide-ranging volunteer event is its annual Day of Caring, held on September 11 this year when 423 volunteers spent more than 2,000 hours working on 52 different community projects.

“The projects were all over the map,” said McCauley. “I knew that the impact of what we do during the year is big. But on the Day of Caring it shows just what can happen when we all get together and say, ‘Let’s make a difference today.’”

With a smaller budget, McCauley and the organization’s three other staff members – Campaign Outreach Coordinator Kate Kerr, Fund Development Director Michelle Krumm and Volunteer Center Coordinator Connor Miller – are stretching their resources.

“We have to fully utilize every single asset we have,” said McCauley.

That includes more efficiently using the United Way building at 521 Union Street. Thanks to grants from the Rotary Club and Oleson Foundation and some volunteer muscle, changes were made to the structure including a fresh coat of paint, new carpeting and redesigning the interior to make it more accessible. A new great room was added, complete with comfy couches and an impressive kitchen area. That area is available for the public to use.

“It’s not an office, it really is a community center,” she said. “If groups need a place to meet they can come in, and it gives us a nice glimpse of what’s going on because we can’t be everywhere.”

There are also offices available to lease in the United Way building after Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwestern Michigan relocated to a new space on E. Front Street.

“We want to do our very best for the community,” McCauley said. “Tell us how we can help. We’ll find someone, we’ll turn over every rock. This is a great community. I know what it can do.”