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Philanthropy gets more focused to ‘move the needle’

UPDATED: Sat., Oct. 31, 2015

Treva Lind Correspondent

More charitable foundations and trusts have moved away from spreading dollars across multiple causes. Instead, their aim is to increase impact by focusing on key initiatives, then reviewing data to measure results.

Empire Health Foundation, the region’s largest charitable foundation, describes its approach as “adaptive, results-based investments.” The foundation manages an $80 million endowment to encourage healthy lifestyles in seven Eastern Washington counties.

“We want to move beyond just writing a grant check and hoping it would do some good,” said Antony Chiang, foundation president. “It’s saying if there is a tough social issue, what is the needle that best represents that issue, and how do we try to move the needle?”

Spokane County United Way started a shift toward focused giving in 2009 that noticeably sharpened earlier this year. The chapter’s 2015-16, $2 million budget now specifically targets support in three areas – education, income and health – aligning with more than 35 nonprofits and programs affecting children and families.

Focuses include family abuse intervention and school retention, backing such nonprofits as the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center and Second Harvest. But the shift also cut funding as of July 1 to nine programs previously supported but now deemed no longer aligned with initiatives.

The nonaligned programs are Mid-City Concerns Meals on Wheels, Lilac Services for the Blind, YMCA Healthy Opportunities, the YMCA’s senior volunteer program, Eastern Washington Hearing Loss Center, Spokane AIDS Network, ARC’s Community Center, Providence Visiting Nurse and Providence Adult Day Health.

While individual donors on forms still can direct a United Way donation to any charity of choice, the chapter is focusing with agency partners to reduce levels of poverty, abuse and education achievement gaps in Spokane County.

Chapter President Tim Henkel said United Way’s evolution is a big shift, but one that the community and donors generally are seeking. United Way Worldwide suggested the initiatives’ framework around 2006, and in recent years, more philanthropy centered around how to make lasting impacts.

“People started saying, ‘What are we accomplishing?’” Henkel said. “How can we apply money and resources toward fixing a problem in the community, and what is the data telling us?’ That’s something we started working on five or six years ago.”

Henkel said the chapter and other entities set out about five years ago to increase the high school graduation rate, and it went from near 70 percent to almost 83 percent. Graduation benchmarks for low-income and minority students are still lower, though.

“We’re trying to look at these gaps from cradle to career,” said Sally Pritchard, chapter vice president.

The Gates, Lumina and Umpqua foundations are directing more dollars to Spokane because of community-backed initiatives, Pritchard said, and their investments are aimed at specific goals. Examples include targets that 60 percent of households receiving SNAP pre-purchase homeowners’ counseling would go on to buy a home, while others won’t lose their homes after foreclosure prevention help.

Other areas of focus include early learning, education and family programs, and domestic violence counseling.

One program receiving less funding from United Way is Mid-City’s Meals on Wheels, said director Mollie Dalpae. The nonprofit provides meals to 500 seniors in their homes and up to 180 people at its senior center.

“We lost the exposure too, because during major campaigns, United Way would invite us to go out to major corporations,” Dalpae said. “I’m also concerned that people won’t realize they can still designate to us through United Way.”

Lacking state or federal funding, the nonprofit started a GoFundMe account for online donations that’s helping some, Dalpae said.

Cheryl Martin, Lilac Services for the Blind director, said United Way’s cut was $7,600 yearly that provided adaptive devices and training for low-income clients to live independently. United Way chapters in surrounding counties still provide support, she said.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find funding for individuals who are older and living with disabilities,” Martin said. “Many of our clients also take care of their grandchildren, so it’s all very important.”

Chiang, of the Empire Health Foundation, said the recession affected philanthropy approaches.

“There’s been a much greater focus on what is the return on investments,” he said.

The foundation’s focuses include strengthening health systems, preventing childhood obesity, reducing adverse childhood experiences, increasing physician supply and investing to draw grants to nonprofits such as Aging and Long Term Care of Eastern Washington.

Empire partners with United Way on initiatives, Chiang said. Community collaborations are on the rise.

“On almost all the tough issues for a single nonprofit, it’s nearly impossible to move the needle,” Chiang said. “You have to partner with schools, government, businesses, other community partners. Only then do you have a shot at moving a meaningful needle.”

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