EDITORIAL: Uproot causes while treating symptoms

(Originally Published in The Times of NWI - 5/31/2015 - Times Editorial Staff)

Lake Area United Way has been working feverishly for decades to treat the symptoms of poverty and other social issues. To make real headway, though, it must now devote attention to root causes as well.

This new strategy comes at a time when giving to the United Way has been dwindling.

In the 1980s, the Lake Area United Way campaign goal was $6 million. It's now $4 million. A lot has happened in that time.

For one thing, United Way has lost market share. In the late 1980s, it received nearly 3 percent of all charitable giving. By 2007, according to LAUW President and CEO Lisa Daugherty, that had dropped to 1.2 percent.

But keep in mind, too, that the United Way relies heavily on workplace campaigns, and the workforce has evolved considerably since the 1980s. Lake County's top industries have shed thousands of jobs since then.

The need for assistance hasn't dropped, though. LAUW notes that more than 41 percent of individuals and families in Lake County are either in poverty or are the working poor, a group identified by the United Way as Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, or ALICE.

That's why there must be a new approach to funding LAUW assistance.

"We are going to be very data driven and results focused," Daugherty said.

LAUW is setting up a grant program in which agencies will work together to address a major need facing the county. To get funding, the groups will need to developed a shared measurement to track their progress, across all partners. That measurement is the way to see whether LAUW and the grant recipients are making real headway in reducing the problem.

LAUW is doing research in June to pick which area to focus on, out of three finalists. It is hosting at least 30 "Let's talk" conversations with groups of eight to 12 people, plus it will survey donors who have provided email addresses.

Those three finalists for areas of concern are:
•ALICE households.
•Single-parent households.
•Early childhood education.

These topics were chosen out of several areas in which Lake County data differs from state or national averages. That's an indication that targeting dollars and efforts in any of these areas can have an impact. The single area of concern to to be chosen by July.

This is going to change the way money is allocated. Member agencies can't keep doing business as usual to keep receiving the same amount as before. They'll need to tailor existing programs or develop new ones aimed at addressing the area of concern on which LAUW will focus its efforts.

This is an approach that will sound familiar to anyone familiar with the Legacy Foundation's Neighborhood Spotlight program and similar efforts elsewhere. In fact, 47 percent of United Ways have already done something similar, although each United Way does things differently.

Hopefully, this will instill confidence in Lake Area United Way and result in additional donations so even more pressure can be put to bear on meeting urgent needs.

It's important to shake things up so root causes can be addressed. That's not to say symptoms will be ignored. But Lake County needs to see real progress, not just continued salve.