United Way San Luis Obispo County is sustaining its support

For more than a half-century, United Way of San Luis Obispo County has been a source of support for a host of agencies that help to improve the lives of county residents.

But with the recession, state budget cuts and fewer corporate and individual gifts, as well as competition from other nonprofits, the agency faces challenges at a time when the community needs it most.

Last year, total campaign revenue — including individual and corporate donations, general employee and state gifts — was a little more than $860,000, the lowest it has been since 2004-05.

Campaign revenue has been somewhat static for the past five years, agency officials said, hovering below the $1 million mark. That’s about $1 million under where the group would like it to be, said Rick London, chief executive officer.

Despite the downward trend in giving, the group dispersed $170,000 in Community Impact Fund grant awards this year. And while it awarded only 35 percent of the requests received, the group’s leaders and key supporters said the agency continues to make a difference — especially given its shift in focus.

Years ago, the United Way relied largely on a model that collected money from employees, individuals and companies, then distributed it to agencies that asked for help.

In recent years, however, the organization has narrowed its focus to education, financial stability and health in an effort to provide measurable results and the most direct community impact for donors’ dollars.

“The United Way is doing the work we believe has the greatest value at this time,” London said. “We’re getting the community to focus on the interconnectedness of education, income and health. No one else is cheerleading that focus.”

Grants and donations

The local United Way is an independent nonprofit organization, affiliated with United Way Worldwide. It encourages residents to give, advocate and volunteer. And, through financial and volunteer support, it addresses key health and human service concerns.

Its current primary goal is to increase support for its Community Impact Fund, a pool of individual, workplace and corporate gifts collected by the local agency to address specific community needs determined by volunteers and the board of directors.

The United Way awards thousands of dollars in grants to organizations aligned with its three core areas of education, financial stability and health.

For 2009-10, the agency distributed the $170,000 in awards to such groups as Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Luis Obispo County, Women’s Shelter Program of San Luis Obispo County and the Community Counseling Center, which provides counseling for people with low income and no insurance. The agency estimates that the funding has reached several thousand people directly and an untold amount indirectly.

The 2009-10 total compares to $195,000 in 2008-09 and more than $175,000 in 2007-08.

The agency also invests hundreds of thousands of dollars in local programs and services, and it manages contributions to local organizations that donors choose, such as the Red Cross. In the 2008-09 fiscal year, the United Way invested an additional $164,535 in local programs and services and managed more than $477,000 to organizations of its donors’ choice.

It takes time for perceptions to change, but people understand the agency’s approach when the United Way has an opportunity to share what it’s doing with others, said Charlene Rosales, chief operating officer.

“Do people know where their donations go and what kind of influence it is having?” Rosales said. “They do if they are contributing to this local fund and/or assisting in the allocations process.”

Meeting its goals

Despite its lean budget and limited staff, the United Way is spreading its message by engaging, inspiring and involving young people and by promoting wellness and financial independence.

Through the agency’s Youth Board, high school students countywide develop leadership skills and understanding of the nonprofit world. The 27 students — this year from San Luis Obispo High School, Atascadero High, Mission College Prep and Morro Bay High — serve as a board of directors, and at the end of the school year, they award three $1,000 grants to local health and human service groups that sponsor youth-related programs.

As well, the chapter partners with Junior Achievement, which teaches high school students about financial literacy and making good financial decisions.

Carla Berkefeld, a United Way volunteer for about 18 months, said the agency has held classes at San Luis Obispo High School but has plans to expand to other high schools in the county.

“I just see United Way and Junior Achievement as a great partnership,’’ she said. “They are two well established organizations, and of course, in these economic times, not only is it valuable information for these young adults, it’s a great partnership for two nonprofits trying to make it in this economy.”

On Thursday, United Way dedicated its latest Born to Learn Trail at Oceano Elementary School. The trail features 10 bilingual stations along the sidewalk surrounding the school and an interactive series of outdoor games that encourage exploration. The agency’s first trail was installed at Mitchell Park in San Luis Obispo in August 2008.

Toward its goal of improving the community’s health, the agency supports Beginnings of San Luis Obispo County, an initiative that teaches about the effects of alcohol, tobacco and drugs on unborn children. United Way also partners with FamilyWize, a program that reduces the cost of prescription medicines for local residents. The program has saved county residents more than $297,000.

A strong foundation

While United Way supports the community, it’s the people behind the scenes who keep the organization moving forward, officials say.

Six employees toil in a 1,000-square-foot office in the basement of a building on Morro Street, sending mailings and publishing a monthly e-newsletter, public service announcements and Web content, including United Way’s most recent “Give $10, Ask 10” campaign on its Web site. The campaign encourages people to give $10 to the organization and ask 10 of their friends to do the same. It’s the agency’s first “Give $10” campaign, so it’s not sure what to expect. But the hope is that it will help raise an additional $160,000 more than last year’s Community Impact Fund.

United Way also relies on an army of volunteers who serve as the agency’s voice, promoting its donor campaigns, facilitating its programs and reading its many requests for funding from local nonprofits.

Bob Neumann, former San Luis Obispo fire chief and a volunteer for the past four years, said he believes in United Way’s approach of not just giving people fish to eat for a day, as the old adage goes, but rather in teaching people how to fish so they can eat for a lifetime.

“We’re trying to reach in and get to the root cause of the problems and nip them in the bud before they become really dramatic,” he said.

Kitch Barnicle, a United Way volunteer since 2006, said her work reviewing grant applications has given her a clearer understanding of the struggles local families face every day.

“Being able to review proposals and see the direct services provided gives you a better appreciation for what my neighbors and community members are going through,’’ Barnicle said.

The future of United Way is bright, she said, because of its efforts to build a better community for everyone.

“I know these are tough times,’’ she said. “But there is strong community support. All of us are hoping things will turn around, and that will help United Way and all the nonprofits they work with.”

Rosales said United Way’s renewed focus on education, income and health is helping it to “advance the common good.”

“This is essential if there is ever to be long-lasting change that prevents problems from happening in the first place,’’ she said. “We can’t think of anything more important for the future of San Luis Obispo County as we head into the next decade.”