Rowing Together in Madison and Dane County: Efforts to Improve Lives

–submitted by Andrea Kaminski


As Dane County continues to grow, approaching an estimated 600,000 population by 2040, the United Way of Dane County (UWDC) is working to ensure a high quality of life in which all residents thrive. Two UWDC leaders – Board Chair Anna Burish and President & CEO Renee Moe – updated Rotarians on current challenges facing our community and strategies for addressing them. Past UWDC Board Chair Rich Lynch described a “parallel effort” more sharply focused on housing and homelessness.

As the largest private funder in Dane County, the UWDC in 2005 adopted its Agenda for Change as a way to look at the community holistically, identify specific needs and establish a coordinated philanthropic approach to addressing them. Burish noted that such change management requires the same steps in the philanthropic sector as it does in other areas: pinpoint the needs; propose strategies to solve the problems; identify the desired impact, or goal; set metrics by which to measure success.

UWDC works with approximately 100 nonprofits, many of which on their own do not have the capacity to do this kind of planning or the resources to collect the needed data. Their expertise is in providing services. With a coordinated approach to philanthropy, UWDC helps them carry out their programs in a manner that advances the shared goals while gathering the needed data to measure progress.

Moe said there are 64,000 people living in poverty in Dane County, including 12,000 children. In addition, there are challenges related to shifts in the economy and workforce, technology, demographics, race relations, gender relations and the changing framing of social issues. She noted that the population of people over age 65 is expected to grow 130 percent in the next decade. There are also shifts affecting philanthropy including declines in public funding, changes in tax law related to charitable giving, local business trends, and more choice in how people give, including crowdfunding and designated project support.

Moe believes the “best change happens when you take the best of what people have built over almost 100 years and move it forward.” Working with nonprofits, school districts and government, UWDC is identifying new ways to tackle old problems and boost its ability to shift and allocate resources to address change. For example, as a result of a successful recent program, every health care organization in the county is conducting early childhood screening starting at 6 months in an effort to ensure that all Dane County children are prepared to go to kindergarten. The screening data are being collected in Epic software, so we can measure the success of various interventions. With a relatively small investment, more kids are on track for learning.

Lynch explained that, while UWDC carries out its holistic Agenda for Change, a group of volunteer leaders have created an Economic Stability Council, with representatives of businesses, foundations and government agencies, to launch the parallel, intensive effort aimed at reducing homelessness.

If you missed our meeting this week, you can watch it on our club’s YouTube channel here.

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