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Nonprofits: United Way will halt donations during reorganization

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Significant changes are coming to the Georgetown County United Way, according to CEO Lucy Woodhouse.

The organization will alter everything from its philosophy of distributing money to the way it holds partner agencies accountable to the name itself. It will become the Black River United Way to include its partner Williamsburg County, which was added several years ago but never recognized in the name.

Woodhouse said the United Way board ordered an assessment a year ago using consultants hired with the help of the Bunnelle Foundation. “They didn’t like what they saw,” Woodhouse said, “from community perception to the reputation with partners and donors. The board said we’re going to do something about this.”

Pat Strickland retired as CEO, and directors hired Woodhouse this summer. She said board members were bothered that the United Way had failed to get traction in Williamsburg after the two counties merged operations. They agreed to change the organization’s name to Black River United Way last month. “It connects us,” Woodhouse said. “There are similarities with the counties, and there are differences.”

Woodhouse said she found that the United Way had not met its goals for the past five years but had been allocating money based on those goals by borrowing against the next year’s campaign income.

“Three weeks after being here,” she said, “I saw we had a big problem. Part of that was they had been making allocations off pledges. You can’t legally bind anyone to a pledge. The board decided we needed to allocate off cash in hand.”

To get the books in order, the board will suspend allocations to its 26 agencies and concentrate on raising money this year, Woodhouse said.

“Part of what we are doing is we are paying back all the allocations that were not made over the past few years because the money was not there,” she said. “They have been notified of that. They have been very supportive. They knew there were problems because they were not getting their checks on time. The Black River United Way commitment is to make good on all the promises made, but we are not going to do this any more.”

Woodhouse said it would take a year to get the cash to operate. The Bunnelle Foundation has offered to match new contributions dollar-for-dollar up to $100,000. “It’s a big change but a sound one for United Way to make,” she said, “so we are not making promises off pledges.”

Once the local United Way has its cash flow problem under control, it will begin demanding measured accountability from agencies it funds. “What we want to do is take our resources and focus them,” Woodhouse said. “Strong United Ways are seen as the leaders in change. They are the ones in the human services world that look up at everything going on and say this is something the community needs to address. What we are going to do is raise awareness of major community issues affecting the population as a whole.”

Woodhouse said the United Way would focus on three areas: income, education and health. Community impact teams will identify needs, and the United Way will request proposals for solutions. “We will still do emergency crisis funding: Salvation Army, Helping Hands,” Woodhouse said. “We want to start taking the 26 agencies we are funding with $300,000 and narrow it down a bit to move the needle. It’s going to be a process.”

Sampit Elementary School was the scene of a United Way experiment last summer with the Georgetown County School District to improve the reading levels of 31 below average third-graders. Twenty percent of third-graders in Georgetown County and 28 percent in Williamsburg County do not read at grade level.

“Their odds of graduating from high school plummet,” Woodhouse said. “Prisons are built based on that number. When the prison board tries to decide how many jail cells will be needed in 15 years, they look at third-grade reading levels. Why can’t we do something about that? We are a small enough community. Why can’t we get the whole community behind it to make sure every single third-grader is at grade level?”

Woodhouse said the school district provided classrooms and bus transportation. Community and church members helped feed the children at school and sent home backpacks of food on weekends. Parents got involved. Volunteers brought programs to the schools, and International Paper put on a golf tournament to help raise some of the $25,000 cash needed. The curriculum focused on science and literacy.

The students were troubled children with a history of acting up in class. They were bored because they couldn’t read, Woodhouse said.

“The numbers were phenomenal,” she said. “At the end of the program, all of them were reading at grade level or above. There were 300 people at graduation — for only 31 kids. What if we could do that in every school, in every after-school program? What if we made measurables that said you have to get here to keep getting funding?”

Georgetown County’s director of economic development, Brian Tucker, will replace Georgetown Police Chief Paul Gardner as chairman of the United Way board July 1. Tucker said he sees changing the culture of the United Way as a step forward for the two counties. “That’s one of the reasons I chose to go on the board when I did,” Tucker said. “Having that piece of our community working properly touches so many other places: the education system, the overall quality of life, even workforce and opportunity. We are going to hone in on those big, monstrous, gorilla-in-the-room issues.

“Having a successful United Way means you have a more functional community. From where I sit, that makes my job easier. When I recruit companies into this community they see No. 1 that this is a community that takes care of itself and is functional. It’s a big part of my reasoning for being there.”

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