Many agencies came to a United Way meeting at some point last year, not knowing what to expect. We were told that things were changing, and that community impact in the "self sufficiency" goal was going to be the way forward.
TIMEOUT. I know from many people that I've talked to that the United Way (both nationally & locally), Erika Dvorske & their board has caught a bad rap for these changes. Regardless of how you feel about United Way, please hear me out for a moment, because I used to be extremely skeptical of United Way's in general. One of the first things I did when I moved to Lawrence was sit down with Erika and have quite a long conversation with her (it was more than 90 minutes, if I recall). I did all the research I could about the efficiency of our United Way, before I committed our organization to be a community partner of theirs. I was then, and still am now, impressed by their initiative and desire to see systematic changes in how services are delivered. Throwing money at problems do not make them go away. I know some of our locally favorite charities are getting funded differently, but let me assure you, everyone is being more efficient with the dollars that are being donated. This process, as I understand it (community impact), wasn't to inhibit an agency's ability to serve clients, but to empower them to do more, together. And to actually help make a difference long term, instead of sitting around and blaming the government, or the economy. At some point, we have to stop blaming everyone else and start taking some responsibility for what's happening in our world. Erika, her staff & her board have done an incredible job through a difficult transition...but I can promise you this. In five years when things are better and our economy is worse...the same folks that are speaking ill of these changes will be the same ones singing their praises.
GAME ON. Fast forward to early last fall. The entire self-sufficiency goal had a meeting and we were told that we needed to bring what we needed and were requesting from United Way to the next meeting. Self-Sufficiency is broken down into three different things: gainful employment, emergency services & affordable housing. We broke out into those subgroups at the next meeting, and I listened as myself, Kyle Roggenkamp from Ballard Center, and Lieutenant Matthew McCluer from the Salvation Army all asked for money to feed people in our community. It was a significant amount of money. To feed the same people.
TIMEOUT. In years past, if we would have been funded for those amounts, we would be using community dollars to do the same thing. Not a jab on any agency, or United Way for how things used to be, but it's not efficient. And it's not sustainable. The need is increasing. Resources are decreasing. The same story would be prevalent every year. Help us do more with less. No one ever bothered to wonder if there was a better way. We were just simply doing things the same way we always did and would always wonder why things didn't get better.
GAME ON. Kyle, Matt and I had this awkward moment, as we were around the table with several other folks from our community, who weren't requesting money for duplicative work, that we just knew that no matter how great we thought our programs were, we had a few choices: work together or selfishly go for the most money at whatever cost. Thankfully, these guys are wonderful. The clients they serve are more important than protecting "the way things have always been" at their organizations. They came to the table willing to talk, work together, and what has come out of those conversations has been something that, in my opinion, is unprecedented collaboration with community partners working together to have an indelible impact on the lives of clients. In conversations since then, we have worked through details, and taken an enormous amount of time and care to make sure that when our clients come in and want a better life, our silo doesn't just hand them a box of food and send them on their merry way.
I'll talk about more tomorrow the great things that are happening that you've hopefully heard about. You'll also hopefully hear their perspectives too, because I've invited them to write on the Just Food blog what this collective impact will have for all of our clients, and what it has meant to them personally.
My apologies for the long break in writing! With Christmas, and the New Year, and all of the exciting changes happening, this has unfortunately taken a back seat.
I remember one of my first meetings where I was sitting in a room with many agencies in Douglas County. I had been back in Lawrence for just a few months. And someone made a comment that I wholeheartedly disagreed with. They said,
"Why, every agency in Lawrence works well together, and there's no competition at all."
I bit my tongue so hard it almost bled. Those that know me know that I don't bite my tongue often, but I gave it a shot to see perhaps if there was something I was missing.
By nature, every agency has to be selfish. Our livelihoods are at stake, right? If we don't protect what we have and guard our mission closely, then maybe one day we will be deemed irrelevant and have to close.
If you didn't catch it, the statement I just made is HEAVILY toxic. And one that I wholeheartedly don't believe in. Why? Because this isn't about protecting an agency. No matter how much good an agency does, if there's someone else that is doing it better, and more cost-effectively, then by all means all power should be put behind that agency to focus on that.
Agencies in Lawrence have had to become all things to all people. There wasn't much here 20 years ago. So, agencies whose primary mission wasn't food, had to give food out, because no one else was doing it.
So, we have a ton of agencies in Lawrence doing a ton of good work, and much of it is not happening symbiotically. And the only reason it's not happening symbiotically is because people haven't sat down at the same table, willing to lose everything for the good of those that are investing, and those that they are serving.
I realize what I just wrote could be hard for many to digest. It's hard for me to digest. But, are we focusing on those that we serve and making things better for them? Or simply sustaining our organizations because they've always existed?
Three agencies came to the table willing to lose it all, to gain better service to clients, and selflessly made decisions that will forever alter the way that food distribution is done in Douglas County. We pickup there tomorrow.