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Q & A with Mack Koonce, CEO UWGT

UWGT’s goal is to be a catalyst for long term solutions as we address the short-term needs of our community.  So, we continue to meet basic needs for healthcare, food, housing and safety for the most vulnerable people in our area, but we are also mobilizing the community effort to create better pathways for low-income families and children toward more secure, sustainable life situations.  To do that, are transforming our role from being an annual funder into being a partner, convener, and investor for long term solutions.

In this Q&A, Mack Koonce, CEO, talks about UWGT’s transformation as catalyst for change.

What is UWGT’s approach to change?

We believe strongly that sustainable change only comes by taking a collaborative, two generational approach to helping more caregivers succeed and more children achieve educational success at an early age.  That means working with both kids and their caregivers to put the whole family on stable footing and create sustainable pathways. It’s not enough to help kids in school if they don’t have a stable home or food on the table.  You have to deal with the challenges faced by the entire family.  UWGT is delighted to be part of a national network which is dedicated to successfully using a two-generation approach to create greater economic and social mobility.

How do we do that? Through collaboration and innovation – the cornerstones of sustainable change.  We bring together multiple agencies in collaborative partnerships that put the family at the center of their efforts, works to understand all their needs, and focuses the expertise of those multiple agency partners to move that family into a stable life situation.  It’s the difference between giving someone the food they need for a week, and getting the family back on their feet by giving them food but also a safe home, helping adults find a job, offering educational support for the kids, and transportation to job and school.  By changing the current circumstances of children and their families, we can dramatically increase success rates, changing generations to come.

Innovation is a key element of collaboration – creating new ways to engage, work together, and find better solutions to community problems. Igniting entrepreneurial thinking can develop new perspectives on old problems, which leads to some very creative solutions.

What is UWGT’s role in making this happen?

You can think about what we do as 1) supporting collaborative work with the family at the center; 2) fostering innovative problem-solving; 3) creating solutions-oriented dialogue and engagement; and 4) mobilizing and investing financial resources in support of these problem-solving efforts.

Our “Changing Generations” focus enables us to be a catalyst for collaboration. Currently, our funding supports 24 collaborative partnerships that help kids grow up educated and healthy, and living in stable households.  Focused on families with children, these collaborative partnerships provide services for health, education, economic security and family support.

We are also a catalyst for innovative problem solving through our Innovate United initiatives – including a kind of “Shark Tank” that offers funding for innovative, scalable ideas that tackle problems like childhood hunger.  We engage businesses in accelerator sessions as part of that Challenge, where they offer mentoring and expert guidance to agencies and entrepreneurs who develop new ideas for solving a particular problem. In turn, these creative problem-solving activities allow individuals to get involved more deeply in understanding community challenges and apply their expertise directly toward solutions. Eaton, for example, has been a great partner, diving deep with two of our agencies to tackle specific issues they face in childhood literacy and opportunities for young people aging out of foster care.

For a business, there’s nothing like standing in the shoes of an agency partner to better understand the needs of our community.  For an agency or entrepreneur, there’s nothing better than to have access to experts who can help develop innovative, concrete solutions. It’s empowering for everyone.

Fundamentally, if we want to develop effective, long-term solutions with a deeper impact and community benefit, we need to engage people in more of these powerful, thought-provoking conversations in our community.  United Way can play a key role in leading that dialogue and encouraging people to act.

Do you have evidence that your collaborative approach is working?

We’ve just finished the first year of funding our 24 collaborative partnerships. We’re still analyzing success measures, but many of our agency partners tell us they have benefited greatly from learning to work more closely together.  In a normal day, many agencies focus on delivering much-needed services to their clients, and refer those clients to other agencies if they need other kinds of help. This puts the burden on the client to find their way through a complex web of organizations and processes to get the various kinds of help they need.

We take a different approach, building cross-agency teams that together focus on meeting the many needs of a family.  Instead of being referred by one agency to others, these families have access to a coordinated effort to help them find homes, jobs, improve their children’s school performance, and put regular meals on the table.  It’s a new way of working that requires developing new leadership and teamwork skills, but it benefits both the collaborative partner agencies and the families they serve.

What are your biggest challenges?

Our challenges are helping the community be aware of and engaged in these hidden issues, and to mobilize sufficient resources, especially funding, to be a catalyst for real community-level change.  We need people to understand the importance and impact of this bold, collaborative approach to moving families out of poverty, and to encourage their support of our “Changing Generations” and Innovate United funds that make our work possible.  Tied up in that challenge is also getting people to realize that in this seemingly prosperous community, 200,000 people, 60,000 of whom are children, live in poverty.  It really will take the community coming together to shift that reality.

UWGT is no longer an umbrella agency that shows up once a year to take in funds and share them back out to individual agency programs. We must help people understand the power of working in a family-centric, solutions-oriented manner. It is the united way of coming together to positively affect change in the Triangle.  We are focused on year-round engagement and dialogue, and use our funding to build collaborations and support innovation and engagement opportunities that create real, long-term, sustainable change.

It’s campaign season.  Why should people donate to United Way versus their favorite charity?

When you give to United Way, you invest in long-term, collaborative, innovative solutions. Contributions to our “Changing Generations” Fund and our Innovate United Fund are what allow us to build the collaborative partnerships and generate the new ideas we need to truly fight poverty in our area.  For example, United Way is the only source of funding for our More Than A Roof collaborative, which helps some of the 800 families who live in hotels in Wake County move into permanent housing.

Because of our broad reach across four counties and a hundred agencies, UWGT is best positioned to create partnerships, foster engagements, help build agency capacity, and facilitate the dialogue that draws us closer together as a community.  We are stronger together than we are alone, and by working together, we can make the Triangle region an area where everyone can be proud to live and work.