June 2016: Nonprofits Today

Forging a partnership to help our needy

Bob Gorman

Bob Gorman

In the 1960s a colleague once made this observation about then-Congressman Gerald Ford: If Ford were sitting on a park bench eating his lunch and saw a hungry kid sitting next to him, he would hand over his sandwich without giving the matter a second thought. Ford, the colleague contended, would then return to the halls of Congress and — without a second thought — vote against funding for the national public school lunch program.
That sounds pretty much like the 38th president of the United States, who once said, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”

The balance between individual philanthropy (helping the neighbor we know) and creating government edicts (helping anyone who fills out the right paperwork) is under greater strain than ever. It’s a financial balance our nonprofit world works to navigate every day.

“Volunteer, Advocate, Give” is the three-word mantra of the United Way, and this is the annual time of the year where that mantra can be seen in action.

For three weeks in May, some 50 volunteers in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties met with representatives of 37 nonprofits to review their grant applications to the United Way of NNY. We’ll announce those grants later in the year — and all that money will have come directly from generous donations made by individuals and corporations. No government money here!

But while those grants are the way most people see the United Way, it is not the entire story. The United Way and government are increasingly working together to help the needy.

A good example is the 211 information and referral phone number that the United Way brought to the north country last year. By calling that number or going to the website www.211cny.com anyone can access information on food pantries, and services for domestic violence, substance abuse, literacy and other programs available here.

Money for that program came in part from United Way chapters, but a major chunk was provided by New York State. The state’s major interest is two-fold: 1) Get non-emergency calls to 911 moved to 211 promptly and 2) Ensure that every county has a go-to number for the public in the event of a flood or other natural disaster.

More recently our New York United Way chapters joined others in lobbying state government to produce $25 million in grants to help cities retool how they address poverty. From that pot, $1 million will be coming to Watertown later this year.

Meanwhile, the United Way is working to better understand those citizens who daily walk a line between self-sufficiency and welfare.

With funding from Key Bank and United Way chapters around the state, a major study will be launched later this year to outline the full scale of New York’s “working poor,” so that our state leaders can better understand the challenges this population is facing.

The program is known as ALICE – “asset limited, income constrained, employed.” These neighbors are everywhere — at fast food restaurants, box stores and seasonal jobs in construction and along the river. They are critical to the service industry of any community, but they are often unable to afford all the basic necessities of housing, food, child care, health care and transportation

The stated goal for ALICE is this: Through a series of new, standardized measurements, United Way is quantifying the size of the workforce in each state that is struggling financially, and the reasons why. These measurements provide a broader picture of financial insecurity than traditional federal poverty guidelines.

John Bernardi, the executive director of the United Way of the Adirondacks in Plattsburgh, puts it this way:

“Getting a flat tire is a pain in the neck for you and me, but potentially life changing for a family living on the edge of a cliff. You and I are not going to lose our job or have to use our rent money to fix the problem, but thousands of people live on that edge every day. One small event can have a domino effect resulting in very negative results.”

Creating more stats doesn’t sound very exotic, but Bernardi says the goal is to eventually “redirect public and private resources to provide support to working families, increasing their chance for success and encouraging employment and independence from public assistance.”

The challenges in the north country are mounting. The closing of Metro Paper in Carthage, Climax Manufacturing in Lowville, and the uncertain future of Alcoa in Massena add to the strain. And increasing the statewide minimum wage may sound like a great idea, but not if it means that fewer jobs — with benefits — can be found locally.

The ALICE project will help us understand the depth of the problem and potentially guide our state to making better funding decisions for communities and nonprofits that help the working poor.

For some, greater government action will always be the answer. But if as individuals we are not willing to occasionally share our sandwiches with those in need, all the government activity in the world won’t matter.

Robert D. Gorman is president and CEO of United Way of Northern New York. Contact him at bgorman@unitedway-nny.org or 788-5631. His column appears every other month in NNY Business.