United Way must address new cultural mix in Bay Area

If we think about it, our community is undergoing great change. In recent years, the Jewish community has been tackling the changing needs of an aging population and a growing emigre population as well as a diminishing emphasis on crisis funding for Israel.

The general community is also facing crises. Think about the rise in teenage pregnancy, the increase in domestic violence, the loosening of the bonds of the so-called "traditional" American family.

Locally, our Jewish Community Federation dollars have been allocated in new and different ways — more for Jewish education, less for agencies in Israel; more for senior and emigre services at home, less for services abroad.

So why are we surprised when the United Way has revamped the grant-making process to meet the changing needs of the general community?

Those of us who have been closely involved with the United Way in the last five years have recognized that this central fund-raising and allocating agency had to respond to the cultural changes in the Bay Area. Festering social problems were not being addressed or treated by the system of entitlements that had grown up over the years.

In the midst of these changes, the United Way needed to use its community fund — made up of monies that are not designated for specific agencies — to make the greatest impact in addressing local needs. But in the last five years, those undesignated funds had shrunk by half, as more donors exercised the option of directing their gifts to a specific agency. And Jewish agencies benefited by those specific gifts, as did many other organizations that urged donors to name them as beneficiaries in their United Way contributions.

So it should come as no surprise that the undesignated funds available for allocation by United Way dropped to 43 percent of all gifts given to this year's campaign.

As a member of United Way's San Francisco County Leadership Board, I joined 500 volunteers from the five counties that comprise the United Way of the Bay Area in a soul-searching, in-depth process over the last several years. We considered a number of questions: How do we allocate the limited funds not already earmarked by their donors? How do we increase impact so that more donors will choose to contribute to the community fund? What criteria do we use? How do we determine the needs of the community? How do we respond to needs and priorities not being met by the current list of United Way member agencies?

Dozens of meetings later, we all agreed that we had to make drastic and painful changes in the time-worn process that we felt no longer responded to the new community landscape.

We opened the process by asking community agencies for letters of intent that would respond to the priorities set after dozens of consultations, focus groups and questionnaires. Volunteers met with these agencies; we explained as clearly as we could what the new rules would be. Frankly, some agencies did not appear to hear us and their requests were not funded. Then came the request for proposals. Again, meetings of explanation, again some agencies did not believe we meant what we said.

Finally, hundreds of volunteers spent hundreds of hours reviewing proposals requesting $90 million when we had only $20 million to distribute. There were so many worthy proposals, but the community fund was limited. Hard decisions had to be made and they were.

Now the United Way boards embark on a long process of review and evaluation. Programs will have to live up to their promises. Even though funding can be given for two, three or four years, a program will not be continued beyond the first year unless it demonstrates a significant impact on the problem it set out to solve.

United Way remains committed to use its limited community funds in the most effective way possible to meet the priorities of the whole community. This new open application process will give Jewish and other agencies the opportunity to participate. This is a process that the Jewish community should applaud, because if the whole community thrives, the Jewish community will thrive. And it is my contention that the Jewish community will continue to support the United Way because we care about the larger communities in which we live. Our commitment to tzedakah knows no ethnic boundaries.