Acooa Ellis

Acooa Ellis

Acooa Ellis, the newly appointed senior vice president of Community Impact at Greater Twin Cities United Way (GTCUW), sees community partnership as imperative to the organization’s efforts to make effective change as she leads the charge for a new community-building approach.

“We had conversations with 100 individuals who are our current nonprofit partners, donors, and independent subject matter experts, to get a sense for what they saw as the community’s most pressing needs. We synthesized that information and tested it  further in a survey. We distilled it down to a strategy for going forward. We are trying to reflect what we have heard from community,” said Ellis.

 Gaye Adams Massey, CEO of YWCA St. Paul, has the community presence and voice that was sought after by GTCUW for input in developing the organization’s new community building approach with an equity lens.

Massey represents thousands of women, men and children who are low income, people of color, primarily African-American and cross-generational that depend on services provided by YWCA St. Paul. Those services include housing and supportive services, youth development, employment and economic development and health and wellness. GTCUW funds 8 percent of revenue sources for YWCA St. Paul. This example of community partnership can provide reciprocal benefits for the funder and the grant recipients.

The themes of challenging issues voiced by community stakeholders in these conversations included income and economic disparities, educational disparities, homelessness or lack of access to safe affordable housing, untreated mental illness and racial disparities.

“Ultimately, the shift that is underway is moving us from prescriptive funding of programs to data informed, community-driven approaches to the work,” said Ellis. “That is something I am excited about. We’ll continue to vet organizations the way that we have in the past, the way that people have come to depend on us to do. And we are positioning ourselves as learners that will garner the wisdom of our nonprofit partners as well as incorporate the expertise of their clients through lived experience.”

GTCUW experienced a $6 million budget shortfall in 2016 that led to layoffs, cuts in grants for nonprofit organizations, and cuts to the family violence prevention and elementary school reading programs. Additionally, there was a decline in revenue in 2017 by $10 million attributed to a decline in workplace giving, and increase in donor advised funds. This change hit communities greatly impacted by disparities of health, employment, education and housing. In fall of 2017, GTCUW re-charted its course by engaging McKinsey & Company to develop its “Next 100 (year) Long Range Plan” a new strategic plan approved by the board in September 2017. Trent Blain, GTCUW Interim CEO and vice president of Marketing, said the long-range plan is “setting forth how our organization is going to transform itself to best meet the needs of the community. Which, by default, means we look at things that are really working well that we are going to continue to do, and then part of the plan was what are we going to do differently to continue to thrive and help the community.”

Ellis and her team will focus on fueling holistic community solutions around education, jobs and safety net that leverage all of United Way’s unique capabilities; and realigning community impact work to fully engage the voice of community. In approaching this work Ellis introduced a “Theory of Philanthropy” as a guide.

“If we are really thoughtfully investing our resources and fully leveraging the United Way in support of proven practices and promising strategies as well as strengthening the connective tissue of our community, that will disrupt inequity and the extent to which we can predict someone’s educational success, economic opportunity, and household stability, by their race, income or place,” said Ellis.

Massey appreciated the opportunity to be invited to share direct input for the new community building approach. She said transparency is key in letting nonprofits know what the United Way will fund so organizations know what to plan for.

“Nonprofits that are embedded in community and are serving community have knowledge about what the needs are and the funding should be more flexible, and the process for awarding it should be more transparent,” said Massey. “The way GTCUW partners with the nonprofit community, making improvement to those relationships is a positive thing. I would also say the focus on equity is really important. To be an affluent community as we are, and have the kind of racial disparities that we do is rally unacceptable. So, I am glad to see them focus on equity and I hope that it will guide their decision making around grants and other types of activities that get involved in. And I hope they look to community to inform those efforts because that will make it sustainable overtime.”

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