Chattanooga's United Way dramatically changes how it serves the community

President and CEO Lesley Scearce speaks at the annual United Way of Greater Chattanooga Community Celebration on Tuesday, March 15, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Dr. Elaine Swafford, executive director of Chattanooga Girls' Leadership Academy, was the keynote speaker.
President and CEO Lesley Scearce speaks at the annual United Way of Greater Chattanooga Community Celebration on Tuesday, March 15, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Dr. Elaine Swafford, executive director of Chattanooga Girls' Leadership Academy, was the keynote speaker.

The United Way of Greater Chattanooga is on its way to becoming quite unrecognizable, literally and figuratively.

The near century-old institution, long associated with workplace fundraising drives, plans to remodel and open the first floor of its storied, brick building on Market Street to the public. The space - intended as a gathering place for problem solvers across neighborhoods and sectors - is not yet under construction but is being dubbed "The Hub for Social Innovation."


Contributions, gifts and grants2013: $7,559,3022014: $6,015,5982015: $5,751,3502016: $8,948,829Total Revenue*2013: $10,444,2782014: $10,043,7432015: $9,176,6822016: $10,035,017Source: United Way of Greater Chattanooga*The United Way used to count “pass through” money, or grant money that they helped facilitate but weren’t administering, but those dollars stop being counted toward revenue in 2015.

The organization is also announcing dramatic changes to the way it interfaces with the community. It's overhauling its fundraising and giving, and introducing a new focus on community building and problem solving, with a strong emphasis on improving the area's abysmal economic mobility rates.

In the past, the same nonprofits received the same amount of money year in and out, but that allocation model is being replaced with a more competitive, flexible and streamlined process in which nonprofits "bring their best work and apply and request for funds."

"We are moving from being a community chest to being a community change agent," said United Way's Chief Executive Officer Lesley Scearce. "And this change, while transformational, rests on the foundation of a United Way that has always been willing to stretch and change toward the needs of the community."

Still, to ensure a smooth transition, the nonprofit agencies long supported by the United Way, such as Signal Centers, which receives $272,043 annually, were invited to help rewrite the organization's process for awarding funds.

"While changing funding structures always creates concern and anxiety for leaders, the formula of responding to requests for proposals and grant writing is familiar since many foundations utilize this method," said Signal Centers Chief Executive Officer Donna McConnico. "As United Way moves away from being a sustaining partner to a process asking for proposals to meet specific needs, Signal Centers is committing more resources to ensure sustainability of vital programs that promote family stability. I am confident that we will thrive in this new environment."

The United Way will support its strategic investments with three funds. An innovation fund will provide small, one-time grants to help nonprofits take risks, scale up or invest in their own capacity. An impact fund will provide multiyear grants focused on education, economic mobility and health and well-being, and a United Neighborhoods fund, which will roll out in 2020, will make five- to 10-year investments in efforts helping neighborhoods thrive.

Some of the change is in response to national trends. United Ways across the country are struggling to maintain their coffers as their traditional fundraising model continues to go out of vogue. Some have shuttered.

Local revenue jumped 9 percent between 2015 and 2016 to $10,035,017, but revenue is down nearly 4 percent compared to 2013, when it totaled $10,444,278. Some of that decline, according to Scearce, can be explained by accounting differences. The United Way used to count "pass-through" money, or grant money that they helped facilitate but weren't administering, but those dollars are no longer counted toward total revenue.

Local contributions, gifts and grants - the organization's main source of revenue - are up, significantly. They had fallen to $5,751,350 by 2015, but in 2016 local gifts spiked more than 50 percent. Totals for 2017 are still being audited. But in 2016, they totalled $8,948,829, which is a 13 percent jump from 2013.

The United Way's transformation began in the fall of 2015, when Scearce was hired by the organization's 75-member board to replace Eva Dillard, who was retiring after more than two decades at the helm. Scearce - the 36-year-old former head of the local youth development nonprofit On Point who was born and raised in Chattanooga - came to the job unafraid of disturbing the status quo. Fifty percent of the organization's staff, which now totals 43 is either new to the United Way or in a new position.

"The pace of change is something we all feel, and even demand. What we don't see as easily are the gaps change can leave in our community and the individuals who are left behind in the process," said Michael Mathis, an executive vice president at Regions Bank and United Way campaign chairman. "United Way sits at the intersection of business and community - the hub of a large wheel involving nonprofit expertise, resources, volunteer power and new ideas to make sure we've got answers to new questions and solutions to new challenges. That's why we've got to act now. United Way isn't waiting. They're changing and running after our communities' biggest problems."

Scearce's previous work taught her about fundraising, but more importantly, she said, it brought her into schools and into relationships with the families United Way dollars are meant to help.

And the lessons learned from those relationships are helping Scearce chart a course for the future of an organization that has to change to remain relevant, she said.

For one, organizations have spent too much time and money creating solutions that didn't work to problems they didn't understand because diverse voices weren't invited to the problem-solving tables.

Scearce said the United Way talked with 2,500 people throughout the strategy process and, at the end, the big thing that jumped out to her was a question: How can we be one of the worst places for a child to grow up poor and be one of the most generous?

Chattanooga's philanthropic community is full of kind, well-meaning people. In fact, the city ranks as one of the most generous in the country, she said.

"Every corner I turn we are having the same conversation about economic mobility and the gap. People are passionate and they want to see change, but at the end of the day everyone is stuck on how," she said.

And those big ideas, the hows that work, they won't come unless a lot of bridges are built, she added.

"We are not transforming the community in a sustainable way," said Scearce. "Why? Part of that is a lack of true collaboration and innovation as partners. We have to look beyond nonprofits. We must bring in the expertise, the lived experience, the best practices for all sectors of the community."

For example, United Way leadership had no idea that one of the things leaders in vulnerable neighborhoods were desperate for was data. It was a lesson learned after the organization partnered with the Chalmers Center - a local, faith-based nonprofit that trains churches internationally in poverty alleviation - to host a conference on how local churches could better respond to local poverty. Afterwards, one church realized that it was sending food all over the city when the biggest need was at an apartment complex on the same block.

Since that conference, one of the organizers, Eileen Rehberg, director of data analysis and strategy at United Way, has become a trusted ally of grass-roots community volunteers who previously had no relationship with the organization. Church workers and neighborhood association presidents can often be seen coming out of her office, map in hand, excited to return to their constituents with answers to their questions.

Cora Lanier, a Boyce Station resident, is often one of them.

Several years ago, when she and a few others started the Boyce Station Neighborhood Association, Lanier said she went to the United Way to see what support it could provide, but the help it offered at the Center for Nonprofits, now called Venture Forward, had a price tag the association couldn't afford.

"I tried to get in to see where we fit in. There wasn't anything for us," said Lanier. "Then we met Eileen."

Over the last year, Rheburg has helped Boyce Station residents understand Boyce Station. Where is blight? Who owns property? Where does opportunity exist? Where are the needs concentrated?

And the information is invaluable, said Lanier, as neighborhoods like hers, fearing the displacement and change that could come with growth and development, work to get more say in decisions that affect them.

"She would sit down and explain the data and how it looked in our area and helped us think through what we want to do, not leading us, just letting us know that the data drives the future," she said. "We have been attached at the hip since then. I didn't see that one coming. Eileen was refreshing. It is like there is a whole untapped resource for neighborhoods.

"We became woke," she added, laughing. "We saw there is something we need to do. We empowered [ourselves] with the knowledge."

Chattanooga Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod, who is also in a lot of meetings with Rehberg these days, said she has also been pleasantly surprised to find a new United Way.

"It took a shift in the leadership to get the mindset to change and for them to be open to a variety of things," she said.

Accessibility and openness is a huge priority of the coming overhaul, said Scearce.

The "Hub for Social Innovation," which is expected to be completed this year and will be run by Venture Forward, will physically open up the United Way to the city. Scearce envisions a space with all glass windows and large meeting spaces.

Facilitating new relationships is another priority, she said.

Right now the United Way has a business-to-business fundraising model, but Scearce said she wants to go beyond that to reach individuals in a personal way, in and out of the workplace.

Some can't give money. Some can give time. Others want to help address community problems, but aren't sure where they should invest their time or money. If the United Way can better understand the community of people willing to help, they can better help connect people and compound impact, she said. To that end, the United Way is among a group of 34 United Ways from across the country testing a new outreach method that sends a quiz and tailors a response email with involvement options based on the person's answer.

"We want to mobilize a caring community. United Way has access to 400 workplaces.This isn't about raising more money. If we can connect those people to something meaningful, relationships drive change. We believe that at our core," said Scearce.

Contact staff writer Joan Garrett McClane at or 423-757-6601.

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