United efforts to address Chattanoogans' biggest problems remain at the heart of community building

Photo contributed by United Way / United Way has been a part of Chattanooga's history since its founding in 1922, a familiar name in an ever-changing landscape.

Chattanoogans are no stranger to disaster. War, pandemics, floods, pollution and poverty riddle our history. Still, that suffering has long been the basis of some rare, and beautiful, bouts of true community.

For more than a century, the United Way of Greater Chattanooga, and its predecessors, have been at the center of community building, whether by bringing leaders together to understand and address local issues or by fundraising across the community to support those meeting the greatest needs.

Over the years, the organization's fundraising methods have followed national trends. At times local leaders were ahead of the pack, joining other cities to pioneer solutions to the most pressing dilemmas of the day. At other times, they followed while learning from others' mistakes.

Either way, United Way continues to evolve and spawn partnerships across the community in hopes of having real impact on the intractable problems facing cities like Chattanooga.

Even as the organization celebrates its longevity, there remains a long way to go with much work to do and many questions to ask. The biggest, according to United Way leaders: How can Chattanooga continue to be one of the worst places for a child to grow up poor and one of the most generous?


This year, United Way of Greater Chattanooga celebrates 100 years. Here, we trace its history back through the decades.

1887 - A Denver woman coordinates the first fundraising campaign to establish a community trust in Colorado in order to help organize local, interfaith charity efforts.

1914 - Adolph Ochs, the famed founder of the Chattanooga Times and the New York Times, starts the Neediest Cases Fund, today managed by the Times Free Press and the United Way, to raise money between Thanksgiving and New Years Day each year. Recipients request funds ranging from $260 to $500 to support needs like rent, utilities and car repairs.

After WWI started, this same year the community chest model, which relied on door-to-door solicitation, began rapidly spreading across the county as a mode of wartime fundraising.

photo Staff file photo / Clippings from local newspapers about the Spanish flu of 1918 are on file at the Chattanooga Public Library.

1922 - Following an epidemic of cholera, yellow fever and Spanish flu, a group of leaders, including Dr. Tom S. McCallie, establish the Chattanooga Community Chest, the precursor to the United Way of Greater Chattanooga to "strengthen and make effective the spirit of human helpfulness in Chattanooga; to afford its citizens an opportunity to contribute to human welfare work and to coordinate the work of benevolent and charitable institutions." At the time, less than 250 community chests existed in the U.S.

1945 - By the time WWII ended, almost 800 community chests had been created across the county. During WWII, health research charities like the American Cancer Society gained government support and began running separate and competing local fundraising campaigns which led to efforts to consolidate appeals for funding in the workplace.

photo Chattanooga News-Free Press photo by John Goforth / THIS 1952 PHOTO was a promotion for a Community Chest charity drive at Cities Service gas stations around Chattanooga. Pictured at the 1515 Broad Street location are, from left, T.M. Lasater, station operator; W.E. Brock Jr., then-president of the Community Chest; Bill Pettway, then-president of Pettway Oil Company; Ben Johnston, operator; and W.S. Keese Jr., then-chairman of Community Chest campaign.

1955 - The Chattanooga Community Chest and Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society establish the Dread Disease Fund to fight diseases impacting area citizens, which several years later became the Venture Fund, which awarded grants to address community needs as identified by local studies.

1956 - Workplace giving to United Funds and Community Chests exceeds corporate giving nationally.

1967 - Mrs. Ruth Street, Mrs. Alice Lupton and Mrs. Ruth S. Holmberg are the first women to join the board.

1968 - United Way of Greater Chattanooga becomes one of only a handful of organizations in the nation to receive and endowment.

1980 - The United Fund gets a new name: United Way of Greater Chattanooga. United Way organizations across the country solicit donations at workplaces that can be paid through automatic payroll deduction. The money is then used to support local nonprofit agencies.

photo Photo contributed by United Way / As a United Way board member and business and civic leader, Scott "Scotty" Probasco mustered support with gusto. His infectious spirit helped change lives for countless families who would never know him.

1982 - Scotty Probasco becomes chairman of the first "Loaned Executive Program," and leads executives released from their employers for a period of nine weeks to assist United Way volunteers and professionals in conducting the national campaign and promoting the agency throughout the community.

1988 - Mai Bell Hurley, the first woman to chair United Way's board, also becomes the first woman to chair the annual campaign, raising record levels of money.

photo Photo contributed by United Way / Mai Bell Hurley became the first woman to chair United Way's board and the annual campaign, pictured here with fellow board members, including Scott "Scotty" Probasco. They raised record levels and established community initiatives, including Success by 6 (later called Project Ready for School), the 211 Community Help Line and the Building Stable Lives program.

1990 - United Way of Greater Chattanooga held its first Day of Caring, and each year it continues to bring the community together to celebrate the volunteer spirit.

photo Staff file photo / United Way volunteers paint a home during United Way's Day of Caring in 2014. United Way of Greater Chattanooga held its first Day of Caring in 1990, and each year it continues to bring the community together to celebrate the volunteer spirit.

1997 - The first 211 service is created by the United Way of Atlanta to help people find local help for needs like shelter, tax preparation, after-school programs and rent assistance.

2000 - United Way America announces a strategy for local affiliates to not only fundraise, but also help set community priorities. Funding becomes tied to outcomes and is no longer a guarantee for nonprofits receiving United Way funds. Under this new model, local United Ways begin selecting local issues to fundraise for and make grants to nonprofits who committed to address them.

2018 - United Way of Greater Chattanooga announces plans to house "The Hub for Social Innovation," run by Venture Forward, formerly known as the Center for Nonprofits.

2022 - United Way of Greater Chattanooga shifts to a competitive funding model. Instead of funding the same 40 local partner nonprofits, United Way begins allowing any 501(c)(3) nonprofit within Hamilton, Marion or Sequatchie counties in Southeast Tennessee and Dade, Walker and Catoosa counties in North Georgia to apply for grants.