A better United Way

December 14, 2013
Author: Lee Benson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Deborah Bayle sure doesn’t look like a revolutionary. No beatnik hat. No wild-eyed ranting. No raving. In her well-dressed, conservative clothes and her soft-spoken manner, everything about her screams establishment.

And yet, it’s precisely because of her incessant demand for change that United Way of Salt Lake has undergone a radical transformation of enormous proportion over the past decade. The organization that was once perceived as a middleman in the charity-giving universe has become an integral, hands-on leader of social change.

The result is a model that is turning heads all across the national United Way system, casting Utah’s United Way of Salt Lake as a beacon of change and its president and CEO as the architect for that change. These days, Bayle is in high demand as both a national consultant and a local organizer.

Last month, she stopped long enough to be honored as the 2013 Executive of the Year at the Utah Philanthropy Day luncheon hosted by the Utah Nonprofits Association and Utah Society of Fund Raisers — and to sit down for a conversation with the Deseret News about Salt Lake’s cutting-edge United Way.

Deseret News: Thanks so much for talking with us. In a nutshell, could you describe how the United Way of Salt Lake is different today from when you took over as CEO in 1999?

Deborah Bayle: We have changed our organization from primarily one that raised money and distributed it out to worthy organizations to one that is all about community problem solving and social change.

DN: So United Way of Salt Lake has become a leader in the process rather than just dispensing funds?

DB: Correct. The old United Way was one where we brought money in and distributed it out. It was basically distribution that was a mile wide and an inch deep. It was difficult to get results when resources were spread so thinly. Today, our work is very targeted. We’re working in the toughest neighborhoods in our community to change the odds for kids and families and doing whatever it takes to help them be successful. We call it the cradle-to-career continuum, where we work with kids and their parents from the time they’re born and do, as I said, “Whatever it takes,” all the way along to make sure the kids graduate from high school, go on to some sort of post-secondary education and then get a job or a career where they can then be self-sustaining members of the community. This is all summed up in what we call Our Promise: “To change the odds so every child has the same chance to succeed in school and life.”

DN: How did you develop your new approach?

DB: The model that we use is called Collective Impact and it’s explained in detail in an article from 2011 in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, written by Mark Kramer and John Kania of FSG. That’s sort of the bible that we use for our work.

DN: And Salt Lake’s United Way has been a pioneer in this new approach?

DB: The work we do is very complicated and very complex and until you know what’s behind all of it, it’s hard for people to understand how different we are than we used to be. To try and change not just one kid’s life by what we call random acts of programming, but by bringing all different entities together to work on a common agenda and common goals through aligned programs and strategies within a neighborhood is really a lot for people to get their heads around. It’s hard to get people to listen because when you say, “We want to come and talk about United Way,” often they say, “I already know about United Way,” but you know — they really don’t. They’ll ask, “How much money did you raise last year?” The money we raise is important but it’s not the end result. The money gives us the resources we need to accomplish our goals and fund our mission. I don’t fault anybody who still thinks that way because that’s what United Way was for 50 years and it still is in many other communities. But here we’re a very different organization and we’re seeing some amazing results with the work we’re doing.

DN: Some specifics?

DB: Right now we’re working in six different communities: South Salt Lake, Kearns, West Valley City, Salt Lake City, Park City and Clearfield. We work with all the different players in those communities — the school districts, the school principals, teachers, the city government, the county government, church-based groups, the nonprofits, the service providers — to do what needs to be done. We bring everybody to the table to develop a common agenda. Our Promise Partnerships in each community work together to identify the issues in their communities and work together to develop lasting solutions. In most cases, the schools are where the work is centered. They are the gathering place. Our work is very education focused, because education is the foundation for change in the life of a child or a family.

We started piloting this work in 2007 and our most built-out cradle-to-career continuum right now is in South Salt Lake. We’re in every elementary school there, as well as the junior high and the high school. We’re working with the schools, the school district, the city, the police department and a lot of nonprofit partners and service providers. We know we can’t do this work alone. We work with dozens of partners who share our vision and are helping us fulfill our promise to change the odds.

Granite School District is one of those innovative partners. It has developed a very effective high-quality preschool program for low-income 3- and 4-year-olds that we’re part of, making sure families understand what’s available to them and what the benefits are in having their kids prepared to start kindergarten ready to learn, on par with their peers. Because so many are refugee families in the area, where most of the parents don’t speak any English and don’t understand our school system, one of our neighborhood centers is located in an apartment complex where refugees live. We’re not just providing kids with programs — everything is connected and intentional.

For example, the curriculum they’re learning in school is tied to what they’re learning in the after-school program. We know which kids aren’t reading on grade level, which kids need to be immunized so they can go to school; we know which parents aren’t coming to parent-teacher conferences. To improve that, we offer interpreters and transportation. A couple of great outcomes that we’ve seen are at Granite Park Junior High. There, we’ve seen scores almost double as far as the percentage of kids who are reading and doing math on grade level. We’ve seen the incidence of juvenile crime between the hours of 3 and 6 in the afternoon — which is the highest time of crime for kids — decrease by 76 percent because these kids now have somewhere to go after school. It’s structured, and they are actually learning what they need to learn from their school curriculum, so it’s all very interconnected and interrelated.

DN: United Way’s function, then, is to fit all the pieces together?

DB: The role United Way plays is what we call a backbone role. We have people on the ground in the community — we call them dot connectors or cat herders — to make sure that everybody comes together, that we are doing the outreach that it takes, that we’re meeting with the principals, the parents, the service providers, and making sure we’re on track and achieving the goals that we’ve established together. We do not provide services ourselves. We bring the partners together, see what services are needed, what the gaps are, and then find providers that can fill those gaps. We also ensure that data is collected and analyzed to make sure that we are reaching the right kids and their families and that we are achieving results. That’s all in addition, of course, to providing the financial resources to make it all happen.