United Way of Central Ohio attacks poverty under its changed culture


United Way of Central Ohio has not only moved to a community impact model aimed at reducing poverty, it wants to attack the issue holistically.

President and CEO Janet E. Jackson, who plans to retire this year, saw the start to this approach as a board member back in the 1990s.

“The best word to take a look at our journey is focus — bringing more focus to what the work is and even what our investments are,” she says of the singular focus on reducing poverty.

United Way of Central Ohio used to invest in interrelated programs, which had positive results on poverty. But they didn’t address the entire household — and poverty rose and stayed high, even as the economy started to recover.

You can help a three-year-old be more prepared for kindergarten, but you can’t look at that child in isolation, Jackson says.

What’s going on with the family — the pregnant mother who can’t find a better job, the middle school sibling who has started acting out and the grandparent with health issues? What’s the quality of the housing? What other programs could that family benefit from?

The idea behind a care coordination network — which the board approved a $15 million investment for — is that the coordinator stays on until he or she sees the family on track to take a path out of poverty, she says.

“It’s good old-fashioned case management,” Jackson says. “It’s having really great social workers, because this is their job, this is the kind of thing that they do.”

It could be compared to what the welfare department used to be when caseworkers had small caseloads, she says.

To start, United Way of Central Ohio decided to put more resources into two Columbus neighborhoods, the South Side and South Linden.

On its way

In a few months the network got 1,600 people onto pathways, Jackson says. By just hiring a director and repurposing two staff members, United Way of Central Ohio did the rest of the work through its various partnerships.

Also, rather than dispersing allocations upfront, the organization is using pay for performance.

“Our partners will have to show those individuals who are on their pathways are meeting — and again it depends on what kind of pathway it is — their objectives before our partner provider will get paid,” she says. “I’m about getting results.”

The United Way of Central Ohio’s donors are demanding, as they should, accountability and ROI, Jackson says.