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.

“That’s been my belief and the way I’ve attempted to run the organization almost from the moment that I got here. But we just keep getting better at it,” she says.

Jackson also hopes this will bring nonprofits together more regularly.

“We too frequently use the term, ‘Yes, we collaborate.’ Well, what does that mean? Are the people doing the work really coming into a room? Are you sharing best practices? Are you learning from each other?” she says. “And that doesn’t happen just ordinarily.”

Behind the change

The United Way of Central Ohio had already started down this path when it teamed up with John Kotter of Kotter International, an authority on leadership and change, in 2015.

As one of eight United Ways to work with Kotter and his team, Jackson says it changed the culture of the mature, hierarchal organization — and that has been an important piece to this transformation.

When you know you need to change, how do you change? First, the organization had to get at least 51 percent of the employees to vote that it needed to change — without scaring them.

Then, Jackson says you create what Kotter calls a dual operating system.

“There is the hierarchical one that I still lead, and then there’s one that you would almost think of it as a startup company,” she says.

This Guiding Coalition, which consists of 12 individuals who applied to become members, has already disrupted the status quo.

With its Pitch to Ditch Poverty, only advertised on social media, 12 entities submitted pitches for reducing poverty. Four finalists pitched at an event where attendees voted with tokens they bought. The winner received her token money, along with a micro-grant.

“That night, well over half of the people that were there we had never seen before,” Jackson says.

United Way of Central Ohio has gone from risk averse to taking calculated risks. It has become more nimble and willing to innovate.

“We have embraced that if you fail, you don’t give up. You learn from the failure and you move on,” Jackson says.

You must understand that everything you invest in won’t succeed, despite strict accountability standards, she says. You may not meet every goal, every time.

Another lesson for the 90-person organization is, even though you hire people for certain jobs, talent and leadership are everywhere.

“As I prepare to step out of the role of CEO, I am so proud that in this organization there are many, many more voices that are at the table, sharing and leading. I’m very excited about it,” Jackson says.