United Way Oxford’s evolutionary community impact journey

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A volunteer-driven process several years in-the-making with input from a wide range of individuals and organizations is leading United Way Oxford’s drive to serve the community more effectively.

“In addition to the complement of our ever-increasing body of volunteers including our board, there were so many people from throughout Oxford joining in the community conversations that have been ongoing now for the past three years,” said executive director Kelly Gilson.

“There has been much so much effort, work and time put into this process to craft a direction and develop a plan which will address the needs of the community. For almost two years we have been talking with people throughout the county – all demographics, listening to their life stories and aspirations.”

From these community conversations came valuable personal information about what individuals are seeking from their lives and what barriers stand in the way of achieving those goals.

“It wasn’t just the usual crowd,” Kelly added. “It wasn’t solely about agency professionals and stakeholders and those with whom we have been working with over the years. The majority were folks we had never met before, getting together for informal conversations in places like subsidized housing units, seniors centres and schools.”

For multi-tasking board member and Allocations Committee chairperson Cheryl Micacchi, it was precisely this kind of evolutionary journey combined with the organization’s ongoing desire to respond to the community that attracted her to United Way Oxford.

“It’s not just about money in and money out,” she said. “This is about listening and responding to the community. United Way possesses such a great deal of community knowledge and utilizes it in such an effective manner.

“Stories were shared and the organization is responding. During this process we were very deliberate in whom we talked with, making certain we heard from a wide spectrum of people, essentially all slices of life. This was a deep cross section of the populace with whom we engaged in order to find that sweet spot and ready us all for change.”

Along that journey Cheryl – a retired educator – found there were more similarities than differences shared by Oxford’s demographic sections. Conversations revealed common concerns that led to an important discovery.

“So many simply felt a sense of not belonging of not having a community,” she said. “There were varied reasons for this disconnect, regardless of what community we were talking about. For example, when a major retail store closed down in Woodstock, it meant a loss of community for a large group.

“Some might not consider a store as a community but to others, particularly seniors, it was. We brought in community experts with an in-depth knowledge of social issues and concerns. They helped guide our work. Their assistance combined with what people were telling us, helped us find that sweet spot.”

Both agree community has a different meaning for people. To some it could be an apartment building, a faith organization, school, workplace, neighborhood – varied but all with a sense of belonging, a foundation to all other aspects of life.

Kelly and Cheryl said there are specific issues that are being tackled intensively in ways that will make a real difference. With knowledge accrued from the research, community conversations and expert involvement, five specific areas to focus on were developed.

The key areas for United Way’s investments are:

1. Helping meet basic needs.

2. Strengthening employment readiness

3. Supporting mental health and reduce addictions.

4. Empower people.

5. Nurturing children and youth.

“Focus on these will result in positive and measurable differences,” said Kelly. “It will assist in bringing partners together for collective efforts. As improvements in these areas become evident, there will a ripple effect down the line. These strategies will evolve in time, show tangible results and ultimately help us build and strengthen the community.”

“Community impact means meaningful changes in people’s lives, being able to measure those changes and show progress. We have been doing that to some degree but this process will enhance our work. We can be better by learning more. Our board wanted to focus all our resources to achieve difference in fewer areas, rather than spreading out too broadly.”

Cheryl said a volunteer impact investment task force helped guide the framework for investing, showing how to open up funding, do the work and make the required impact – all of this a direct result of flexibility.

The executive director said opening up the process helps incorporate both those with current relationships and others with whom United Way Oxford has never worked. Certain strategies will showcase new partnerships and present new opportunities.

“Part of the expectation as we make funding decisions is the ability to monitor indicators and outcomes,” Kelly said. Continually report back and meet to ensure we’re on the right track and impact is being felt in the right places. It is a relationship with a lot of back and forth, demonstrating we’re all heading in the right direction. It’s all about our responsibility and stewardship.”

Cheryl said community conversations will be revisited regularly so they can be certain the organization is reflecting what it has been told rather than acting on its own beliefs.

“Input from everyone involved is foundational,” she said. “The point was to draft what the community was telling us. It’s not an overnight change but it is so exciting and fulfilling to collaborate in such a fashion with these partners. Collective impact is the result.”

Kelly, now in her 13th year with United Way Oxford said this was the kind of thought process that captured her interest and heart from the outset, essentially doing work focusing on opportunities for people.

“This resonated with me back then and now we are here,” she said. “You always strive for excellence and improvement. We feel great responsibility and commitment to our community, to those who rely on our resources for support and to generous donors who help us in the process.

“Without them it’s simply impossible so we owe them our very best.”

Next week a look at the different faces, agencies both old and new, social services throughout Oxford and strategies in more depth.  


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