by Ryan Edwards, Sr. Impact Director Neighborhoods

United Way of Central Ohio is not new to working with and investing in Columbus neighborhoods.  Since 2009 our Community Impact platform has included a specific focus on working with neighborhoods to improve conditions for folks living in priority communities.

During this time, our participation in neighborhoods has largely been through the role of grant maker.  Making investments into programs that address issues connected to affordable housing, neighborhood safety, jobs, health, youth development, and resident capacity building.  While these were strong investments that achieved meaningful results, United Way and our many partners rarely had the opportunity to holistically assess and evaluate how our  collection of investments interact with each other to create meaningful outcomes for kids and families in neighborhoods.  Moving forward we will.

Our most recent strategic plan clearly states that our role is to fight poverty in central Ohio.  Our staff has answered that call.   Over the past few years we have  critically examined  how we invest valued  donor dollars into community strategies, and evaluated  if we were doing all we could to reduce poverty for families in this community .    Our conclusion: doing the same old thing will lead to the same old results – good but not great.  Unfortunately, poverty continues to rise in this community.  Because of this, we knew that a new, more effective approach to combat poverty is needed.  Our response was to create a new investment model that is more integrated, focuses on partnerships, identifies efficiencies in local service delivery, and seeks to break down systemic barriers for those in poverty.

Our model is guided by research from the Kirwan Institute at the Ohio State University.  The research illuminated what we all know, Place Matters.  Our zip codes are good  predictors of life expectancy, the life trajectory of our kids, our life time earning potential, likelihood of going to prison, risk of chronic disease, and many other quality of life indicators.  For community members living in low income zip codes the projections are bleak. The Kirwan research validated and further reinforced our commitment to place-based work.  Place Matters, and we aim is to change the odds for kids and families living in challenged neighborhoods.  But progress is not made by a singular organization.  It takes partners.

Moving forward we  have identified two communities to engage in our Neighborhood Partnerships work, South Linden, and the South Side.  In our Neighborhood Partnership communities we will certainly make strategic investments into high quality services, but have challenged ourselves to think beyond the role of grant maker.  What are the other ways our organization can make a positive impact in these communities?  We have a long history of bringing partners together, developing shared goals and accountabilities, leveraging partner efforts, and co-investing in meaningful solutions that drive positive outcomes for families.

Our experience in neighborhoods tells us that having someone play a convener and aligner role greatly increases the likelihood of success for a community improvement effort.  We believe we are in a position to lead in this way, it is a role we are meant to play, and are committed to leading collaborative efforts in both of our partner neighborhoods as we move forward.

As this work progresses we know the only way to create lasting improvement in our partner communities is to work authentically and equitably with residents who live in them.  We know there are limitations for institutions and organizations to create community change.   Real community change happens with the community and by the community.  That is why our Neighborhood Partnerships focuses so heavily on developing neighborhood leadership capacity, building community social fabric, and providing avenues for residents to mobilize and act.  We know that community members must be the co-authors of community solutions, because they will be the ones to own and steward the change that occurs.  Partnerships matter, and there are no partners more critical than those living in the communities we serve.

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