United Way Expands Its Role on Racial Equity Issues
Lou Harvin, veteran Twin Cities broadcaster, recorded a video for the local United Way called “Seen and Unseen Racism: Disrupting Systems for Change.” Greater Twin Cities United Way

United Way Expands Its Role on Racial Equity Issues

The nonprofit funder is supplementing its grantmaking with strong social justice advocacy.

The racial reckoning over George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody is shaping how a 105-year-old Twin Cities institution is doing business.

Long a funder of nonprofits that serve low-income residents, the Greater Twin Cities United Way is expanding its advocacy and leadership on issues of race.

“Equity and racial justice have been our focus for a number of years, with equity really leading our work,” John Wilgers, GTC United Way’s president and CEO, said this week in an interview with TCB. “But it’s going to be different now.”

John Wilgers, CEO of the Greater Twin Cities United Way

Wilgers is leveraging United Way’s partnerships with nonprofit, business and government leaders to press for systemic change to help communities of color.

“We acknowledge that there are great disparities that exist in our community,” Wilgers said. “The opportunity to be successful is not the same for people who are Black, people of color in our community.”

Wilgers, who became United Way’s top leader in 2019 after a lengthy business career with EY, explained that United Way has taken new steps toward achieving racial justice and more actions will be coming in the near future.

“What Covid did and what the social unrest did following the murder of George Floyd was really just pull the covers back on issues that we already were working on front and center,” he said.

In 2019, the local United Way announced $14 million in grant funding to 95 nonprofits “to disrupt inequity in the areas of educational success, household stability and economic opportunity for people experiencing poverty.”

While families of color and Twin Cities community leaders have been talking about economic and educational disparities for years, Wilgers said Floyd’s shocking death has focused attention on the issues from a much larger cross-section of citizens.

Movement for change

“What is now incumbent on us at United Way is to take this moment that we have—where people are seeing and appreciating these disparities like never before—and turn it into a movement to address these changes in our community,” Wilgers said.

“Unite to Fuel Change” is the theme being emphasized in United Way’s annual fundraising campaign, which was launched in September. In a key video being used in the campaign, United Way calls out the need to address “long-standing systemic racism” and asks supporters to join together to make a difference.

In a second video, veteran Twin Cities broadcaster Lou Harvin, who is Black, talks about the racism that he experienced in Minnesota. Harvin’s United Way video is entitled “Seen and Unseen Racism: Disrupting Systems for Change.”

In the days following Floyd’s death, rioting broke out in some neighborhoods and destroyed small and minority-owned businesses in North Minneapolis, along Lake Street in Minneapolis and on the University Avenue corridor in St. Paul. “We thought it was really important to support those businesses in their efforts to rebuild,” Wilgers said.

United Way joined with The Minneapolis Foundation and the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation to provide funding support. Within a few weeks, they raised $2.5 million for the Twin Cities Rebuild for the Future Fund and awarded grants to community-based nonprofits that had track records of working with businesses. The funding allowed businesses to get cash assistance and help in dealing with insurance, financial and legal aspects of starting over. That special fund ultimately grew to $3.3 million, and Wilgers said the final round of grants was awarded last week.

Inequities in the criminal justice system also are on United Way’s policy agenda. United Way is collaborating with The Minneapolis Foundation and the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation to get some traction on addressing this chronic problem.

On issues of bail, sentencing and supervised release, people of color often have faced different treatment compared with whites. “Longstanding, systemic issues really have that disparate effect on those populations,” Wilgers said.

“You will see us bringing more structure to that initiative, which will result in advocacy work at the Capitol in a couple of different areas around criminal justice,” Wilgers said. “In addition, United Way’s own advocacy program will definitely look at racial justice and racial inequities.”

United Way’s bolder approach

In September, United Way unveiled a new mission statement, which says, “We unite changemakers, advocate for social good and develop solutions to address the challenges no one can solve alone.”

The new language was an outgrowth of Wilgers’ desire to have a statement that more fully captured United Way’s work in the community. It was not a reaction to the major events of 2020, because the focus groups and planning process for a new statement began in 2019. Wilgers said that United Way is now using new messages to motivate more people to get involved in its work.

“You’ll see us being much more bold in our language,” he said. When the mission statement was revealed to the public, United Way said in a news release that it was focused on “dismantling disparities caused by systemic racism and oppression and creating a community where all people thrive regardless of income, race or place.”

Volunteer Chuck Putzer (left) and Fred Everson, an employee of the Amherst Wilder Foundation, prepare to make Meals on Wheels deliveries to older adults in St. Paul. Wilder is a grantee of United Way.

This new framing of United Way’s work is supported by its large board, Wilgers said. Many business leaders serve on the board, which Wilgers described as “active and engaged.”

Dorothy Bridges, a former bank CEO, is the current chair of the United Way board. Bridges is the first Black chair within the 15- to 20-year period that Wilgers said he’s been heavily involved with United Way.

Wilgers, who served in multiple United Way board roles before he became a staff member, said he and Bridges are working closely together during an incredibly busy year. “She is definitely having an impact on what we are doing,” Wilgers said. “She is a tremendous resource to me. She brings perspective and lived experience to that role that others couldn’t bring. So she is a very meaningful person to have in that role right now.”

Looking to 2021

This month, United Way is awarding $350,000 in grants to organizations working with public schools to address student needs, including technology and the internet as well as mental health support. The grants are targeted to St. Paul’s North End and the Phillips/Venture Village neighborhood in Minneapolis.

When it became clear that the core cities would be starting school virtually, Wilgers said it was a priority for United Way to help students who were struggling with remote learning.

Money for those education grants came from the Greater Twin Cities Covid-19 Response and Recovery Fund. About $2.4 million has been awarded from that special fund, including $800,00 in recent grants to United Way’s 95 nonprofit partners. Before Covid-19 appeared, those 95 grantees were receiving multi-year grants from United Way to address food, housing, jobs and other key needs.

The $800,000 in “stabilization grants” is targeted to help the nonprofits with revenue gaps, unexpected staffing costs and to buffer against fundraising losses.

During 2020, in addition to its traditional grantmaking activity, United Way administered the two special grantmaking funds—one related to Covid-19 and the other addressing business rebuilding following social unrest.

On a national basis, giving to United Way annual campaigns has been declining for several years, and the Twin Cities has been part of that trend. Wilgers did not reveal his lowered financial goal for the 2020 annual campaign, which is being conducted from September through December.

“Revenue is going to be challenging because we don’t know yet how workplace giving is going to be impacted by the economic environment,” Wilgers said. “With Covid and with the economy, potentially with the election, we are assuming that we will be revenue challenged for next year.”

The money that United Way raises at the end of 2020 will be used for grantmaking during 2021.

Because United Way has not yet filed its Form 990 with the IRS, Wilgers did not disclose total revenue or annual campaign figures for 2019.

For calendar 2018, United Way’s total revenue was $68.6 million, according to its 990 filing. That was down from $76.4 million for the prior year.

In addition to the annual campaign, United Way derives revenue from many other sources that include government grants, planned giving, and corporate and foundation gifts.

“We are really focused on diversifying those sources of revenue,” Wilgers said. “Our money doesn’t all come from workplace campaigns any longer.”

Beyond its financial capital used for grantmaking, United Way plans to deploy its reputational and social capital in 2021 to effect change.

The pandemic and social justice issues have created greater urgency for United Way’s work, Wilgers said. “It has been an opportunity for us to really work in community in a meaningful, motivating and rewarding way.”