United Way of San Diego County: Beyond Corporate Giving

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

This is one in a series of profiles highlighting the work of our longtime members to commemorate the 40th anniversary of San Diego Grantmakers' founding in 1976.

Many people are aware of United Way through its very successful workplace giving campaigns where, through their employer, people can donate to their charities of choice. However, the traditional model of the United Way as a volunteer and donation clearinghouse just scratches the surface of the important work they do to improve lives in communities across the nation – and right here in San Diego.

This is one in a series of profiles highlighting the work of our longtime members to commemorate the 40th anniversary of San Diego Grantmakers' founding in 1976.

Many people are aware of United Way through its very successful workplace giving campaigns where, through their employer, people can donate to their charities of choice. However, the traditional model of the United Way as a volunteer and donation clearinghouse just scratches the surface of the important work they do to improve lives in communities across the nation – and right here in San Diego.

Making a Difference for the Children of San Diego

For the last 96 years, United Way of San Diego County has worked to change the odds for San Diego’s children. This is done by empowering them to succeed in school and later in life through a focus on education and family stability. 

According to Michele Predko, VP, Marketing & Brand Strategy at United Way of San Diego County, United Way worked with the San Diego community to identify key problem areas and look for solutions. They realized the best way to improve the future of San Diego County for everyone was through education, and they decided the most effective way to accomplish this was by influencing the three major education milestones: Kindergarten readiness, early grade literacy, and high school graduation rates. 

“The work we do with children and families before, during, and outside of school helps them establish a strong foundation for being contributing members of the San Diego community as they go on to college or their chosen career,” said Michele.

Partnering for a Better Future in San Diego

In the last fiscal year alone, the local United Way has impacted nearly 120,000 individual children and families. The nonprofit’s Chief Development Officer Valin Brown attributes this success to the organization’s highly collaborative “smarter philanthropy model.” 

“We don’t work in silos,” continues Valin. “Instead, we work together with partner organizations to address these three educational milestones. We move the needle on student success because we strategically partner with a host of agencies, schools, and parents.”

Valin adds that United Way tailors its outreach by neighborhood, going into individual communities within San Diego, figuring out what families and children in that area need, and working with local organizations to accomplish shared goals. 

For instance, to combat chronic absenteeism in schools in one San Diego neighborhood, United Way partners with interns from local universities to identify barriers families are facing that make it challenging to consistently send their children to school. Some of these issues are housing and transportation related while others involve available access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food.  Once the problems are identified, families are connected with local resources to solve some of these root issues. 

Another example of organizations coming together to solve community issues is United Way’s method of tackling of early grade literacy through their annual “Day of Action.” According to Michele, research shows that kids who read at least a dozen books over the summer are better prepared to hit reading readiness milestones when school starts again in the fall. 

For the last five years, United Way has worked to collect and distribute books at a local elementary school or non-profit partner locations. Every year they partner with community organizations to accomplish this, such as a local library or, in 2016, SAY San Diego. The summer reading celebration this year included a block party, fun run, and other celebrations of kids, families and literacy. The result is more than 120,000 books distributed to children and thousands of happy summer readers—one step in the right direction to help bolster early grade literacy.

Building Positive Experiences in the Community

United Way’s literacy-combatting work reached new heights recently with their “Readers in the Heights” summer camp. In this unique pilot program, 50 kids in Kindergarten through third grade came together from three housing communities in City Heights to enjoy such activities as a private tour of the San Diego Police Department Mid-City Division, field trips to the library, and school supply shopping. This effort provided students with unique, interesting experiences learning outside the classroom.  Additionally, about 400 books were distributed as part of the camp. 

“Part of what we do with Readers in the Heights is to change the narrative for this neighborhood and build positive community relationships with libraries, police officers and others. It is proof that we really are better together,” says Michele. “There is a definite return on investment and we would like to see this program scale into other areas.” 

United Way and San Diego Grantmakers: A Similar Mission

United Way and San Diego Grantmakers (SDG) serve similar roles in the local funding community, with both organizations putting a strong emphasis on gathering together around key issues that matter to San Diego. 

“United Way is proud to be a partner of San Diego Grantmakers because of their collaborative spirit,” says Michele. “Like us, they work to gather organizations from various parts of the community – government, business, leadership – to figure out the problems plaguing San Diego and come up with solutions.” 

United Way Chief Impact Officer Shaina Gross adds, “Our partnership with San Diego Grantmakers allows us to learn about best practices and emerging trends from other grantmakers. This makes our work in the community more effective, efficient, and cutting-edge.” 

It’s Still About Volunteerism

At its core, though, United Way is still the volunteer-based organization the community has come to know and love. They know they can’t solve San Diego’s education issues without caring individuals willing to give their time. 

“We really want to mobilize the volunteers so they are excited about the work United Way is doing in the community,” says Michele. 

With so many ways to join the movement—through donations or online giving, shared expertise or an afternoon reading to kids—United Way offers myriad ways to make lasting change in our community.

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