United Way of Grayson County, like a lot of nonprofits in the county, has undergone changes as the county’s population changes and grows.
Long-time Director and CEO David Cortinas left the agency at the end of 2017, succeeded by Stephanie Chandler in May 2018. Chandler had been with the agency for almost two years before she took the reins. Since then, she has added Community Investment Coordinator Olivia Lewis and Community Engagement Director Chele Wells to the team.
One thing that has not changed, however, is the commitment to focusing on community needs and helping those who work to meet those needs.
“Our credo is, ‘We surround our community’s most pressing issues and we are going to fight until we solve it’,” Chandler said. “Not just be on the front line doing — we are going to solve the problem.”
United Way of Grayson County is part of a coalition of charitable organizations that work together to pool efforts in fundraising and support. United Way partners with approved local agencies that fill needs in three crucial areas: health, financial sustainability and education. It operates through a one-year funding cycle that selects programs to give to after surveying the community on what it would like to see taken care of and having fundraisers in workplace environments.
Chandler said they now partner with Texoma Council of Governments on their community assessment “because it is as robust as it is.” That is one way, she said, to assure that local agencies aren’t repeating the same actions and wasting resources to get the same information.
According to Chandler, United Way of Grayson County is now considered an “evergreen United Way,” meaning they don’t have a set campaign period.
“The old model was that we just (campaigned) in the fall and it was like three months long,” she said. Now, they campaign year-round whenever a company or group wants them to make a presentation. Last year, they did 32 workplace campaigns. The agencies apply for funding in February and United Way makes allocations in the spring. Payments to the agencies then start in July.
Meals on Wheels Executive Director J. Greg Pittman said the organization will receive $35,000 from United Way this year, which will provide an additional 7,000 meals to area elderly in need. Habitat For Humanity of Grayson County’s Executive Director Laurie Mealy said their partnership with United Way has made a big difference to the organization dedicated to helping locals find quality, affordable housing.
“It is not a coincidence that Habitat began building homes and serving families in a more deliberate and goal-oriented way after that relationship was established,” Mealy said. “The majority of our homes have been built in the last 12 years.” Mealy said 24 out of 38 homes have been built since Habitat became a United Way partner agency, and 18 homes have had exterior repair.
The most recent funding cycle saw United Way give $650,000, divided among 22 agencies and supporting a total of 32 programs. Chandler said the majority of the money goes to educational programs and agencies helping with youth and education.
“We saw our biggest needs there,” she said.
Mental health is another big area. United Way of Grayson County has been particularly involved in the formation of the Texoma Behavioral Health Leadership Team.
“We helped form that from the very beginning and we serve on the executive committee,” Chandler said. “We helped move that mission forward, especially with our corporation making sure that the information is getting out there.”
Whether it is working to help the area get the most out of the census count or working to help put mental health needs at the forefront of everyone’s mind, United Way helps by putting human resources on the task. But they won’t be holding galas, 5K’s or other fundraising events to help put money behind those projects.
“Our goal is to never compete for money with our nonprofits. We don’t want sponsorship dollars. We aren’t having events or galas. We do workplace campaigns,” Chandler said. “Eighty-four percent of my donors work on the corporate floors of places like Tyson, Emerson, Caterpillar and from school districts.”
This year, United Way’s biggest campaign was with the Denison Independent School District.
“Their faculty and their staff raised $65,000 for this community,” she said. “That is mind blowing. But they believe in (United Way) and they buy it. They get it. They know what we do and why we do it.”
But not all the money United Way uses locally comes from local pockets. Chandler said UW of Grayson County’s Community Investment Coordinator Olivia Lewis has been instrumental in looking for and obtaining grants to help bring in additional dollars. As for how they divide that money among other agencies, Chandler said they try to make the process of applying for funding as easy as possible.
Mealy said that though the process has changed a number of times over the years, applying for United Way support is not difficult. In exchange for the work put into the application process, agencies get consistent funding that they can count on month after month, and support from United Way staff who strive to answer their questions. Mealy said gaining United Way approval is also a respected stamp of approval in the community and people know that “partner agencies have to submit financial information, regular reports, and audits.”
Chandler said no matter how many times an agency has been funded in the past, “everybody applies. There is no given just because you have always gotten funding before. Their financials are reviewed by a group of community volunteers who have expertise in finance.” Those volunteers make sure the nonprofits being considered pay their taxes and are legitimate 501(c)(3).
“The next step is that they get to apply for a program and then it goes through another totally different, group of community leaders,” Chandler said. That group decides if the nonprofit fits under one of the three crucial areas.
Then there is Allocation Day, where UW invites community members in to study those who have applied.
“We really try to focus on donors, because if you give us money you should be able to have some say in how it is spent,” she said.
Those volunteers get copies of the grant requests and the nonprofits then get to come in and make a presentation for the volunteers. Those volunteers make the decision on which programs get funded and which don’t. Those decisions are then sent to the board for their approval. At that point, Lewis steps in to monitor the agencies to make sure they do with the money what they said they would do. She makes site visits, gets reports on who the agencies are serving and in which areas, and on their results with the programs that United Way funds.
Though money is always needed, they also need volunteers. They are currently looking for volunteers for the upcoming census and for the point in time count held in January. Additionally, their community partners need volunteers. Habitat for Humanity, for example, always needs people to work on their houses. People who know they want to get involved in the community but don’t know where to start can always come to United Way and find a place to get involved. United Way knows which agencies and programs are needing people at which times of the year and can help people find the right fit.
Chandler was quick to add that United Way itself often has need for volunteers who can come in and stand with them to accomplish their missions. For example, United Way was nominated by Grayson County Judge Bill Magers to the county’s community response team. One of the crucial roles UW plays in any community is being prepared for a service emergency.
“We have designated funds for a crisis that we hold so if we need emergency services, be it counseling or anything, we have funds available to immediately disperse to our community partners,” Chandler said.
She said United Way of Grayson County’s biggest need is the community’s support. They need volunteers for their response team and also need people to show up to support their initiatives, like the point in me count and census count. Most of all, she said, they need support from the general public.
“We are a new team, all of us together. This is both their (Chele and Olivia) first year here with us. I just finished my first year as the CEO. I think we need support from the community,” Chandler said. “I think we need understanding. We need them to understand what we do and how we help everybody. We help everyone from senior citizens to babies and everyone in between.”