United Way hits right target – the enemies of childhood

The News TribuneOctober 29, 2013 

Some investments you make to improve your bank balance. Some you make to improve the world you live in.

United Way of Pierce County – now in the middle of its annual fund drive – is an improve-the-world investment. Under the leadership of soon-to-retire President Rick Allen, it has refined its focus with a clarity rare in similar organizations elsewhere.

Not long ago, United Way was passing the bulk of donors’ money on to more than 100 nonprofit groups involved in a broad spectrum of causes – hunger, homelessness, at-risk youth, domestic violence and just about every other social problem under the sun.

Donors can still earmark their money to any of those causes, and United Way is a superb way to do it. It operates with low overhead, relying heavily on volunteers, and it carefully vets the effectiveness of the nonprofits it supports.

But Allen and other United Way leaders have been increasingly targeting the root cause of most social problems: children getting a bad start in life. The organization now directs roughly three-quarters of its funding toward assisting distressed families, early learning, kindergarten readiness and measures designed to help disadvantaged students perform as well as their classmates before the fourth grade.

It would be nice if United Way were given enough money to simultaneously fund full-scale attacks on all the pathologies of society. It’s important that community groups work to assist every human being in the Pierce County.

But spread the peanut butter too thinly and you barely taste it. Try to spend limited dollars on everything, and you wind up making very little impact in the long run.

United Way’s sharp focus on young children is the best strategy for attacking all those other problems. The vast majority are in some way related to poverty. Poverty in turn is often related to failure in school and severe childhood trauma.

Research indicates that the mistreatment of very young children, or simply inept parenting, can permanently impair the wiring of their brains. And many studies suggest that children who aren’t reading at grade level by the end of the third grade are very likely to disconnect from school, and ultimately drop out or never continue on to vocational training or college. That’s almost a guarantee of poverty and a troubled adulthood.

United Way has received some very generous donations this year. The Franciscan Health System, for example, has raised $109,000, more than $25,000 over its goal. NuStar Energy – with only 11 employees – has raised more than $20,000.

But Pierce County has lost major supporters, such as Russell Investments and Rainier Pacific Bank. The Great Recession also hit United Way hard.

United Way’s heightened focus on young children and their families is a great reason for donors to step up their investments in a better community. For companies and employees who’ve been hanging back, it’s a great reason to start.

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