United Way of Kern County, a smaller United Way in a heavy agricultural region of California, has long sought to hold a position of genuine authority in the community – where they are a trusted leader, where they are seen as having the community’s best interests in mind, and where they have the credibility to mobilize partners to collectively address issues. In Bakersfield, none of this comes easy.
As an agricultural hub, Kern County is a major commercial producer of food for the country. Yet in this same county, food security is a major issue. There is a significant homeless population, and many are so financially unstable that they are often one paycheck away from being out of their homes.
UWKC has tried to tackle these challenges but progress has been slow. According to UWKC President and CEO Della Hodson, the community lacks a collective sense of urgency about addressing these challenges, a common understanding of how to address them, and historically, organizations have not worked together in significant ways.
UWKC itself has been challenged in that it has not been seen as a mobilizer of collection action but instead an organization that raises and distributes funding. Their focus has been on determining ways to step into the leadership vacuum and demonstrate that people and groups can come together, make a difference, and then elevate and shed light on the issues that need real attention.
- In their Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, they lost a major funder and a major partner, but because of responding to what they learned in the community and engaging volunteers to build their sense of connection, they are becoming the go-to place to volunteer and are increasing their volunteer numbers.
- Responding to what they learned from VITA volunteers has paid off: in that in one year, the number of processed returns were up an astounding 65 percent.
- Agencies in homelessness realized they need to shift how they work with this population and have begun making changes in their efforts to engage the homeless and work with them. This includes changing their outreach approach so that instead of setting up service lines for people to line up and move through a set of services provided by agencies, those individuals are now going into homeless communities and meeting residents where they are.
- UWKC’s board involvement and engagement have transformed. The board is now focused on whether they are achieving impact and not simply are they raising more money.
- Staff roles have been transformed. Engaging the community directly, using that knowledge to guide decision making, partnership development, and other competencies needed to effectively mobilize have become core for key staff.
The Harwood Role
- The Institute trained UWKC staff in the Turning Outward approach and have provided ongoing monthly coaching support.
- Through this work, UWKC recognized that their community was in what the Institute calls “The Waiting Place” – a stage of community life where norms do not exist for collective action. This led UWKC to make a critical choice not to announce new programs or goals, but to focus on engaging the community and building confidence that change could happen by focusing in on places where they already had a history of working.
- By connecting the aspirations of the community to how they delivered their VITA work, UWKC improved that program and the number of people supporting it. To do this they leveraged the Institute’s “Sweet Spot” concept of addressing issues and strengthening civic culture simultaneously.
- Shifting their lens on how to view homeless residents of the community – from recipients of services to individuals with aspirations and perspectives on the community – has been a game changer and has not only built the credibility of UWKC, but also shifted the habits of other partners.
- The Turning Outward approach has directly led to the board seeing its need to change its role in how it functions. The board regularly uses Harwood tools at meetings to get regrounded in what’s happening in the community and its implications for the organization’s work.
- UWKC did a series of community conversations to deeply understand people’s shared aspirations for the community, the challenges they see in achieving those aspirations, and what they think progress would look like. These conversations taught them that community members longed for a sense of connection and that many felt isolated.
- From these conversations, UWKC made changes in existing programs and initiatives so that they better addressed the shared aspirations and challenges everyday people in the community identified. This included their VITA program, their financial stability work, and their efforts around homelessness.
- In the VITA program, UWKC lost funding from the IRS, which in turn led a major partner in the community to walk away. According to Hodson, “They didn’t see the value of working with us if we couldn’t cut them a check.” This led UWKC to shift how they were engaging their volunteers in this program to work with them to better network them as a group and leverage their community knowledge to improve the program – from creating mobile income tax preparation sites to moving programs to places in the community where people saw a greater need.
- UWKC’s financial stability work is focused on asset building. They receive a grant from Assets for for Independence which defines assets as getting a new house, starting a new business, or higher education. According to Hodson, “These are not assets in our community. We’ve learned through our conversations that it’s things like getting people savings accounts they can get away from payday lenders, or putting together two months of rent so they can finally get out on their own.” So they are looking at ways to shift their asset building work to more directly reflect the way people define assets.
- They retooled their outreach to the homeless community by going into tent camps to directly engage homeless residents and to work with them directly as opposed to having them line up and move from table-to-table to seek services.
- UWCK also identified core staff and organizational competencies needed to engage and mobilize partners in the community and are assessing staff against those competencies to see if changes need to be made.
When faced with some critical decisions, the Turning Outward approach enabled staff at UWKC to choose alternate paths that have begun to shift their relationship with the community and build greater public will for shared action. This is significant in a community like Bakersfield where change has been stalled for some time.
First, they could have chosen to try to mobilize the entire the community around bold goals – an instinct of most organizations – but by recognizing they were in the Waiting Place, they chose instead to start small and work in places and on issues where they already had some traction. They recognized the need to demonstrate that change could happen.
Second, they made hard choices on partners – choices that organizations often won’t make. In their VITA work, they could have spent their time chasing partners that walked away but instead saw it as an opportunity to more effectively engage their remaining volunteers in a way that directly aligned to what they were learning through community engagement. The results are clear: they lost a major funder, a major partner, yet have become a beacon for volunteerism.