Spokane County United Way Case Study

The Aspiration

The leadership and staff of Spokane County United Way (SCUW) wanted to become the kind of organization that not only mobilized people and groups across sectors to tackle problems collectively, but did so in a way that sustained change and strengthened the overall community.

The Challenge

When Tim Henkel became CEO in 2007, SCUW’s board felt they could do more than simply raise money and distribute it to other organizations. However, they also felt “stuck.” The organization was primarily seen as a transactional body that processed funds for the other organizations in the community facing dwindling resources. At issue was how could SCUW become more relevant to the community?


  • SCUW is no longer seen as just a funder of programs. They are now routinely invited to the table and often set the table themselves to convene stakeholders on educational issues.
  • Because of the work that SCUW implemented after partnering with the Harwood Institute and utilizing the Turning Outward approach:
    • For the first time, The Spokane Public School district has a strategic plan that places a premium on partnerships with community organizations to help at-risk youth. This is marked change in that traditionally, the school district developed plans and strategies through the lens of what needed to happen in the schools, as opposed to looking at the community surrounding the school and how kids were showing up at the door.
    • Graduation rates are on the rise. It was 60 percent in 2008 and was up to 77 percent in 2011.
    • As of 2013, at least 30 organizations had brought together 4,000 students and 900 volunteers as part of SCUW’s School-Community Partnership.
    • The Excelerate Success collective impact initiative has resulted in unprecedented alignment and coordination among organizations supporting children throughout the education continuum. 
  • SCUW is raising more money again. In 2012, they were able to increase donations by 5 percent – the highest amount since 2000. That same year they were able to fund nearly a half million dollars more in community investments than they had five years prior.

The Harwood Role

  • In 2009, with The Harwood Institute as lead partner SCUW joined a mobilization initiative led by United Way Worldwide. This was a two-year effort to support United Ways in transforming their business models with a focus on Turning Outward and learning to use the community as the reference point for strategies and action. It included training in the Turning Outward approach at a Public Innovators Lab and then two years of coaching support.
  • Up until this point, SCUW had been focusing on realigning their agency funding to become more relevant. But through this work, they realized that their entire lens on their role in community needed to shift. It wasn’t just about changing the programs they were funding, but engaging the entire community and working with partners to tackle problems. The funding became a means to end, not the end in and of itself.
  • Better understanding their role in community led SCUW to engage the community differently which over time has created a series of ripple effects that have strengthened the working norms and conditions in the community. It started with the school system asking SCUW to chair a school-community partnership – the success of which led to the school system making growing these partnerships central to their efforts. That work led to the Gates Foundation granting money to SCUW to support more collaborative action and also the launching of the Excelerate Success collective impact initiative.
  • The Turning Outward approach also helped SCUW recognize the importance of not only investing in good strategies around the issue of youth success but also being deliberate about building the conditions that would strengthen the community. Through their engagement with the community they saw, for example, that kids did not have the supportive relationships and community connections to succeed. So they agreed that future SCUW investments in youth success would have to directly address building these kinds of relationships.   

Actions Taken

  • Recognizing the need to have more impact and relevance, SCUW first decided to focus its program funding around the high school dropout challenge in Spokane’s urban core. There, nearly one in three kids didn’t graduate. To make this shift, SCUW had to engage its traditional agency partners, whose services spanned the spectrum. In most cases these groups had come to rely on and even expect United Way funding. SCUW chose to work with these groups over a four-year period to ensure that they understood the funding changes being made and could adequately prepare for them.
  • They agreed to hold funding levels constant at first and engage agency representatives on their shared aspirations for the community, the challenges in achieving those aspirations, and what it would take to move forward. The purpose, according to Henkel, was to get agency partners to uncover for themselves the fact that that status quo would not be sufficient to make progress.
  • SCUW replaced 17 of 45 programs with ones around youth success through this process.
  • Next, realizing they were still viewing their work through the lens of funding programs, SCUW decided to engage the entire community around the challenges they saw and what they thought needed to happen to help youth succeed. This included meeting with the school district’s “Community Cabinet” and setting up conversations in an underserved area of Spokane with the help of the school district’s alternative school principal.
  • Taking notice of their growing leadership role in this work, the school system asked SCUW to co-chair a School-Community Partnership where citizens and the school system came together to make joint decisions on how to best support kids. It led to a number of actions:
    • SCUW brokered an agreement between the Martin Luther King Center – a childcare program in a high poverty neighborhood – and the local public school that resulted in the center offering an afterschool program in a free space in the local school and in turn, the school offering 20 students to support it. It was a small start but a marked change in how business was traditionally done in the community.
    • The school district, seeing the success of the Partnership, developed a strategic plan that, for the first time, made partnerships with community organizations a key priority. SCUW and the district developed a grant that included hiring a United Way staff person to support these efforts.
    • The Partnership decided through this work to focus on supporting at-risk youth as they transitioned through middle school into high school. This included working with a group called Priority Spokane, which funded a comprehensive data system so that youth mentors would know when kids were most at-risk of dropping out and could use data on areas like retention and suspension rates to be more strategic in where they focused. Priority Spokane also began putting out a report card to track involvement in the program.
  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation took notice of this work and asked SCUW to work with them to reduce intergenerational poverty. SCUW received a four-year, $750,000 grant that they have coupled with other funding to spread collaborative action around addressing the root causes of this issue.
  • SCUW also agreed to take on the role as backbone organization for Excelerate Success, a collective impact effort that brings together a broad range of community partners with a shared community vision to prepare all children in the region for success in school and life.                      

Final Insights

The board of SCUW had to make an intentional decision to invest in the capacity of the organization to shift its approach and strengthen its impact in the community. This included a heavy financial and human capital investment in the mobilization initiative over two years. This took conversations with the board and them coming to the conclusion that they were “anxious about helping to create and be part of the change,” that needed to occur, according to Henkel.

Despite this understanding and support of changing, Henkel said actually taking the steps to change were challenging. Coming out of the initial Harwood training, they were asked to get out in the community and start asking some basic questions around shared aspirations. They were highly reluctant at first. “We walked away from the training just shaking our heads things, ‘How are we supposed to do this?’ We were probably the most reluctant of any group in the initiative.” So they built confidence in the approach by engaging their own staff at first to model the kinds of conversations they wanted to have in the community.