(Whitney Swander | Photo courtesy of United Way of Central Oregon)
Interim Leader Embraces Collaborative Ideas for Strengthening Communities
United Way of Central Oregon is looking at new ways of fulfilling its mission — to bring people together to improve lives for better, more resilient — under the stewardship of a transitional leader overseeing the next phase of the nonprofit’s evolution.
Interim Executive Director Whitney Swander, who has taken on the role after Ken Wilhelm’s retirement following a 34-year stint at the helm, is leading the organization’s shift, with a focus on reinventing United Way’s local business model and enhancing impact through an equity and social justice approach to tackling systemic issues.
As part of a global movement of over 1,800 local nonprofit fundraising affiliates, United Way of Central Oregon embodies the overall objective of improving outcomes in education, financial stability and health through what Swander terms “people-powered community philanthropy.”
Swander offered that the organization’s “primary source of funds continues to come from individual donors.” Many of the organization’s donors have contributed to the organization for decades.
She added, “Historically, we have developed strong relationships with businesses to connect employees directly with the mission of workplace giving. We also receive a number of corporate and business sponsorships and grants from local companies and we recognize our supporters in different ways.”
United Ways are known to take on pressing challenges through working with private, public and nonprofit partners. With a focus on mobilizing communities to build resilience, the United Way, locally, has been raising and allocating local funds to nonprofit causes in Central Oregon since 1953.
Originally centered around Deschutes County, a few years ago the organization expanded to also serve Crook County, Jefferson County and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to provide more of a regional scope.
The United Way awards funds to local and regional nonprofits through a series of grants. It administers a small grants program through its Community Impact program and partners with Deschutes County to administer the federal Emergency Food and Shelter Program. Program reporting indicates that some 26 percent of Central Oregonians benefit from programs or services it supports.
In 2021, United Way of Central Oregon awarded $245,000 in grants to 31 vetted local nonprofits that met local needs ranging from education and financial stability to addressing childhood trauma. “There is a lot of trust from the community and faith that we will invest in important community work, so as to provide good stewardship of fund and create tangible results.”
In continuing this cause, Swander’s vision includes strengthening the organization’s regional impact through building relationships and understanding the current community needs for collective action.
She said, “Central Oregon is a lot different today than it was even two or three years ago, and we have an opportunity to reimagine and reinvent who the United Way is in a way that’s responsive to what the area needs today.
“I think the future of the organization looks different than raising and distributing funds, and rather, will focus on raising awareness about issues, building capacity and sparking region-wide efforts that connect community members and local agencies, and mobilizes donors and businesses to invest in new ways.”
As part of a network of independent nonprofits that bring together people and organizations to focus on innovative solutions to local challenges, Swander says United Way of Central Oregon strive to go beyond a temporary fix by focusing on lasting, systemic change.
“Moving forward, we aim to be seen as more than just community fundraisers — though funding is really important! We want to leverage our brand recognition and trust to bringing together community leaders, government officials, other funders, nonprofits and community stakeholders, to collaborate and coordinate efforts to effectively address our most complicated social issues.”
As Central Oregonians increasingly face housing instability, food insecurity, childcare crises, mental health struggles and other challenges, the United Way believes there is an opportunity to bring new voice from those experiencing these challenges to inform our work to new businesses that have resources, technology and ideas about new approaches.
The United Way wants to do more than help individuals and families stay afloat, they want to nurture the conditions for prosperity. “This is a key shift,” Swander shared, “too often we focus on what’s lacking and we fail to see the sparks, innovations and positive things already happening. I hope the future of United Way of Central Oregon includes growing the exciting ways people across our region are already working to change from a surviving to thriving mindset!”
Prior to being named interim Executive Director, Swander started working with United Way’s Board of Directors earlier this year to explore a broader strategy expanding beyond community fundraising and grant-making.
She added, “The challenges of the region, and the world in general, are complex. Awarding grants annually spreading goodwill is an important part of our work with nonprofits but strategically we are looking to tackle long-term issues and get out and talk to leaders in the community about current needs.
“We are looking internally and externally and developing a dialogue with people out doing the work on what the future of the United Way may look like. We are actively assessing our role, value and the best way of working with the community. We also know that doing this work in partnership with people from different communities in Central Oregon, especially among those who experience marginalization, is non-negotiable. This is long-range work focused on relationship and trust building.”
She added, “We believe we have a role in raising awareness of challenges that exist in our region and to mobilizing new strategies through incubation and innovation. As the United Way, it is important for us to be present and show up to address needs in the community and as well as continuing the work of fundraising and grantmaking. We also have the capacity to do research and undertake needs assessments that can inform new ways of working.”
“We believe this type of approach can change long-term well-being, and help people live more stable and joyful lives in the region and beyond.”
“Central Oregon has grown and changed so much, and there are lots of opportunities for United Way to be a connecter to the community.” According to Swander, the region’s growth, along with economic changes over the last three years, has made it even more important to consider principles of equity and inclusion in the United Way’s transition.
She said, “The majority of issues that communities face in Central Oregon are longstanding and systemic. I believe that community building — getting to know the people doing the work, being in dialogue and creating solutions collaboratively with people impacted by our systems is essential to the next phase of the United Way.”
“I look forward to getting out into the community in the months ahead as the interim executive director. It’s easy to be disconnected from one another given the pace of life and the challenges we face.
Swander said the United Way of Central Oregon’s board of directors has formed a search committee to find a new permanent Executive Director with an appointment anticipated sometime in early 2023.