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First Steps

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Mobilization Jumpstart

Mobilizing your community around early grade reading, as part of your larger strategy to boost educational outcomes for young people, is a win-win for United Ways. Galvanizing people and organizations around a specific community challenge can help United Ways raise visibility, credibility, engage donors year-round, connect donors more closely with your issues and engaging new supporters. Enlisting and enrolling people in a specific change effort gives them a chance to be part of the solution whether that’s through giving, advocating or volunteering and can accelerate the change United Ways want to make. 


What United Ways do well is recruit people with passion, expertise and resources to make a difference. Mobilizing United Ways put a core issue and solution strategies at the center of that undertaking.


To be clear: galvanizing a community around an issue requires a new way of working, both internally (cross-functional) and externally (with community partners). If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to examine United Way’s business model. Mobilization Jumpstart is an essential tool to understanding the United Way business model. It includes interviews with experts, resources and voices from the field.


Executing this business model effectively helps you add momentum to your strategic goals. You can advance your community's education, income and health goals by serving as a mobilizing force for lasting community change and you can drive revenue and resources to ensure long-term growth and sustainability. United Ways that are on the cutting edge of mobilization report deeper donor relationships, more campaign revenue and more momentum in making community change.


This toolkit builds on Mobilization Jumpstart and takes a deeper dive into developing and executing a community-wide “issues campaign” that elevates the issue, builds coalition and gets people and organizations involved in driving proven strategies to help young kids read.


Is the Issue Right For Me?

If you’re thinking about incorporating early grade reading into the work of your United Way or even taking it on as your priority cause, what are the factors that can help you decide? Here are five key questions to spark your thinking and fuel discussions back home, along with resources to support that process.


Question 1: Is the Issue a Critical One in your Community?

  • Is the high school dropout rate a major concern for your community and United Way? Early grade reading is a key indicator of high school graduation, so it can be an important strategic driver to the larger goal. You can look up your state and community’s high school dropout rate at
  • Are there schools that produce large numbers of dropouts in your community? Some 15 percent of America’s high schools produce more than 50 percent of our dropouts and close to 75 percent of minority dropouts. Their “feeder” middle and elementary schools are generally struggling just as much. Dr. Bob Balfanz at Johns Hopkins University, a United Way partner in education work, has mapped the country to identify the 5,000 high schools in question. Is your community listed? If so, those elementary schools need your help! Find out more at
  • Are there high numbers of African-American and Latino children in low-wage families in your community? Children of color and from low-wage families usually lag behind their white, middle-class counterparts in reading. Often, the schools they attend have fewer resources, less experienced teachers and a greater need for caring adults to volunteer as reading tutors in the classroom. Your impact staff or community partners may already have that socioeconomic data.
  • How well are kids in your state reading? Reading is assessed nationally, so you can find out how fourth graders scored last year in your state here. To find out how kids are doing locally, consider inviting the school superintendent to your next WLC meeting or work with United Way staff to set up a board briefing. Ask the superintendent what local data shows and to what that’s attributed. Expect a rich discussion which could lead to new strategies and actions.

Question 2: Where is Your United Way on Early Learning (and What’s Next)? 

  • Does your United Way already have a track record on early childhood education? Whether that’s a Born Learning campaign, a Dolly Parton Imagination Library book project, a Success By 6® initiative or something else, consider whether early grade reading could be the next phase of the work. Early childhood includes ages 0-8, so building literacy components like helping kids in kindergarten through third grade read better into your early childhood work aligns with that. In fact, many United Ways are looking at early grade reading as the next stage in scaling up their early childhood work.

Question 3: Has Your United Way Put a Stake in the Ground on Education? 

  • Has your United Way set a specific education goal? 
  • Setting a bold goal with community input can be the first external step in shaping community debate around education.
  • Is the board discussing strategies and opportunities for going deeper into education? Many United Ways are still early in the transition from a fundraising organization to an impact organization. If your United Way is looking for ways to take it to the next level, early grade reading could provide a “hook,” as an issue that provides fundraising, visibility and community engagement opportunities while impacting critical community conditions.
  • Does your United Way have a focused education impact initiative? If not, consider that an early grade reading pilot project might be the “baby step” the board is seeking. 
  • Is education your United Way’s #1 issue? If so, expanding into early grade reading may be a perfect opportunity for expanding that work into a critical focus area while engaging donors in a year-round strategy and boosting aligned volunteering and advocacy activities.

Question 4: Are Leaders Stepping Up? 

  • Is there a community-wide vision for education that includes lowering the dropout rate? Who is already working on this issue? Is there room for your United Way to play a leadership role or should you support current efforts? Are there gaps that need filling? Consider convening a meeting of agency heads and community leaders whose organizations serve young children and conduct a “mapping” exercise – who does what for kids at what age? – to help identify gaps. That spurs conversation about leaders working together in new ways.
  • Is there a community coalition already focused on the issue of literacy? If not, should there be? If there is, can your United Way add velocity to its efforts? Do some research and then reach out to those leaders to find out what’s happening and how you could help.
  • Have there been community conversations about the issue of early grade reading? Hosting a community conversation can help a community get clearer on its assets, challenges and resources and can help United Way leaders forge new partnerships to make change. Convening conversations about early grade reading with stakeholders whose voices are often overlooked like parents, students and teachers might be a good way for your United Way to play a leading/convening role. 

Question 5: Does Your Community Need a Positive Campaign for Change? 

During these economic times, people need a hopeful, uplifting cause to rally around. Problems matter, but research shows that most people want to invest energy, time and resources into solutions that work. United Way is an organization that recruits people with passion, expertise and resources to get things done. Might early grade reading be the positive note your United Way can sound?


Children Lying on the Ground in Front of Green Shelves