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United Way Examples

Siblings painting
Son sitting on father's neck and flying a kite
Baby girl sitting in a child seat and mother laughing
Family reading a book

From Community Conversation to Volunteer Initiative

An example of how the listening and packaging came together to support engagement can be found in Toledo. In the summer of 2011, the United Way of Greater Toledo convened its first Education Town Hall. The event gave United Way a platform to issue its report, Voices for the Common Good: Toledo Speaks Out on Education, summarizing a series of listening sessions with hundreds of people in 15 ZIP codes and across every demographic strata. High school students, teachers, parents, grandparents, church congregations and others found common ground, agreeing that:

  • Improving education improves communities and vice versa.
  • Better communication is a must.
  • Schools can’t do it alone – the whole community, especially parents, must be involved.
  • A good education goes beyond academics.

In fact, the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church conversation participants put a name to the aspiration: “a community approach to education.” Building on these communal desires, United Way of Greater Toledo subsequently announced a new initiative to recruit 5,000 new reading tutors in the next three years.


Packaging Community Conversations

United Way of San Diego County packaged what it heard in a report titled, Voices for the Common Good: San Diego Speaks Out on Education. The report made news, helped frame the debate, got the community leaders’ attention and engaged policymakers who wanted to tune into their constituents’ views. (It was adapted from United Way Worldwide’s Voices for the Common Good report.) Will people proactively raise the issue of early grade reading in your community conversations? Maybe not, but they will likely talk about the need to help struggling students early on and that’s an entry into the early grade reading conversation. 

That’s how the United Way of San Diego approached it, too. They reflected the major themes back, then honed in on early grade reading as a critical early intervention point. Then United Way hosted another round of Community Conversations, this time explicitly focused on early grade reading. The goal of this second round is not to identify aspirations, but to begin to engage diverse segments of the community in developing solution strategies.


Aligning Conversations, Data and Experts

In Houston, United Way used listening sessions as a way to get grounded on the issue of early grade reading which was a new focus. The board of directors of United Way of Greater Houston approved a strategic plan that required its community impact team to conduct community conversations over the summer to guide its work in early grade reading.   Impact staff presented the idea to the United Way’s education task force and got an overwhelmingly positive response. A few communities were targeted and school administrators (under the guidance of school district leaders on the task force) did the rest—providing the space, outreach and much of the coordination for the meetings.


United Way used their Harwood conversation guide to structure the dialogue. They translated the conversation guide into Spanish and used it to set up conversations for Spanish-speaking community members, led by bilingual 2-1-1 staff. Other volunteers took notes, later translated back into English. Within a few months, United Way held nearly 50 conversations with a wide diversity of individuals to learn more about their community aspirations in education.


United Way then looked at the information coming out of the community conversations with a group of people who were part of the conversations to talk about what they learned, looking for larger themes that could provide overarching guidance and greater insight into the community’s point of view. Some of the primary themes that emerged were early grade reading issues and concerns about state assessments. United Way used early grade reading indicators gathered by researchers and academic partners as a cross-reference to see if the community conversation themes mirrored the needs identified through data. In fact, the two perspectives aligned. United Way found that the top five themes that the community members asked for in community conversations matched up exactly with the data from experts. They shared this data with a group of volunteer leaders in education, who incorporated it into a report that offered United Way recommendations on the roles that it should play in education in the community.


“What was so amazing to me is that not only were [the high school students] thoughtfully answering the questions I was posing, but they were listening to each other thoughtfully and responding thoughtfully to each others’ comments. … [Afterward] I felt like I was the Pied Piper because the rest of the class had followed me; they wanted to give me money; they had written their names and addresses on a piece of paper because they wanted to get involved with United Way. … It was an experience I think that will stay with me forever and that was a great motivation to get out there and do lots of these community conversations.”

Jill Briggs, Executive Vice President of the United Way of the Lowcountry in Beaufort, SC about her listening sessions with high school students

Mother and daughter smiling