Chance Summerford started pre-kindergarten classes this month with hardly a hitch.

It’s a tremendous leap forward for the Hatley 4-year-old who has struggled with sensory processing issues and a speech deficit, said his mom Jessica Summerford. Over the past year, Chance has received occupational and speech therapy at Regional Rehabilitation Center, one of 63 agencies funded by United Way of Northeast Mississippi.

“His teachers said he’s been one of the best students they have,” during the first two weeks, Summerford said.

Before Chance started therapy a year ago, he couldn’t handle crowds or loud noises. Summerford had to quit her job 18 months ago because day care was so painful for Chance. Occupational therapist Gretchen Brown used sensory play to help Chance learn to better manage all the sensory input and transition between tasks.

“He’s a completely different kid,” Summerford said. “If it hadn’t been for this place, I don’t know what we would do.”

To better capture the impact on people like Chance, the United Way of Northeast Mississippi is asking partner agencies to closely track outcomes and is shifting the way it allocates funds.

There are several reasons for this. Companies are now offering their employees multiple options for charitable payroll deductions United Way isn’t the only option. Individual donors also want to see greater accountability.

“We want to make sure we stay relevant to the community and relevant to our donors,” said Melinda Tidwell, United Way executive director. “We have to be able to prove our worthiness.”

Under the new process, United Way funds will be allocated to specific projects addressing three focus areas: academic success, family stability and health and wellness. Funding recipients will be responsible for reporting outcome measures. Nonprofit agencies will apply for funds every two years.

Donors want to know how their funds are used and if they are getting a good return on their charity investment.

“It’s a more business-centered approach,” said Mary Ann Plasencia, United Way director of community impact.

The extra effort to compile the data should position the nonprofits to access grant funding outside United Way.

“We’re helping to build capacity on how to track data,” Plasencia said. “Any grant that (agencies) apply for is going to ask for data.”

Measuring progress

Regional Rehabilitation Center has always tracked the number of clients and number of physical, occupational and speech therapy and early intervention services it provides to children and adults without charge. Its focus has been providing therapy clients need to make progress toward individual goals without limits set by the ability to pay.

“Internally, each department has always evaluated and assessed clients,” Parman said, but they were never compiled as a population to be shared with the public.

To prepare for the new allocation process, Brown, an RRC occupational therapist, led efforts to create a system to compile the data as each client is evaluated and assessed that dovetails with documentation they’ve always done.

“Occupational therapy is about helping people, no matter their age, be able to function at an age appropriate level,” Brown said.

For someone recovering from a stroke, the therapists may be guiding the client toward being able to dress themselves with minimal assistance. For a child with sensory issues, it may be preparing them to listen and follow instructions and play with other children.

The data for United Way will track elements like self-care, ability to move safely in their environment and social cognition. The RRC plans to apply with the occupational therapy department as its project.

“We feel like United Way can really help this department,” Parman said.

The process will eventually be expanded to all the RRC departments and will let the center tell its story not just with the successes of individuals like Chance but the success of all its clients, Parman said.

“The stories will always be a part of the rehab center, but now the stories will be backed up with more concrete data,” Parman said. “In the end, it will help every agency.”

Changing process

Previously, organizations applied for United Way funds annually as an agency and made a single request for funding. They had to meet financial reporting requirements, explain their work and go through an interview and site visit process annually. United Way volunteers who conducted the interviews and site visits gathered as a group for a marathon meeting to hash out allocations. The United Way board approved the final decisions.

Starting this fall, the nonprofits will still apply as an agency, but they will request funding for a specific project or program tied to one of three impact areas – academic success, family stability and health and wellness. In addition to providing financial information and detailed budgets, agencies will have to select outcomes measures and indicators to track the project’s impact.

Agencies will be able to apply for funding for multiple programs in different impact areas. They can apply in collaboration with other agencies to serve more counties.

An online application process spells out how the projects will be graded. The United Way staff will vet the applications to make sure agencies meet qualifications, like having volunteer boards that meet regularly, proper policies and liability insurance.

“Agencies know exactly what they are being reviewed on,” Plasencia said.

The funding process will still be driven by volunteers. The project applications will be evaluated by panels of local content experts who come from across the region. During the site visits, the panel will focus primarily on the program in the application.

“We’re excited about having content experts,” Plasencia said. “The experts know what’s needed.”

The panel leaders will report their findings and funding recommendation to a larger group for each impact area. The impact area boards will make recommendations on funding to the campaign cabinet for final decisions on funding.

The volunteers will be drawn from across the seven counties served by United Way of Northeast Mississippi.

“We want as much regional input as possible,” Tidwell said.

Evolution

The shift to the new allocation process has been a two-year journey.

The United Way staff and volunteers met with groups across the seven counties to identify needs and sharpen its focus to the three impact areas. They’ve drawn from expertise from other United Way agencies that have switched to the project-based allocations process. Agency workshops have coached nonprofit leaders in gathering data and navigating the new system. Staff members have worked with individual agencies to answer questions.

Excel in Okolona has taken advantage of assistance by the United Way staff as it worked through matching up the existing records with United Way outcomes data tracking on its afterschool and summer learning programs.

“We’ve always believed in transparency and showing our results,” said Sister Nancy Schreck, program director of Excel. “It was good to get a year to practice.”

Collaboration

With the allocations process shift, the United Way will have opportunities to help its partner agencies connect with grant opportunities. The opportunities for collaboration will become clear as agencies submit their projects and data, but Plasencia has already been able to help Excel in Okolona connect with a grant opportunity with the Appalachian Regional Commission under its work to help distressed counties.

Excel’s staff had noticed a great interest from adults 25 and older when a partner organization offered training to prepare young adults for the certified nursing assistant program at Itawamba Community College.

“She knew ARC, we knew the need,” said Sister Liz . “It was a good match.”

The CNA preparation programs have a great success rate in helping its students gain employment and meet a community need for more trained health care workers.

With the $23,900 grant from ARC, Excel was able to accept a group of 25 working adults to prepare for the CNA exam. The grant covers textbooks, materials, scrubs, vaccines, background checks, the three-week course at Itawamba Community College and the board exam fees. The participants put up $100 that they can get back if they successfully complete the program.

For eight Saturdays, the group will work with Sister Therese Carroll and Excel board member and registered nurse Jeannine Gregory to prepare for language of nursing and job skills.

“They’re learning skills and increasing their self-esteem,” said Carroll, who serves as the program coordinator. “It’s the full package.”

There has been a tremendous interest in the program. “We’ve got 30 on the waiting list,” Carroll said.

Excel will need to find funding to continue the program, but it’s getting the program off the ground that is the biggest leap.

“Without United Way and Mary Ann, we wouldn’t have been able to get off the ground,” Schreck said.

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