In 2015, Mack Koonce, the chief executive officer and president of The United Way of the Greater Triangle, embarked on a plan to shift the nonprofit’s strategy.
Under his leadership, the organization moved away from funding safety-net programs, such as food pantries and homeless shelters. Now it is fashioning itself as a community organizer, connecting disparate groups to tackle childhood-development issues.
After five years in charge, though, Koonce won’t see that change to its end, as the 68-year-old is making way for a new leader.
Koonce, who retires June 30, will be replaced by Eric Guckian, a former adviser to Gov. Pat McCrory who has worked in education-related organizations throughout his career – including helping launch Teach For America in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Guckian, 46, who lives in Durham with his wife and two daughters, also spent nearly five years in Charlotte heading New Leaders, a program to recruit and train principals to turn around low-performing schools. And since 2015, he has worked for Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonpartisan group based in Washington, D.C., that develops leadership among Teach For America alums.
“I think in most organizations there are times of transitions, and this is one,” Koonce said. “We launched a new plan with a lot of community input, and we needed a leader with a longer horizon.”
The United Way has traditionally aimed its money at safety-net organizations.
But rather than simply funding the same programs, the organization is now thinking about how to prevent a future generation from needing the safety net at all.
The United Way anticipates raising $10.6 million this year, a 12.4 percent decrease from the $12.1 million it brought in last year. The decrease reflects a couple of significant corporate donors decreasing contributions, the United Way said.
To make the shift, the United Way will more tightly focus on issues related to education and social mobility.
“When (United Way) was created by the community in its first form, (the community) said we need private philanthropy to create a safety net,” he said. “Fast forward 50 years later, the community is saying we don’t need to just build a bigger safety net, we need better long-term solutions – and United Way needs to be a part of that.”
The shift has created funding winners – and losers.
In an op-ed piece in The Herald-Sun in May, Meals on Wheels, which delivers food to home-bound senior citizens, said the shift has hurt its budget – contributions from United Way are set to decrease by 75 percent next month.
Still, Koonce says it’s the right move to make. Especially if the region wants to ensure that everyone prospers from a booming regional economy. Only about one-third of children born into North Carolina families making less than $25,000 annually manage to climb into middle- and upper-income levels as adults, according to a 2016 report from MDC.
“I don’t know if you can import enough labor ... to create the workforce of tomorrow if 70 percent of the kids from economically disadvantaged families can’t read by third grade,” Koonce said.
The challenge, Guckian added, is that the community is not doing enough to prepare kids for kindergarten. Is it the school system’s problem that the kids aren’t ready or is it the community’s issue, the two pondered.
“I think the Triangle needs to step up more to ensure that not just our own kids, but all of our kids have equal opportunity for prosperity,” Guckian said – citing data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams, which found 62 percent of North Carolina students are not reading at grade level by fourth grade.
“We have to be focused on this as much as we are looking for the next tech startup.”
In Durham and Orange counties, the new focus of United Way can best be seen in the East Durham Children’s Initiative, serving families in a 120-block area in East Durham, and the Orange County Family Success Alliance, a county-led organization that has a similar focus in two poorer zones of Orange County.
Both are modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, a New York City-based organization trying to reverse the cycle of poverty in the Harlem neighborhood by providing cradle-to-career-or-college pipeline of resources. It’s also an organization that the United Way believes can be replicated in other places, including the Triangle.
Through the United Way, the Children’s Initiative – which has received about $300,000 – has brought together seven partnering organizations, and the Family Success Alliance – which has received about $200,000 – has brought together 12 partnering organizations. Both are in the middle of a two-year funding period –and optimistic the United Way will invest in them again.
“There is no doubt about it; without their leadership then we would not have seen this kind of (collaboration),” said Coby Austin, director of programs and policy at the Orange County Health Department.
The collaborations aim to form a two-generational approach for the children in the zone. Parents are their children’s primary teachers, so for best outcomes both generations need to be involved, said David Reese, the president and CEO of the Children’s Initiative
“How do we support parents in parallel continuum with the child?” Reese said.
For the Family Success Alliance that means connecting with a family beyond simply placing their child in a pre-kindergarten readiness program. It has hired community navigators that help connect families in the two Orange County zones to its United Way partners, which all share data now.
So besides getting a child more prepared for the first day of school, the network of partners are talking to the parents as well, connecting them to job-training programs or creating a plan to move them out of government-subsidized housing.
“There are absolutely stories about individual families where a navigator gets a parent training and a job or gets them out of (public) housing,” Austin said – noting that Orange County really struggles with social mobility.
“Housing stability is really turning into educational gains for the children ... (and) ultimately that is what you want. You don’t want the children you worked with coming back through the door in 20 to 30 years.”
For his part the United Way’s future leader is a believer in the new focus.
“This foundation that Mack and the team has set here I think is revolutionary...” Guckian said. “Given the collaborative work that is taking place, we need to go further and faster and be more focused.”
The Harlem Children’s Zone
Founded in 1970, the Harlem Children’s Zone is a nonprofit focused on helping children and families break the cycle of poverty in New York City.
The Harlem Children’s Zone, which focuses its services on a select number of blocks in Harlem, offers social and medical services, offers parenting workshops, and runs charter schools for the children of its community.
In 2014, President Barack Obama lauded the nonprofit, and other cities across the country have attempted to replicate the Zone’s model. In the area, both the East Durham Children’s Initiative and the Orange County Family Success Alliance have been influenced by its approach.