This Thanksgiving: Give Thanks The United Way

turkeyMany readers of this blog are aware that I volunteer as a Focus Area Champion for United Way Ottawa. I was approached two years ago when the Focus Area Champion concept was first being assembled, and I was honored with the idea of representing the Employment of People with Disabilities priority within the Belonging To Community focus area.

I find Ottawa is one of the smallest big cities in the world, and people have long memories. Some even remember more than ten years ago when I was publicly critical of the United Way Ottawa because I felt that it was a small “closed club” of beneficiary organizations when donors could be better served by working with more agencies and with a stronger focus on solving problems than on funding agency budgets. I was far from the only person with this view – there were lots of voices inside and outside of the organization that were in agreement with the need for a change.

Well, for an agency as large as the United Way Ottawa, they’ve changed all of this at a rather amazing pace. Their ability to explain what they do, why they do it, and at what cost, is among the best of any United Way organization in North America, as was recently stated by the President of United Way Canada at Ottawa’s 2013 Annual General Meeting. Here it is:

Belonging To Community

  • Connecting people with disabilities who want to work with meaningful employment opportunities;
  • Ensuring that more seniors have the supports they need to age in their own homes;
  • Decreasing the unemployment and underemployment of immigrants and new Canadians;
  • Increasing the number of people working together to improve their own neighbourhoods.

Growing Up Great

  • Help more children enter school ready to learn, and;
  • Help more at-risk children and youth succeed

Turning Lives Around

  • Helping get homeless people off the streets through housing first initiatives;
  • Helping people with mental health and addictions issues get access to the support they need; and
  • Providing support and treatment for people and families in crisis

From time to time I still hear rumblings that “I don’t give my money to United Way because I don’t know where it is going.” Well, I have been in the charitable sector for more than 20 years, and I can tell you that it would be very difficult to find any organization that has invested more effort in communication and transparency. I realize it takes time for people to appreciate new realities no matter how well they are communicated. I’m trying to do my part to help donors, the media, and public at large understand how much things have changed and how the United Way Ottawa is now working with more than 100 community partners to solve community problems with more attention to efficiency and outcomes than ever before.

The latest interesting communications challenge is that United Way Ottawa has taken yet another big step towards improving transparency, but initially it was misunderstood as something more dramatic, rather than the simple (and positive) clarification that it is.

As you probably know, when you donate to the United Way campaign, you can give to the United Way, or to any other registered Canadian charity, or a combination of both.  So, when trying to establish a campaign goal, in the past United Way Ottawa has had to estimate how much of the total dollars raised would be redirected to other charities, and how much the United Way would have for its own priorities (and agreements it has with 100+ partner agencies to make it happen). The problem with this is that when people would see “$31 Million Raised!” they would assume that all of this money went to United Way Ottawa, when in fact, a significant portion of it was passed along to other charities.

Last year about $17 million went to United Way Ottawa and $14 million to other charities. The $17 million was actually less than needed to carry out the priority area projects and plans for the year. This was confusing to the public, because they had in their heads that a much higher figure had been raised.

So, for 2013-2014 the United Way Ottawa took the bold step of resolving this problem. They did what is obviously the right thing to do for donors and the community, and announced that the goal for United Way Ottawa priorities is $21 million. And that they would continue (as always) to accept donations for other charities and pass those funds along to them. These funds will of course be tracked, but reported separately, so as to prevent any further confusion and to improve accountability – the funds passed along to other charities can’t be evaluated by United Way Ottawa, and donors need to understand that in making that choice, the United Way role is simply to accurately transfer the funds.

I am not sure how this change has become a negative for some, all I can figure out is that they didn’t understand what it really means, and once they do, they will also come to the inescapable conclusion that this makes a great deal more sense than the past practice (common to most United Way agencies) of reporting a lump sum that clouds the ability of donors to understand what happens to their dollars.

So, this Thanksgiving weekend, consider showing your gratitude for living in a wonderful city like Ottawa by making a donation to help change lives in our community. If you really want to target your donation, as a Focus Area Champion I am fully authorized to suggest that you donate specifically to helping people with disabilities find and keep paid employment. Just enter all or part of your donation where indicated. There is a lot of unmet need in all of the priority areas and you should feel comfortable targeting the priorities that resonate most strongly for you.


About Keenan Wellar

Starting in 1997, Keenan Wellar has served as Co-Leader and Director of Communications for LiveWorkPlay, a charitable organization based in Ottawa that helps the community welcome and include people with intellectual disabilities, autistic persons, and individuals with a dual diagnosis to live, work, and play as valued citizens. LiveWorkPlay was honoured as the Ottawa Board of Trade and Ottawa Business Journal’s Best Ottawa Business Awards as the best Ottawa Non-Profit of 2019 and was the recipient of the Canadian Association for Supported Employment (CASE) 2020 Wiltshire Award of Excellence in Supported Employment as the top service provider of 2020. As both a professional spokesperson and volunteer advocate, Keenan supports change locally in the Ottawa area community, as well as provincially as a founding member of the From Presence To Citizenship initiative, nationally in partnership with housing, employment, and other advocacy organizations, and worldwide via Inclusion International and other allies. Keenan makes frequent media appearances, mainly as a spokersperson for LiveWorkPlay, but is also called upon for commentary about local sports as an avid fan who closely follows the Ottawa RedBlacks and Atletico Ottawa, as well as general news commentary. After many years as regular panelist on the 1310 News Talk Power Lunch with Mark Sutcliffe (Mark is now the Mayor of Ottawa) in fall 2022 Keenan became a monthly regular on the the 580 CFRA Morning Live (Saturdays) Weekly Rundown Panel with Andrew Pinsent. Keenan has a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics from Carleton University as well as undergraduate degrees in History and Education (Ontario Teacher Certification) from the University of Ottawa and many professional certifications such as Public Sector and Non-Profit Marketing (Sprott School of Business) and Certified Governance Trainer (BoardSource). Keenan is a founding member of the Carleton University Alumni Mentor program and has supported more than a dozen students making their way from academics to the world of work. Previous volunteer efforts include more than 10,000 meals delivered with Meals on Wheels Ottawa, three years as Focus Area Champion of United Way East Ontario, and two years as Provincial Advisor to People First of Ontario. He is currently serving as a member of the Public Services and Procurement Canada Accessibility Advisory Panel and as Co-Chair of the Freedom From Harm sub-committee at the Council for Community Living Ontario. When not working and advocating, Keenan enjoys back country camping, kayaking, and nature photography with his wife Julie.
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