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    John McMillin: Making sense of United Way terminology

    By John McMillin -

    I’m guilty of throwing words around the community without thinking too much about whether people understand what I’m talking about. One of my board members actually brought my attention to this problem some years ago. With that in mind, I’d like to offer some explanations about some key words you’ll hear any United Way use.

    This time of year is especially terminology heavy. In the early part of any given year, we will conduct an allocations process in which agency and program administrators apply to earn partner status. Just that one sentence will lead many into a deep sleep or cause them to look at me very perplexed.

    Allow me to explain. United Way of Wilson County and the Upper Cumberland is one of many United Way systems worldwide. Many United Ways are involved with their own programs, which are internally operated and work to improve their service areas. United Ways also partner with other local agencies, which provide health and human service programs for any number of worthy and important causes. Each community is a little different in what they want to support, but basically we all hope to improve the communities in which we live and work.

    In order to operate or help operate these programs, each United Way raises funds. The better we are at raising funds, the more likely it is that we will be able to reach more people in need. There are some programs that are free or low cost, but basically donor funds are always in high demand to reach more people in need.

    Although one United Way office may operate a little differently than another United Way office, the basics are pretty consistent. After a period every year of raising funds, we have to decide how to best put that money to good use within our communities. This is where we have allocations panels. In our case, we have an allocations process in which about 40 local volunteers meet to tell us where our raised funds should be awarded to best help our communities. These 40 volunteers will be divided into four panels or committees. Each panel will inspect and review about eight to 10 local programs that serve our communities.

    During the allocations process, prospective partner agencies fill out applications concerning their program budget, a request for funds, how they intend to spend any funds they receive and various other questions. At least one allocations panelist will visit the agency and report their findings to the committee. One evening in May, the applying agencies will appear before an allocations panel and explain what it is they do and why they hope to be awarded funds which, if received, makes them a partner agency and/or program.

    The word partner is important because we ask our partners to allow us to review their agency thoroughly; for us the term partner conveys a sense of trust every donor can rely upon that their money will be used wisely and appropriately. Hopefully, this makes sense of not just our process, but some of our terminology as well.

    John McMillin is president of United Way of Wilson County and the Upper Cumberland. Email him at [email protected].

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