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Washtenaw United: UWWC's Opportunity Fund invests another $200k

Pam Smith
Pam Smith
United Way of Washtenaw County
United Way of Washtenaw County President/CEO Pam Smith


Pam Smith has been the President/CEO of the United Way of Washtenaw County since 2012. As a nonprofit executive, she is dedicated to strengthening the community through philanthropy, collaboration, and community engagement. Her vision and leadership guides the Equity, Diversity, and Justice work of the United Way of Washtenaw County. She has more than 25 years of experience in Management, Communications, and Nonprofit administration. She has served on local nonprofit boards, as an UM guest lecturer, and on local advisory teams. Ms. Smith has extensive experience in management, marketing, communications, training, and workforce development. Her development and fundraising skills have made her keenly aware of the intricate balance of the diverse needs within the Southeastern Michigan community.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to another edition of Washtenaw United. I'm David Fair. And each week, we explore issues of equity and opportunity in our community. And this week, we're going to look at recent investments in equitable opportunity that totals $200,000. 14 different groups and organizations in Washtenaw County will benefit in 2023 from that money. It is being distributed through the United Way of Washtenaw County's Opportunity Fund. Our guest today is Pam Smith, and she serves as President and CEO of the local branch of the United Way. Good to have you back, Pam.

Pam Smith: Thank you so much, David. It's great to be with you.

David Fair: Looking back, what did you and your staff at the United Way see in Washtenaw County that led to creation of the Opportunity Fund?

Pam Smith: There was a gap for United Way. We were investing in two and three-year grant cycles with certain nonprofits within our community. And I said, "You know, we need to create an opportunity for small organizations, for new programs to be able to respond to community need. And what if we start an opportunity fund that can really see those small, great ideas and almost act as an incubator for some nonprofits?" And that's how the Opportunity Fund came to be.

David Fair: And is that how it worked? Has it been a good incubator in that it helps leverage more money for these small organizations to do more and better work in the community?

Pam Smith: Absolutely. We have a track record of assuming what some people would consider a higher-risk tolerance for investing in these pilot projects throughout the community. And when we took a look back, we were really excited to see some of the growth with the nonprofits that we invested in early. We call them first dollars in. So, in some cases, like with Uprider Way, a local nonprofit that serves returning citizens, we were the initial grant that got them off the ground in 2016. It was only $4500. But now, years later, they've become an established nonprofit that just received a $250,000 grant, and they have paid full-time staff. So, that was a seed. You know, that was an idea. That was a need that was in this community. And we were the ones--United Way, collectively, meaning the community, because the United Way really is the community. These grant investments are determined by community volunteers. We take that step forward, and they're doing great things in the community and really helping a significant amount people that are returning from prison. Another great--we have time for one more. Another great one is the trusted advisers. This is a very important group of parents working out of Sycamore Meadows that worked through the ISB. We gave a $12,000 grant back in 2018 to get it off the ground to really create this community-driven resource for families in the Sycamore Meadows area. And they just got a $110,000 grant. So, what's important is building trust in the community, putting resources up, so that people that are working in community have what they need to move the projects forward because they see it. You know, they're at the front line. They know what their neighborhoods and their communities need. And we're happy to be there to help get that off the ground and then celebrate their success along the way.

David Fair: This is Washtenaw United on 89 one WEMU. And we're talking with Pam Smith. She is the president and CEO of the United Way of Washtenaw County. I want to talk a little bit about community need and discuss where the focus was in determining distribution of the money for the 2023 cycle. Among the criteria you were looking for this year was groups that were looking to pilot or test a community solution to meet emerging needs connected specifically to poverty, racism, or trauma. As you study Washtenaw County and try and come to determinations on how best to allocate that money, how significant do you find those issues to be?

Pam Smith: Well, there's this pandemic that we've been dealing with, and I don't say that lightly. And what we've seen are more and more families that have been impacted by the intersectionality of poverty, racism, and trauma in our community. And that is the beauty of the Opportunity Fund can morph into what the community needs. So, when we talked about that specifically this year, we also talked about making sure that we were meeting the needs of the individual nonprofits. These are general operating grants, so they can go specifically to what is most needed within their organization. We just went to a housing and homeless symposium this week put on by the Washtenaw Housing Alliance, and they, you know, talked at length about the numbers of people that are homeless in their community and the number of people that are on the brink. So, if you think about this, David, 110,000 people need help. They're what we consider in the Alice report as they're working, they might be working one, two, three jobs, but affordable housing in Washtenaw County is just not present. So, to think about that number in a different way, the Big House holds about 110,000 people. Think about that for just a minute. All of those people need additional help to make sure that they have what they need. They're paying way over 30% of their annual income on housing. Those are the kinds of things we're always thinking about, like what's happening in the community and how can we best be positioned to react.

David Fair: And another of the focus areas for this cycle of grants was to support groups and organizations that express a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Did the United Way make it a mandate that those receiving grants have measures in place to ensure DEI and staffing volunteers and those they serve?

Pam Smith: Yes, we do have that in place. And the reason being is because we have to keep the equity conversation omnipresent. It has to be at the forefront of every conversation that we're having because the inequities that persist in Washtenaw County are real, and they have to be addressed. If you don't talk about it, for some people, it doesn't exist. So, that's the reason that we're always out there talking about it. In a really interesting collaborative that came out through this grant process was through the Manchester Community Resource Center, and they brought rural communities together--Manchester, Milan, Saline, Chelsea, and Dexter--so that the aid in Milan, the Manchester Community Resource Center, Faith in Action, which is Chelsea-Dexter, and Saline Area Social Services came together and asked for a $25,000 grant to make sure that they had the dollars and the time available to continue the education process with staff, volunteers, and their boards. So, that's one of those creative and innovative ways that nonprofits are working to make sure that these conversations are happening in communities.

David Fair: In making diversity, equity, and inclusion a focus of grant awards, what beyond helping small organizations do you hope to inspire in the community at large beyond the grant money itself?

Pam Smith: Absolutely. So, what's important, and I mentioned it before, is that the conversations are happening. So, when conversations are happening in a nuclear environment, a small local environment, those staff members, those volunteers, those board members are taking those conversations to their networks. All of a sudden, now that they're more aware of what is white fragility or what is implicit bias. They're able to have these conversations. And that is the very seed of what we're trying to do is making these conversations happen in community. And so, that's one of the things. And then, you know, in the long run, what we'd really like to do is see the systems start to change that are holding the structures in place. So, these conversations that start at a community level really will create the change that we need in the structural environment and the systems within our community.

David Fair: So, that is a massive undertaking to change our societal structure. Now, with this Opportunity Fund, the investment for the 2023 cycle is $200,000. As you said, this is generally first-in money. It is not meant to be large grants. But if we assess what is actually needed in the community to take on the myriad of inequities, it's not nearly enough. Will you be looking to expand the Opportunity Fund in years to come or kind of adapt and evolve in how the United Way serves the community?

Pam Smith: David, we had $700,000 in requests for the Opportunity Fund. We had over 50 different grant applications, and we were able to do 14 at $200,000. So, what it does is it illustrates the need. It creates a reality that we need to do more as a community, and we need to do it together. There are great things that are possible when we work together in small donations of $5 and $25 and $100 add up to really create these changes. This $200,000 wouldn't have existed if the community hadn't come together. You may recall United Way was originally the community chest, and if you've ever played a game of Monopoly, you've seen the community chest. It's been around for more than 100 years, and we've been in this community for more than 100 years. And the reason why is because, inherently, people are good, and they want to come together to make sure that they're living in a place where everyone has the opportunity to thrive. And that is our mission. It was our mission then, and it continues to be our mission today.

David Fair: Well, Pam, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today and fill us in on the Opportunity Fund and the work that lay ahead. We do appreciate it.

Pam Smith: Absolutely. Thanks so much for giving us the opportunity to share the good news about the Opportunity Fund.

David Fair: That is Pam Smith, President and CEO of the United Way of Washtenaw County and our guest on Washtenaw United. For more information on the Opportunity Fund and how it's being put to work in the community, visit our website at WEMU dot org, and we'll get you to all the right places. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


United Way of Washtenaw County Grant Programs

See UWWC's 2023 Opportunity Fund Investments Overview below.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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