United Way: A Long-Term Umbrella of Support for Canadians

By Consuelo Solar

For seven years, Jehad Aliweiwi served as Executive Director of Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office, a community based multicultural agency that provides services to residents of Thorncliffe Park in Toronto. One of the biggest challenges for most of their clients is obtaining financial stability, because without it the whole settlement process is at risk, and to provide significant assistance in this capacity to the residents of this densely populated and diverse neighbourhood, the agency needs to plan ahead carefully. The ability to do that comes from the support of United Way’s core fund. “United Way keeps our office running; thanks to them we make sure the lights are on, and the phones are working, because their funding lets us cover the administrative aspects of delivering our services,” says Aliwaiwi in 2011. For more than 70 years the United Way has been helping agencies with operational costs, but their backing means way more than that.

United Way is a volunteer-led nonprofit organization, known as Centraide in Quebec, Ottawa and other French- Canadian communities. Governed by autonomous local Boards of Directors, and with the support of volunteers and staff, 115 United Way member offices across Canada raise money and allocate funds locally to support their communities.They all work under the umbrella of their Community Impact mission: “to improve lives and build community by engaging individuals, mobilizing collective action, and achieving meaningful, long-term improvements to quality of life.”

Even though this has been United Way’s official mission statement only since 2003, it reflects the work they have been doing since their national office was created in 1939, as a program division of the Canadian Welfare Council. The name United Way of Canada/Centraide was officially adopted in 1976, by the time the organization had already established an independent corporate structure with greater capacity for lasting strategic leadership.

According to Al Hatton, former United Way President and CEO, all United Ways – Centraides in Canada have undergone a transformation to become a movement focused on creating continuing and sustainable community transformation. “At the national office most of our work has been dedicated to realizing systemic community change. Our work has been about knowledge exchange, capacity building, learning, facilitation, and establishing standards of excellence for our United Way/ Centraides’ members,”says Hatton.

United Way supports member agencies, like Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office,by providing ongoing, annual funding, but also by assisting them in meeting rigorous membership requirements. Typically, two additional agencies are accepted into membership each year, and to be granted a membership, eligibility is determined by criteria that include the requirement to be a nonprofit (they don’t have private owners and surplus are reinvested in the organization), with charitable status, and a clearly stated purpose in the social services field. Site visits help each United Way office ensure all of their members remain in good standing and are respecting of the terms of the membership agreement. Furthermore, all newly appointed executive directors participate in an in-depth orientation program.

“The United Way membership gives us the flexibility to address services gaps that are not funded by large public funders, because United Way allocates funding tailored to our needs,” explains Aliweiwi, and adds “this funding permits us, for example, to provide services to immigrants regardless of their status because it does not attach eligibility criteria for clients. It encourages us to provide services to everyone, even if they are already citizens or don’t have a status yet.”

Shelley Zuckerman, Executive Director of North York Community House, recognizes the value of the United Way’s flexibility. Her agency has been a member since 1994, and she is sure that there are certain newcomer services that they would not be able to provide without the support of United Way. “They are very open, and that allows us to make changes in the programs. For example, about 10 years ago we developed a very innovative program to train and assist newcomers in a variety of areas, and it was a very successful initiative that was initially funded by the Trillium Foundation, but when that funding ended, we were able to reassign some of United Way’s funds to continue it and further develop it. Over the years, that program has given thousands of newcomers opportunities to get jobs, and reach financial stability,” Zuckerman observes.

Precisely, supporting services for immigrant and diverse communities is part of United Way’s commitment to move people out of poverty, support community integration and settlement, and improve access to early childhood learning. As United Way Toronto President and CEO, Susan McIsaac explains, “Opportunities for a better life are not evenly distributed in our city, which can leave people new to Canada particularly vulnerable – especially those living in priority neighbourhoods. At United Way, targeting our funding to key neighbourhoods and communities, alongside our support to our agencies, is an important part of our efforts to strengthen our city and improve social conditions right.”

For Aliweiwi, United Way is a critical player in the process of building a better Canada. “Not only do they contribute financially, but their biggest contribution is the rigorous support that they provide annually to make sure that agencies continue to make a good use of the funds that they receive, and ensuring that our programs are having a positive impact on the communities we serve. The contribution that United Way makes year after year allows us to think about the future; to contemplate our next five years,” he concludes.