United Way looks to make an impact

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 3, 2003

If you need help, the United Way won’t do much but give you a name and telephone number, which is about what you’d expect from a phone book.

But &045; unlike a phone book &045; without the United Way, the options for what help you could get might be sorely limited.

By funding groups as diverse as the American Red Cross and the YMCA, the Selma-Dallas County United Way makes sure countless people get the help they need.

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The United Way came to Selma in 1944, as a Community Chest. Later the group became the Selma United Appeal and joined forces with the national United Way in the early ’70s. Since then, the group has remained dedicated to making real &uot;community impact,&uot; according to Jeff Cothran, executive director.

Cothran said that many people don’t realize United Way isn’t a standard &uot;charity&uot; organization. Rather, the the Selma-Dallas County United Way acts as an umbrella organization, raising and allocating funds to 16 different charitable and community groups &045; from the YMCA to the Girl Scouts.

Organizations apply each year and are evaluated based on need and impact.

A 21-member board made up of Selma and Dallas County citizens allocates all money collected locally. &uot;They’re the ones that make sure the money gets to the organizations where it’s going to do some good,&uot; Cothran said. &uot;There are some problems no amount of money will solve.&uot;

Each United Way member agency must file for funding every year. The application includes a detailed analysis of the amount needed, where the money will be used and how it will be used. &uot;We monitor all that, each and every year,&uot; said Cothran. Without this information, he added, nobody gets funding.

Although the group is an affiliate of the national United Way organization, all funding decisions are made on the local level, by local people, for local causes. &uot;Nobody’s telling us we have to give money to any group,&uot; said Cothran.

Because of this, he added, every dime collected by the United Way has a direct impact on the local community. &uot;Most of our funding goes to youth development,&uot; explained Cothran.

He said about 42 percent collected locally goes to groups like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and YMCA, with an additional 15 percent devoted to emergency assistance for families in need. Most of these families have suffered problems like house fires, floods and tornadoes.

With its skeletal staff, the local United Way keeps overhead to a minimum. The agency has only one full-time employee, Cothran himself. The rest of the staff is made up of one part-time employee and a volunteer, who sees to it that the grass is cut and the coffee is fresh.

The United Way this year hopes to raise $480,000 through businesses and private organizations. That’s about $20,000 less than previous years. Cothran said the lowered expectations reflect a slow local economy, which has effected fund-raising efforts in the past.

Still, because of a reserve fund generated two years ago, the group doesn’t expect to see a cut in funding for any programs.

Because of that fund, the group was able to step in and save at least one key local program from ruination.

The West Central Alabama Rehabilitation Center used funding from the state to provide special pre-school for developmentally disabled children. After proration bankrupted the program, the United Way was able to provide emergency funding.

The reserve came about when the group generated $300,000 in about six months through a program with Williamson Gas. Williamson pledged to match donations to the group dollar for dollar.

The resulting funds have allowed the Selma-Dallas County United Way more leeway in who it funds and to make allowances for changes in the economy, like now, according to Cothran.