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News Opinion

United Way wants a new home to reflect its new mission

United Way of Central Maryland is looking for a new home, a move leaders hope will embody the charity's shift from a funnel for corporate dollars into a hands-on partner of service organizations.

When the emphasis was on corporate fundraising, "of course you were downtown, because that's where all the corporate headquarters were," said Jim Wheeler, a United Way board member who is leading the search to find new offices. "Now we're more hands-on services, boots on the ground ... and so it makes sense to be out and about."

The current lease at 100 S. Charles Street, which United Way has held since 1997, will expire in 2017. Before that it rented space on Light Street.

Right now, agency leaders said all options — staying, moving, even moving out of the city — are on the table.

The move should not be interpreted as anti-city, United Way of Central Maryland President Mark Furst said.

"Baltimore has been great to us for decades and decades," he said. "Nonetheless, we have this unique opportunity to see what might be best for us in the future, whether that's in downtown, in Baltimore City or the immediate outskirts."

The planned move in Maryland mirrors efforts in United Way groups nationwide to become known for "community impact," rather than fundraising prowess. It also reflects in part the fundraising reality of the last decade, in which corporate giving patterns have shifted and many donors began steering money to specific causes.

"What you're seeing is us being much more proactive and much more directive about the things we'd like to change, as opposed to waiting for nonprofit organizations to send us proposals for how they'd like to spend the money," said Furst, adding that United Way campaigns have yet to recover from a sharp fall after 2001.

Since the organization moved into its downtown offices in 1997, the nonprofit has increased the profile of its 211 hotline, which has offered social service referrals in central Maryland since 2006. It also has focused on health and human service organizations and begun to measure the outcomes of its donations.

In 2012, the local United Way introduced the "Family Stability Initiative" in Park Heights and Brooklyn-Curtis Bay, a wraparound effort to help lift families out of poverty. United Way funds local groups, such as the University of Maryland School of Social Work, to provide services such as case management and housing alternatives, to keep families in their homes and avoid bouncing children from school to school.

It plans to expand the approach, which is funded in part by the Columbus, Ohio-based Siemer Institute for Family Stability and is being implemented by United Ways across the country, to other Baltimore locations, as well as Carroll and Harford counties. United Way also sponsors initiatives focused on reading and improving access to healthy food.

The added activities have contributed to a sense that United Way's fifth-floor offices no longer meet the organization's needs, leaders said. The building doesn't offer free parking for visitors and the space lacks large meeting rooms: A roughly 40-person brainstorming session about new offices on Friday had to be held on a different floor, in a room to which the nonprofit has limited access.

"We want to make sure our form follows our function," said Martina Martin, the agency's chief administrative officer. "We say that our mission is to mobilize the community, so does this space say that you can convene here, that we're a mobilizer, this is a place you can come to, or does it send another message?"

Interest in new offices also reflects economic realities. In 2013, the organization spent about $630,000 on rent, mostly for the 32,000-square-foot downtown space, which contributed to overhead costs of about 18 percent, higher than the 15 percent average at United Ways across the country.

Meanwhile, staffing has shrunk from more than 100 to about 88 today. United Way already sublets about 5,000 square feet to Baltimore City Head Start

At Friday's brainstorming session, employees suggested priorities for a new office, including big windows, more flex space and a more fine-tuned heating system.

Furst and others said they hope to find a way to bring costs down, and are approaching local organizations, including the Abell Foundation, to see if they can find support for their real estate hopes.

"If I could write my own script, we would have a benefactor or a group of benefactors step up and say, we have space for you United Way that we'd like to underwrite. We want you to make that space your own, maybe co-locate with some other nonprofits," Furst said.

nsherman@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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