How United Way Works

Instead of having one set of leaders or one common goal, United Way is community-based -- each group's standards and goals are specifically tailored to its interests.
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Donating money or volunteering for distant, unfamiliar organizations can make you feel a bit detached from your charitable intentions. Sure, it's nice to get a newsletter update or a press release from the group, but you can't really participate if you don't live near the organization. Because of these issues, it often feels most rewarding to help out your local community. A great way to get directly involved is to join your local United Way.

United Way is a little different than most charitable organizations. Instead of having one set of leaders or one common goal, United Way is community-based. This means that each United Way group maintains its own standards and goals specifically tailored to its interests. United Way of America is comprised of nearly 1,300 local sects [source: UWA] United Way International is the leadership blanket for 46 countries that have roughly 4,000 United Way organizations [source: UWW]. United Way Worldwide describes each group as "A volunteer-led, nonprofit organization located in a geographic community that seeks and addresses the root causes of key issues, is accountable for stewardship of resources, and is accountable for short-term and long-term results" [source: UWW]. Essentially, United Way is by the people, for the people.


United Way America focuses on the three major elements of a prosperous community: education, income and health [source: UWA]. It believes working on these core issues creates a win-win situation for the majority of the community. It's not so much one-on-one as it is all-for-one.

In this article, we'll discuss the history of United Way organizations. Then we'll take a look at United Way in local communities and how you can volunteer. Finally, we'll discuss a United Way mission as an Alternative Spring Break. Read on to learn about the history of this incredible organization.


History of United Way

The true beginning of United Way is a bit hazy because the organization is more about the concept of community organization than anything else. In the United States, groups began popping up to help out their local communities early on. Considering the size of the country and the limits of communication in the beginning of United States history, it comes as no surprise that communities were focused on their own needs and people. There were a lot of "boom" moments in the 1800s, including a mining rush in Denver, Colorado. In 1887, there were suddenly too many people with too few resources -- and a distinct lack of gold and silver. Right around this time, the United Way began to form.

It almost sounds like the lead-in to a bad joke: a Rabbi, a Catholic priest and two Protestant ministers got together to try to help the citizens of Denver who were suffering from the metal-mining fallout. Francis Jacobs brought these men together to form the "Charity Organizations Society." The group helped organize 22 different organizations and raised a huge amount of money for the time [source: UWW]. By casting a broad net, Jacobs and the group were able to set a precedent for future groups. They showed that working together instead of separately would help accomplish more in the long run.


Even though community-based charity organizations were popping up all over the place, it wasn't until 1970 that the name "United Way" appeared on the scene. The first group to use the name was located in Los Angeles, California in 1970. That same year, groups all over the nation formally adopted the name [source: UWW]. In 1974, United Way International was created as an offshoot of United Way America. In 1992, United Way International broke free as its own entity [source: UWW].

Now that you've learned about the history of the organization, read on to learn about United Way work in local communities.


United Way at Work in Local Communities

United Way organizations across the nation are busily working on local projects every day of the year. The results are phenomenal. Since there are so many different projects within each United Way organization, let's hone in on some specifics. Here are some examples of projects within local United Way groups:

  • United Way Houston - In 2007, United Way worked with partners on a transportation initiative to provide more services for elderly and disabled persons. It donated more than $200,000, which was matched by various organizations, finally raising more than $2.55 million for the project [source: UWH].
  • United Way of Greater Portland -- This Maine branch of United Way has a program called Language Access for New Americans (LANA), which provides an interpreter directory, medical and legal interpreter training, training for businesses and service providers, and a matching funds program for nonprofits [source: LANA].
  • United Way Central Iowa -- In Des Moines, United Way works with more than 300 at-risk students. It provides transitional after-school programs for five local middle schools. The organization works to help ease students into their freshman year of high school with positive influences and attitudes [source: UWCI].
  • Aloha United Way -- In Hawaii, United Way is dedicating more than $450,000 in 2009 to emergency and crisis funds. This money will be used to provide emergency food and shelter, prevent homelessness and help resolve crisis situations [source: AUW].

Building on the core goals of health, education and income, United Way organizations gather the people of a community to work together. To learn how you can get involved, read on to learn about volunteering with United Way.



Volunteering with United Way

Getting involved with your local United Way is a great opportunity to help shape your own community. You know the needs of your neighbors -- you live with them. What does your town or city really need? United Way can help you get it. You can do a zip code search for your local chapter on the United Way America Web site [source: UWA]. Once you've found your group, you can look through its work options to find a volunteering position that suits your needs and schedule.

The United Way America Web site lists 26 different ways to live "United." These volunteering instructions are broken into the three core categories of education, health and income, and can easily be done without formally joining the group [source: UWA].


United Way America also provides links to the following information about volunteering:

  • Volunteer Tools
  • Benefits of Volunteering
  • Tips for Volunteering
  • Volunteering as a Family
  • Youth and Volunteerism
  • Match Your Passion Quiz

[source: UWA]

Basically, the United Way wants you to have fun, so you should seriously consider what would make you happy and how much time you can devote to your chosen cause. United Way doesn't want you to feel like you are doing a job. Instead, the organization encourages you to find joy in giving back.

If the idea of partying in the Caribbean for spring break is getting a tad old, United Way has another option for you. Read on to learn about United Way's Alternative Spring Break program.


United Way Alternative Spring Break

A lot of planning and anticipation can go into Spring Break. Whether you are in high school or college, there is pressure to go out and party, get a horrible sunburn and come back feeling like you need a vacation from your vacation. One way to sidestep the madness is to volunteer with United Way's Alternative Spring Break program.

Alternative Spring Break allows students to travel during their spring break, but instead of wild partying, there's a chance to give back by volunteering. And you can have fun and meet new people. There are Alternative Spring Break programs in many different states. In 2009, almost 300 young people put in more than 12,000 volunteer hours to promote health, income and education in Louisiana, Michigan, Indiana, Texas and Mississippi. They raised a whopping $22,268 to help further their goals [source: UWA].


In order to encourage this program, United Way is creating Student United Way, which will help organize students on college campuses [source: UWA]. Using all the bells and whistles of modern technology, volunteers can stay in touch and share their experiences with videos, photos and blogs. By volunteering in high school or college, you can get a jump-start on shaping your own community.

Now that you know more about United Way, you can consider working with them in their mission to give, advocate or volunteer. You can make a difference in your community, and there are plenty of people within the organization who are ready and willing to help you make it happen.

To learn more, visit the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • AUW. "Our Work: Emergency & Crisis Services." (Accessed 05/20/09)
  • Beatty, Sally. "Doing Good on Spring Break." The Wall Street Journal Online. 03/17/06. (Accessed 05/20/09)
  • Dolly Parton's Imagination Library. "The Story of Dolly's Imagination Library." (Accessed 05/20/09)
  • LANA. "About Us." (Accessed 05/20/09)
  • UWA. (Accessed 05/20/09)
  • UWA. "26 Ways to Live United." (Accessed 05/20/09)
  • UWA. "About United Way." (Accessed 05/20/09)
  • UWA. "Alternative Spring Break." (Accessed 05/20/09)
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  • UWCC. "Financial Partnership Program." (Accessed 05/20/09)
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  • UWH. "Annual Report, 2008." (Accessed 05/20/09)
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  • UWW. "The History of United Way." (Accessed 05/20/09)
  • UWW. "What Is a United Way Organization?" (Accessed 05/20/09)