Who determines how United Way of Central Alabama allocates funds from its annual campaign? An inside look at the process.

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United Way VAT members at the Community Food Bank of Central Alabama. Photo courtesy of United Way of Central Alabama

Have you ever wondered how United Way of Central Alabama distributes the money raised through its annual campaign?

United Way of Central Alabama makes it happen through a process called Visiting Allocations Teams (VAT).

How VATs work

United Way of Central Alabama set a fundraising goal of $38 million to help support needed programs and services of its 80 partner agencies and initiatives.

That’s where VATs come in.

Hundreds of volunteers evaluate the nonprofits receiving funds

Each year, at least 500 volunteers come together to form 23 Visiting Allocation Teams with roughly 22 members on each team. VAT members represent a wide range of people with various racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds along with different lifestyles, experiences, and interests.

All teams have a Community Impact staff person and a VAT chairperson to guide the process. Each chair has years of experience of serving on a Visiting Allocations Team and has extensive knowledge of the process.

Community volunteers drive

Scott Powell, Executive Director Alabama Head Injury Foundation, a United Way agency since 1990,describes why it is important to have the community decide where the funds are allocated.

“You have got this wonderful mix of people who are influential members of the community and successful business people, who are volunteering their time to come ask questions, probe deeper, to make sure you (in Powell’s case the Head Injury Foundation) are going to do the things you say you are going to do,” said Powell. “As someone receiving funds, you have got to have your act together. It (VAT) is an extremely thorough process that forces agencies to look deep inside themselves. Are we doing the things we should in the community?”

Meetings and site visits

Each VAT team meets three times for a total of 10-12 hours. In the first meeting, members get to know each other, briefly discuss the three agencies they will be visiting and decide on dates for the remaining two sessions.

During the second meeting, each team reviews and discusses their assigned agencies in detail. Team members can also ask questions they have discovered while reviewing the application and documents submitted by each organization.

All-day site visits to each United Way agency is the essence of the third team meeting. Each agency tour is about an hour long. Site visits are an excellent opportunity for each organization to inform and educate VAT members about the services they provide. After visiting the agencies, the team chair will hold a caucus to discuss the team’s view of agencies, services offered, and impact made within the community.

Allocation decision time

VAT #18 Is reviewing Aletheia House, The Crisis Center and Fellowship House.
Phillip Coffey, Market Specialist, Alabama Power, Chairman. Photo courtesy of United Way of Central Alabama

The group will then decide how much money they believe the three agencies should receive from the allotted amount. Some VAT chairs employ unique tactics to accomplish this.

For example, Pat VanderMeer, Alabama Power Company, gives each member coins to vote, with each coin representing a specific dollar amount. VanderMeer said, “I first saw another VAT chair use the coin idea several years ago and thought it was wonderful. It gives each member a true voice on how the allocations are distributed.”

At the beginning of December, all team chairs gather for an allocations hearing, where each chair will present their team’s findings and funding decisions to the other team chairs.

This process can take several hours due to the extreme care given by chairs to assure the allocations are shared the best way possible. After the Allocations Hearing, the final step in this process is for the United Way of Central Alabama Board to approve the committee’s recommendation.

The board game Monopoly and making a difference

Why is this process important for United Way of Central Alabama? Scott Powell provided this analogy.

“You know the United Way of Central Alabama was originally called the Birmingham Community Chest. I always thought that was interesting because when I hear community chest, I immediately think about the game of Monopoly.” According to Powell when you land on chance and you have to draw one of those orange cards, there is always that apprehension will this card be good or bad?.

“What United Way’s VAT process does, is read every chance card you can take, remove all of the bad cards, so when you make your gift, you are not taking a chance, you are giving a chance to others. That is the beauty of what United Way of Central Alabama is about. When you invest your dollars into United Way, you know without a shadow of doubt, that your charitable dollars will make a difference. “

Join the campaign. Join VAT

VAT tours Oasis Counseling for Women and Children in Birmingham

You still may wonder what you will personally get out of joining a Visiting Allocations Team.

Previous members have said, “Participating as a VAT member is a great way for me to give back to my community.”

Many VAT members return year after year, because of this positive the experience. For those volunteers who are also United Way donors, it is a chance to experience how their money is invested in making a better community.. VAT members can also become true advocates after gaining tons of knowledge and exposure to United Way of Central Alabama and its partners.

To hear more testimonials about this unique volunteer experience visit the Visiting Allocation Team webpage at:

http://www.uwca.org/volunteer/visiting-allocation-teams/.

Registration for the 2019 process will open next year in early April.

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Author: Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.