CEO moves United Way beyond fundraising to help address Knoxville’s most pressing needs
A 27-foot Airstream trailer provided a cool spot for new moms to nurse their babies during a World Breastfeeding Day event hosted by the Knox County Health Department last summer. The same trailer took UT Medical Center staff to Oneida for a health clinic. It served as administrative space during the KUUMBA Festival and a place for performers to change costumes and cool off. And it shows up at Vol Village during home football games, raising awareness with the branding that runs along its length.
The Changemobile, as it’s dubbed, is a 100th anniversary project of the United Way of Greater Knoxville. It’s been rolling since March of 2022, and it encompasses much of what CEO Matt Ryerson sees as the mission of a modern United Way: being out in the community, helping nonprofits serve their clients where they are.
Celebrating 100 years
As the United Way enters its second century of service, it is poised to become a partner with the strategic vision to meet community needs by leveraging resources and responding to data that measures the impact of work being done.
Here’s an example offered by Ryerson: Food security has been identified as one of the pressing needs in the Knoxville area. Though there are lots of food pantries in the county and an extraordinary number of food resources, including community gardens, none of the nonprofits running them has the capacity to determine where agencies may be overlapping or, conversely, missing an underserved population. They can’t measure if different neighborhoods have equal access to nutritious offerings. The United Way can study those considerations and offer ways to better serve the community.
Officially formed on Dec. 2, 1922, the Community Chest, as it was originally called, raised money to help the hungry and the homeless. Its name changed in 1972 and over the years its focus has evolved, too: to better understand local needs, to mobilize volunteers, and to raise awareness and money that is funneled to nonprofits that work to meet those needs.
Its focus today is on “uniting for change.” Ryerson, who took the helm in 2019, says one of the changes has been a greater emphasis on listening to what agencies say are their greatest needs. “We don’t roll in and say ‘this is what you need’,” he says of United Way’s relationship with local nonprofits. “We’re listening to what they say they need.”
When Black-led nonprofits in East Knoxville said they needed funds for their work against gun violence, United Way responded with $750,000 in funds. “They’re doing incredible work, and we need to partner with them,” Ryerson says.
The United Way also merged with the Alliance for Better Nonprofits to provide the training necessary for nonprofit leaders to manage the dollars that come their way. “If we invest dollars in organizations, we have to invest in their capacity to manage the dollars,” he says. He thinks of the new focus as “Yes… and” — an effort to say ‘yes’ to what the United Way has always done, while adding to its value with hands-on assistance.
Another change is a more targeted effort to address the most pressing needs that face people who are struggling. In addition to food security, they also include providing affordable housing for homeless people and the working poor and providing affordable early education and child care. “Single working mothers struggling to pay the bills can’t afford child care that costs $1,200 a month,” Ryerson says.
One of the ways United Way is addressing those issues is through Community Schools. A project launched by the Knox Education Foundation, United Way is set to assume its management at 16 Knoxville schools — 13 elementary and three middle schools — this summer.
The concept is simple: Community Schools is a neighborhood-based initiative that gets parents and neighborhood leaders — pastors, businesspeople and others — involved in identifying the needs of the community. The United Way will appoint a site coordinator at each of the schools to serve as a liaison between the school and the community and to help the United Way and nonprofits bring the resources to bear to solve the challenges that are identified.
“The needs will likely be different at each school,” Ryerson said. “Some may need after-school care or summer childcare. Some might need a food pantry. Others might need a health clinic or mental health counseling. We will work with the principal, with the neighborhood, with the parents to really get those needs met.
“Knox Education Foundation has done an incredible job launching it and building a solid foundation for this community strategy. What we bring is energy and enthusiasm and additional resources. We have a grant-writing team to pursue dollars. A data team to study strategies. A communications team… We really want to see it succeed at a greater level. Our vision would be to expand it beyond 16 schools. In the next three years, we want this to be a world-class Community Schools project.”
“One of the biggest challenges for families is they don’t have access to services: they don’t know who to contact or how to apply, or they don’t have transportation. Community Schools may be the perfect model for how to deliver services. The focus is on accessibility, and moving people from dependency to self-sufficiency.”
Yet another United Way initiative with that same focus is the Mobility Mentor program for which it received $25 million in state funding. Working with core partners, including the YMCA of East Tennessee, the Knox Area Urban League, Boys & Girls Clubs and Centro Hispano, Mobility Mentors connects mentors with families to move them from needing assistance to economic stability, says Brewton Brownlow Couch, United Way’s chief strategy officer. The effort launched on Nov. 1; mentors have been hired and, at the time of this writing, are in the process of being trained.
Jim Dickson, CEO of YMCA of East Tennessee, says the mentoring program is one great example of how the United Way is getting involved in helping to solve community problems. And he credits Ryerson for fostering change.
“Matt has been a breath of fresh air in changing how the United Way functions,” he said. “It still raises money within the community but now it’s also seeking out grants and leveraging those dollars to do a lot more hands-on work.
“Through its efforts, many friendships have been created between the staffs of different organizations. It’s given us a great foundation for doing better work and being more efficient. I’ve worked for the YMCA for 40 years, and I’ve come to realize we can’t do anything by ourselves. The United Way has really helped bring people together over causes we’re trying to have an effect on.”
The United Way’s Change Awards, launched at the tail end of its centennial year, also brought nonprofits together, but with a different mission in mind. Held in December at Mill & Mine, the Change Awards celebrated the work of the nonprofit community and recognized outstanding performers. The program was exclusively for nonprofit staff; there were no donors present, Couch says, so nobody had to be “on” with the people who give them money. “We didn’t want anyone to have to work,” she says. “As a community, we had really been put through our paces responding to the needs of Covid the previous two years. We wanted a night to recognize the great work agencies are doing.” Phyllis Nichols, retiring president and CEO of the Knox Area Urban League, was the first inductee to the newly created Knoxville Nonprofit Hall of Fame. Awards were also given for innovation, for equity and inclusion, for marketing, digital work and fundraising.
“We had a lot of positive feedback,” Couch says. “People enjoyed the recognition and the networking opportunity that came from having nonprofits together. And our sponsors loved being able to participate by purchasing tables on behalf of the nonprofits.”
Robin Wilhoit, WBIR-TV news anchor, is one of four co-chairs appointed to lead the United Way’s centennial year fundraising campaign. “It’s been a fun experience,” she said. “It’s great to be part of the celebration.”
But, more importantly, it’s given her the chance for a close-up look at the nonprofit world and how they impact lives in the greater Knoxville area every day. “Being part of the campaign, I have a better understanding of how nonprofits and the United Way are evolving,” she says. “The United Way still has a mission to empower nonprofits, but there’s a difference in how they’re going about it. The Changemobile is a great example: it’s around town, spreading a message and being in action, going to the people. It’s a connection at a different level.” She mentioned a tomato plant giveaway last summer where it was put to use. “It’s about connecting and creating relationships and discussions. It’s a way for people to learn about the United Way and the United Way to learn about people. It’s spreading its message in a unique way.”
Learn more at uwgk.org.