“My work career has always been about public service. It began as that kid knocking on the neighbor’s door, asking them to give to this or that. I was raised with a sense of social obligation, that I should give back to my community. For a long time, I worked in the government on a state and international scale, but I had a heart for doing something in my own community. That was when my current position with the United Way of Anchorage opened up.”
Michele Brown has been President of United Way of Anchorage for the past 15 years. Her role is broad and varied. “I am a jack of all trades, and a master of none,” Brown says, tongue-in-cheek, “I touch all areas of our work. I am a part of getting our community engaged with an issue, collaborating with our partners to find the best way to deliver on results, ensuring the work is resourced and funded, coordinating events and opportunities, and reporting return on investment back to our partners and investors.”
United Way of Anchorage has a unique and powerful approach to public service. It homes in on our community’s toughest issues and confronts them head-on. “We say, ‘What are some of the biggest problems and deepest challenges that our community faces?'” Brown says, “Then we think about what we can do to improve these aspects of our community, and how we can align the respective efforts of many around achieving those goals.”
United Way of Anchorage operates as a wheelhouse, bringing groups together and acting as a change agent for community issues. “It’s not a solo act,” Brown says, “Resolving these issues requires community collaboration. No one person or sector can do this on their own. I like to communicate what we do using an analogy. Think of us as general contractors. If a plumber is working over here, great, and if an electrician is working over there, great, but you won’t have a house unless someone is there to pull it all together.”
The community problems United Way of Anchorage chooses to focus on are based on real needs as determined by surveys and data. “We and many partners did a community assessment,” Brown says, “Half of the kids we surveyed felt like no one cared about their success. We began to pull together community resources to ensure that every child from kindergarten to graduation felt prepared for life.” At the time, only 59% of Anchorage students were graduating high school. United Way of Anchorage made it a community goal to change this rate to 90% by 2020. “Right now, we are at 81%,” Brown says, “We are about to cross the finish line. We have set up a sustainable path for the future and we are confident that the 90% Graduation by 2020 campaign will have a lasting impact on the Anchorage community.”
Brown emphasizes the importance of both short-term and long-term solutions as well as helping both the individual and the community. “Feeding a child today is important. Let’s not stop doing that. But let’s also think about what is going to get kids prepared for life in our schools, homes, and community.” In order to determine the best path forward, United Way of Anchorage convened school officials, coaches, and service providers to talk about the great things they were doing and to align their efforts. “We agreed that a lot of kids were still getting lost to gangs, violence, and substances despite all of our hard work. So, we came up with certain metrics for kids that define our success, such as starting school ready, attending regularly, reading by the 3rd grade, and being proficient in mathematics.”
Another big area of focus for the United Way of Anchorage has been family homelessness, working in collaboration with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness (ACEH), Catholic Social Services, RurAL CAP and Salvation Army. ACEH manages a list of families experiencing homelessness in Anchorage. To date, almost 40% of the list has been placed in permanent housing, and 70% of those placed have remain housed. This program is also important for the success of the community’s “90% by 2020” graduation rate goal. “Kids fall behind when they have to keep moving,” Brown says. The list gives non-profits like United Way of Anchorage and ACEH the ability to know the name and story of those they are serving, helping them connect with the right level of housing and support services.
“Our impact is about both improving individual lives and building collaborations for lasting change to help all. ” Brown says, “This happens when people come together and align their contributing efforts. If we can master this, we are a resilient, strong community that can take on any issue that confronts us.”