Cliff Smith’s title is president, but he’d probably prefer something along the lines of “Collaborator in Chief.”
“We don’t think of our United Way as primarily a fundraising organization,” he says. “We think our job is to help people by working with the United Way’s network of agencies through collaboration and partnership. Those are really the guiding principles of everything we do here.”
Still, under his leadership, the fundraising has been going well. For each of the 23 years that he has headed up the United Way of Lee, Hendry, Glades and Okeechobee counties, the organization has exceeded its annual campaign goals. In fiscal 2015-2016, it raised $9.42 million, a 4.2 percent increase over 2014-2015 gifts.
The funds support 85 United Way partner agencies and more than 200 programs, with just 9 percent used for administrative costs. The United Way of Lee, Hendry, Glades and Okeechobee counties has raised over $147 million for the community since it was established in 1957.
Smith looks for collaboration not only in his own shop of 28 employees, but also in the organizations he works with in the United Way network. “When we are awarding funding to agencies, the ability to work together is one of the prime criteria,” he says. “That’s just part of building a culture where collaboration and partnership are not unique things, but they’re the expected things.”
An example of wide-ranging collaboration is the United Way’s Help Me Grow program which, in partnership with Healthy Start, promotes healthy development for kids up to age 8. State leaders were impressed to discover that 16 local agencies were involved, Smith says. They told him that other communities had only three or four partners.
And while Smith and his staff were able to coordinate these disparate agencies, they knew they had to provide just one phone number to make it easy on callers. They designated the United Way 211 helpline, a free, centralized call center, to serve as an intake and filter for the calls. Operators then make a “warm handoff,” transferring callers directly in real time to Healthy Start for a screening to determine their needs and the best sources of help. From there, individuals are connected with the partnering agencies.
Smith knows that the key to a communal operation like this one is to give credit to everyone involved, and to remain thankful. “The quickest way to destroy collaboration and partnership is to lose trust. The quickest way to lose trust is by trying to claim credit for the good work that other people are doing,” he says. “You really want to build trust in your partners so you know that your partners care about your success.”
Smith is also quick to praise United Way agencies that find ways to work together on their own. For example, Goodwill Industries of Southwest Florida provides Job-Link training at the Beacon of H.O.P.E. United Way House on Pine Island. The United Way Houses in communities such as Clewiston, LaBelle and Pine Island are available for multiple agencies to use for free. Both organizations came up with the idea, instead of being prompted by the United Way. Individuals receive more comprehensive help as a result, Smith says.
“I was trained by people who believed in partnership and collaboration,” Smith says. “Over my career, I have seen more and more that that is the path to productivity.”