United for Change

Nonprofits fighting poverty have an ally in the United Way of Southeast Louisiana.
Perspective Economic

Illustration by S.E. George

Michael Williamson has served as the CEO of United Way of Southeast Louisiana for the past 10 years. He may be reached via email at MichaelW@UnitedWaySELA.org.

United Way of Southeast Louisiana began a journey in 2014 to renew our approach to creating lasting change. We began with a listening process, featuring community conversations across our service area, including Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa and Washington parishes.

Participants discussed their aspirations and the challenges they face. Some emerging barriers included low wages, limited education, inadequate health care and unaffordable housing.

Through research and engagement, it became clear that poverty is the fundamental issue in the region.

In the pandemic’s wake, we hosted more conversations to refine each parish’s pressing issues and pathways to maximize impact.

We heard that the shortage of high-quality youth programming and educational opportunities, economic instability, and unaddressed behavioral and mental health challenges are the unfortunate reality of our region.

While many nonprofits and programs exist to support the health and vibrancy of local communities, they reported often lacking the funding and coordination needed to drive systemic change.

Additionally, community members said they are frequently unable to access or navigate available high-quality programs due to the daily challenges of living in or near poverty.

Enter United Way, a historic institution with a sweeping vision and framework to address society’s most persistent inequities.

Driven by the “Blueprint for Prosperity” — our strategic plan to end poverty — United Way tackles poverty head-on, taking a holistic approach to addressing its root causes and residents’ emerging needs.

The blueprint provides the foundation for our collective impact model, in which we serve as a backbone organization that drives work forward. We help the community and nonprofit ecosystem solve the problems no individual organization can solve alone.

History tells us that nonprofits are essential to Southeast Louisiana’s architecture. For nearly a century, the community has embedded United Way of Southeast Louisiana in its foundation. From our early days as the Community Chest, to the United Fund, and today, we’ve always worked collaboratively to solve the toughest issues.

The sustained success of United Way-led programming, like the IDA Project, Louisiana Prisoner Reentry Initiative, Kay Fennelly Literacy Institute and our Prosperity Centers, demonstrates our ability to develop and execute high-quality programs. We also provide critical support in times of disaster, responding at the speed of need to help neighbors recover.

Our responsive grant-making — rooted in equity, community voice and data — provides direct financial support to trusted organizations and collaborations aligned with our blueprint.

At the local, state and federal levels, we work collaboratively to advocate for systemic change on the issues that matter most in Southeast Louisiana.
The bottom line is investments in our approach go further because of our ability to see the bigger picture and understand the realities of those living in or near poverty.

But it has never been just United Way.

We are committed to the idea that it takes all of us — working together with shared goals and a unified approach — to create more change collectively than on our own.

We know challenges will persist, but the continued support of United Way and our partners will provide the region with the tools, systems, processes and resources to tackle these issues.

As a result, nonprofits will be able to build capacity and create impact more effectively, and residents will have the supports and opportunities necessary to be healthy, educated and financially stable.

We call Southeast Louisiana home and have built our reputation on sustaining its future. We believe this region can be a standard-bearer for equitable, thriving communities, and we will continue to be a guiding pillar, shaping residents’ experiences as we work to eradicate poverty and create a place that we’re all proud to call home.