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While many people still think of United Way as a fund-raising organization, “United Way of Erie County has really changed its focus during its 100 years existence,” says Bill Jackson, President and Chief Professional Officer. “We’ve transformed from being a fund-raising organization to becoming a community mobilizer.”

While raising funds is still a necessary function of any nonprofit organization, United Way of Erie County has evolved far beyond that in efforts to achieve measurable, lasting results for all of Erie County residents.

Over the past decade poverty rates in Erie County have skyrocketed.

In 2012, United Way and its board of directors developed a strategic plan to focus the organization’s resources on reducing poverty. The “LIVE UNITED 2025” movement aims to reduce the number of families struggling to meet their basic needs by one-third by 2025. Reaching that goal would mean 10,000 more self-sufficient families in Erie County.

“Through coordinated community efforts, our primary focus is alleviating poverty and increasing the self-sufficiency of low-income families,” says Jackson. “To that end, we have expanded beyond our traditional approach of funding programs at local nonprofits. Now, we are also collaborating with other community organizations on game-changing initiatives that have transformative results. The magnitude of some of the problems we try to combat — such as illiteracy, asset poverty, and homelessness — is so extensive that no single organization can hope to solve them alone. Working together with other established groups allows us to pool our resources and expertise, applying them to the most pressing challenges.”

In 2012, United Way’s annual campaign mobilized 13,000 donors who invested $6.1 million, the highest fundraising total in the organization’s history. In addition, 3,695 people volunteered their time and skills during 28,820 hours aimed at furthering United Way’s mission of improving lives and building a stronger community.

All of these contributions do make a difference. United Way of Erie County convenes people from business, labor, government, educational institutions, faith-based groups and other nonprofits to work toward their goal of reducing poverty. It funds more than 60 different programs and initiatives across Erie County, helping to improve the lives of more than 100,000 local men, women and children each year.

United Way was one of the founding partners of Erie Together, the region’s anti-poverty movement. Made up of participants from a wide cross-sector of organizations and residents, Erie Together is focused on working together to make the Erie region a community of opportunity where everyone can learn, work and thrive.

Likewise, United Way’s Erie FREE Taxes is one of United Way of Erie County’s key tools to help increase self-sufficiency. “This program helps qualified, low- to moderate-wage earners claim a special federal tax benefit called the Earned Income Tax Credit, which reduces or eliminates the taxes they owe through a cash refund,” explains R. J. Zonna, Senior Vice President of United Way of Erie County. “In 2012, hundreds of specially trained United Way volunteers helped over 4,000 people file for this credit, which brought millions of dollars back into our community.”

One of United Way of Erie County’s newest initiatives is Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. This program combats illiteracy by offering a free, high quality, age-appropriate book each month to every child in Erie County from birth until age five, regardless of household income. The books, which are selected by a blue ribbon panel of experts, are mailed directly to children’s homes.

“Education is the key to reducing poverty and increasing self-sufficiency,” said Laurie Root, Vice President of Investor Relations for United Way. “This program stimulates early learning and helps children read proficiently, which eventually helps them go on to secondary school or job training — breaking the cycle of illiteracy and poverty. We signed up nearly 6,000 children within four months of launching and it continues to grow rapidly.”

“We’ve identified three building blocks for a good quality of life – education, income, and health,” says John Simon, Director of Marketing and Brand Development. “We’ve developed strategies for those areas, but it will take time to transform the system. Eventually our combined efforts will have the ultimate effect of helping those 10,000 families become self-sufficient by 2025. And, we will also continue to answer the immediate critical needs of over 40,000 people every year by supporting Crisis and Essential Services.”

As United Way of Erie County prepares to celebrate its 100th Anniversary, it is setting a bold vision to guide it in its second century and helping Erie County’s residents truly “LIVE UNITED.”

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