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“We must work together, collectively measuring changes in people’s lives if we want to really give them a chance to overcome poverty.”

Tim Rich is the executive director of Heart of Missouri United Way, a nationally affiliated organization. This community-based and volunteer-led nonprofit works to improve the lives of people in need by mobilizing and coordinating the caring power of community resources in Boone, Cooper, and Howard counties in mid-Missouri.

Recently, Heart of Missouri United Way completely overhauled its business and service models by moving into the new United Way Worldwide Community Impact model. As a result, it now partners with more than 55 local nonprofit human service organizations, a Strive collaborative, the University of Missouri, and Columbia Public Schools. All are working together to prevent and alleviate poverty among at-risk youth.

In addition to an extensive history of serving local nonprofits (including the Salvation Army and the Central Missouri Food Bank), Tim served as the director of development for the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Missouri and in-state chief of staff for Missouri’s former 9th U.S. Congressional District.

BusinessInterviews.com: Much of your career involves working with nonprofit organizations (the Salvation Army and the Central Missouri Food Bank). What led you to Heart of Missouri United Way, and how has your previous experience contributed to your role as executive director?

Tim: My experiences have taken me from an ordained minister in the Salvation Army to a marketing director to unemployed. Eventually, it became tough to juggle expenses and my children’s needs. There were times when I didn’t know how I would feed them, and friends had to quietly deliver boxes of food to our house. Then, I become a janitor. After several promotions, I worked with the Salvation Army Harbor House and the Central Missouri Food Bank, and finally, I became the executive director of Heart of Missouri United Way.

While my journey was neither planned nor predicted, it was providential in preparing me for my work with United Way. I needed to know that I didn’t have all the answers, finish my academic education, and allow others to help me, even when I was too proud to ask for it. It really put charity into perspective. It was hard for me to overcome these challenges, but my struggles were nothing compared to those who are caught in a generational culture of poverty.

All of this prepared me to lead a new kind of United Way work — both intellectually and compassionately. I had to become the bridge between those who needed help and those who could help, and now I have the passion to share that message with the community.

BusinessInterviews.com: What Heart of Missouri United Way initiatives are you most excited for in the coming year?

Tim: I’m really excited about moving to a performance metrics-based evaluation system and strengthening our partner agencies to measure long-term positive change in people’s lives.

Our success as a community requires a deep cultural change in our service communities because no agency can succeed alone. We must work together, collectively measuring changes in people’s lives if we want to really give them a chance to overcome poverty. When that happens, success stories will become the norm rather than the exception, and we’ll be able to prove a real quantifiable return on social investment to our donors and community. We’ll all benefit from lifting others out of poverty.

BusinessInterviews.com: Why is United Way’s commitment to and focus on youth and education so crucial to the future of communities around the nation?

Tim: If we’re being really honest, there’s only one way out of poverty. There will never be enough government money, corporate sponsorship money, grant money, or individual donation money to lift people out of poverty. The only way out is for people to employ their own personal industry and work their way out. Our job is to equip, educate, and empower people who want a path out of poverty to gain employable skills that local employers value and seek.

If we want to change generational poverty, we must prepare children from an early age. They need to enter kindergarten ready to learn. By third grade, they must be able to read proficiently if they’re going to stay in school. We lose a lot of kids from all economic strata during the transition from middle school to high school. That’s a critical social-emotional development period in an adolescent’s life.

If we want to change the future, we have to start with the children — especially those in poverty and fragile families. We have to help them catch up with middle- and upper-income children from birth.

BusinessInterviews.com: Please share your favorite story of how Heart of Missouri United Way has impacted an individual or organization in mid-Missouri.

Tim: My favorite story is about a young student named Leon. Leon’s mother suffered from a chronic disease that kept her frequently hospitalized, and his father had never been a part of his life. As a result, he lived with his grandmother, who was elderly and couldn’t drive.

Leon’s grandma got food from the food bank and bus vouchers and medication from Voluntary Action Center. They also got service from the Salvation Army, Family Health Center, and other agencies funded by United Way just to maintain a home. Yet, his extended family members regularly took advantage of his grandma, hosting wild parties, drinking alcohol, and doing drugs in her home.

Leon’s neighborhood friends were walking a path that was leading them into gang violence, drugs, and other vices, and many of them had already gone to jail. Leon really didn’t want that life, but he was a D and F student. The future didn’t look promising.

He became a member of the Boys & Girls Club of Columbia, which is a United Way-funded agency, so he would have a safe place to go after school. But the club also pushed him to improve his academic achievements, supported him, and loved him. It pushed him hard but engaged him deeply — to the point that he wanted to be at the club even when it was closed.

One day, Leon came into the club all excited and interrupted the director. She was busy with someone, so she asked him to wait. Leon kept interrupting, pulling on her shirttail over and over. Finally, in frustration, the director said, “Leon! What do you want?” Leon handed her a piece of paper. As she read it, her eyes welled up with tears. It was Leon’s straight-A report card!

That story tells us several things. First of all, it takes more than one agency to change people’s lives, and when all the services wrap around a family, the effects of our individual services are multiplied. Secondly, what we do really can change the course of someone’s life. And lastly, those we serve must also engage in changing their own lives for any of us to achieve success. The good news is that Leon graduated from high school, which didn’t seem possible just three short years earlier. The bad news is that Leon’s story is the exception, not the rule.

Community Impact, a United Way strategy that focuses on supporting at-risk youth in school and life, is about figuring out how to align and connect all of a community’s resources so Leon’s story becomes the norm. That requires nonprofits, funders, businesses, governments, school systems, faith communities, end recipients, and individuals to intentionally work together to change the future for our kids.

BusinessInterviews.com: What was the biggest challenge you’ve encountered as an organization, and how did you bounce back from it?

Tim: Change. People like the sound of change — the vision of a better life and community — but they don’t like the actual process of change. For example, we saw 5-6 percent increases in our community donations in our ramp-up to Community Impact. Donors loved the idea of changing the conditions that kept people in need as well as a quantifiable return on their investment.

They responded with real dollars — that is, until we changed our agenda to focus on the most pressing needs in the most deeply affected populations and how we funded local agencies. We set priorities based on hard data that was available in the public domain, which demonstrated the depth and breadth of needs among our neighbors. We enlisted 100 volunteers and more than 500 community voices to inform our decisions.

We zeroed out all of our agencies, including those that had been funded since our founding. Some of them didn’t receive funding in our “competitive” performance metric-based grant process. Then, people, agencies, and donors weren’t sure that they liked it so much.

How did we bounce back from it? We proved that it works. I’m from Missouri: the Show-Me State. Here, you have to show us, not just tell us.

We’ve had to adjust. We’ve had to cut our staff and budget, along with agency funding. We’ve had to slow our progress due to a lack of resources, and we’ve had to keep pushing forward. But in 2014, we produced our first Community Impact results report card, and for the first time, we had numbers that showed improvement. Previously, all we had was the total number of people served. We had quantity but no measure of quality impact. Now we do.

BusinessInterviews.com: Where do you see Heart of Missouri United Way in five years?

Tim: In five years, I expect that Heart of Missouri United Way will continue to have the strong support of our community because we’ll be able to quantify long-term results and show success in the lives of the people we serve. I believe that we’ll, once again, be the charity of choice in our community because we connect the entire community and engage everyone to resolve our most pressing social needs.

BusinessInterviews.com: What advice would you give business leaders who are looking to get their company involved in philanthropy but are unsure where to start?

Tim: I recommend checking out your local United Way. It knows more about the your local nonprofits than almost any other entity. Then, decide what your social agenda is. What do you want to change? How do you want to help? What are you and your employees passionate about? Is there an agency that reflects your values and serves your customer? Go where your passion is. If you want to invest money, invest your time first. Volunteer!

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