Sara Levin, Vice President, Community Services, United Way of King County

Sara Levin, Vice President, Community Services, United Way of King County

United Way of King County has three core missions – help students graduate, end homelessness, and break the cycle of poverty. They seek innovative solutions to challenges in their community that they can evaluate, scale, and sustain, often in partnership with other funders and local governments. We chatted with Sara recently about UWKC’s efforts reduce poverty among college students, which in turn increases their likelihood of degree completion and obtaining a family-sustaining job.

At United Way of King County, our vision is a community where people have homes, students graduate, and families are financially stable. Together with our volunteers, donors, and partners from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, we identify and address the most critical needs in the community.

To achieve this vision, we make outcome-driven grants to nearly 200 nonprofit partners annually, influence public policy, and leverage volunteers and other funding sources. Our strategies include piloting effective programs like the Parent-Child Home Program and taking them to scale and investing in solutions to emerging issues like our Benefits Hub work to break the cycle of poverty among low-income college students.

We also focus on addressing racial disparities prevalent in homelessness, poverty, and barriers to educational success. Our grants and policy work use a racial equity lens to ensure we are closing the opportunity gap. King County, with a population of more than 2 million, is 64% White, with the next largest demographics being Asian (15%) and African American (6%). People of color are disproportionately represented in all of United Way’s major indicators (homelessness, poverty, and educational attainment). Despite a decrease in poverty (down 50,000+ people since 2013), disaggregated data by race shows that people of color are left out of the Seattle area’s prosperity.

We know that housing is the solution to homelessness and that you can’t find or maintain housing without an income. Jobs Connect is one of our two signature efforts to end homelessness in King County, with grants to 13 agencies connecting people experiencing homelessness to jobs and the case management they need to succeed in employment. United Way piloted the program in 2016, connecting 163 people to jobs; in the year ending June 30, 2018, we scaled up the program, connecting more than 2,200 homeless individuals to full or part-time jobs.

The other initiative, Streets to Home, builds on new research about diverting people from homelessness and provides outreach and discretionary funds to create individual solutions to help people exit homelessness. In the year ending June 30, 2018, we diverted more than 1,500 people from the streets to housing and are seeing low returns to homelessness following the diversion support.

In the education realm, I mentioned our program supporting our youngest learners – the Parent-Child Home Program. We also reconnect young people who’ve dropped out, helping them get back on track and achieve a degree or credential via our Reconnecting Youth initiative. Several years ago, we estimated a population of more than 14,000 young people ages 16-24 who had dropped out of school and weren’t working. At the same time, we recognized that state funding to pay for reengaging those youth in school wasn’t being used. Our initiative focuses on expanding reengagement opportunities, ensuring young people have the services they need to persist to a high school equivalency or diploma.

We also invest in a program that works with young people who have reengaged in school to help them get beyond a diploma and off to college or credential that will help them get a job. In the last three years, we’ve met our outreach goals, connecting nearly 10,000 students to an expanded set of reengagement sites. We’re behind on our completion goals and have adjusted with our funding and service partners to emphasize program quality improvements and increasing the amount of culturally specific services so we improve completion rates among students of color.

United Way of King County has designed a highly effective model of connecting low income people to tax credits, public benefits, income, and savings opportunities. As the local experts in the region, we scaled the model up to help 35,000 people access food and income last year through our Free Tax Preparation Campaign, Fuel Your Future program, Poverty Solutions grants, and Benefit Hubs. Each year we unlock $40 million of public dollars that would otherwise be left on the table. We do this by investing $4.8 million and partnering with 50 organizations, 200 AmeriCorps members, and 1,300 volunteers. We also leverage partnerships with the business community and tap into our marketing prowess to raise awareness about the programs.

United Way of King County’s Benefits Hub program addresses the unique challenge of students on college campuses facing poverty, homelessness, and hunger. We know education can provide a pathway out of poverty, but poverty presents barriers to college access, persistence, and completion. Community and technical colleges provide an affordable, accessible way to build job skills, but many low-income working students struggle to earn a certificate or degree. United Way of King County Benefits Hub disrupts the cycle of poverty by connecting students with income supports to assist in obtaining a college degree or certificate.

Our approach is twofold, encompassing both the current needs of students today and working towards policy change to create more universally equitable college completion tomorrow. By pairing a policy agenda with our coordinated, onsite delivery of services, workshops, and coaching, Benefits Hub is looking towards ensuring that regardless of where someone might go to school, services are consistent and pathways are solidified that support student success across the region. This fiscal year, we expect to help 10,000 students across eight colleges. Students can receive financial grants, free tax preparation, other income supports, access to public benefits, financial coaching, and help with housing, legal services, and food.

Education is a proven pathway to good jobs, but too often poverty gets in the way. Students who rely on free meals or struggle with homelessness in the K-12 system are hungry and face housing instability when they get to college. Many of the barriers that were there for them in K-12 or reengagement programs didn’t vanish once they moved on to college –and in fact are often exacerbated by increased independence and the need for self-reliance. Working parents who return to college are often one financial shock away from dropping out. Some students who struggle to persist come from families without college experience – families that may not know how or why to support them.

United Way’s position is that we need to disrupt poverty for students, particularly students of color who are disproportionately impacted, so that they can achieve their college and career goals. As noted above, via our Benefits Hubs, we are working to connect students to public benefits, emergency financial grants, homelessness prevention, and financial coaching. We’re also trying to change policies and systems so that every student has the opportunity to persist through financial challenges.

United Way will continue to partner with key public entities such as the Department of Social and Health Services, Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction, K-12 system, and College system. Our policy and systems work with these entities focuses on increasing access and removing barriers to public resources. We will also advocate for state and federal anti-hunger programs, tax credits, National Service programs, and the Working Families Rebate or a similar local Earned Income Tax Credit. We will lead administrative advocacy to reduce barriers to public benefits, including SNAP on college campuses.

Not everyone is aware of or appreciates the financial barriers students face. We urge other funders to take the time to listen to students themselves. Student voice is critical in creating solutions and ensuring our interventions are focused on equity. Funders should ask a lot of questions and not make assumptions about what is happening in students’ lives and why. For example, we hear that many schools are offering emergency grants but, after doing an RFP for our emergency grant funding, learned that students had significant barriers to accessing those grants.

We recommend funders integrate grants into systems that already exist. The college system has a great deal of bureaucracy and silos; our philanthropic investments can help break those silos down as Benefits Hub investments on campuses have prompted adjusting the location and visibility of services so more students can access them and Hubs colocate a variety of services so students and providers can work more seamlessly to problem solve and access resources. Another piece of advice is if you’re committed to work on college campuses, you need to be persistent. It has taken us several years of relationship and trust building to get on some campuses. There’s a growing body of research on this topic – let’s learn from each other!

  • What are other funders doing to provide specific supports re college completion that have been shown to be particularly effective for students of color generally and/or specific sub-groups of students?
  • What research are you reading or funding about poverty and educational attainment? What are you learning and what excites you or could spur you to invest or invest more in the issue?

Be clear about your north star and how various philanthropic silos can collaborate. There isn’t one right answer, but finding something to align on (equity, Two Generation approaches, etc.) can break down some of the silos. It’s also important to remember that our different funding constraints can work together well. Our government partners fund differently than United Way, who funds differently than our philanthropic partners. Be strategic and leverage different types of investment, timing, and outcomes rather than looking at them as barriers. We’ve done this well with a couple of our key initiatives – using philanthropic funds to launch, test, and take a strategy to scale with government funding as our sustainability strategy. It can work, but relationships, creativity, a common north star, and persistence are critical.

It’s also important to remember that those using the services we fund don’t live in silos. Listen to the clients, students, or families experiencing poverty; individuals experiencing homelessness; and so on. This will help us as funders keep strategies connected. Finally, don’t be afraid to dream big, to test things that may not work, and to pivot as needed.