What does the term, “the common good” mean to you? We seem to be hearing it more and more these days. Sometimes it’s used in advertisements for products and goods, and other times it’s used by elected officials who support a particular issue stating that “it’s for the common good of our community.”
The meaning varies from person to person, but to me, I believe that the common good relates to a community supporting programs, agencies or specific initiatives that truly better that community. These programs, agencies and initiatives change people’s lives by giving them tools and opportunities to better themselves. To me, the common good means improving human conditions. It’s the process of working for the betterment of everyone in the community while alleviating barriers that often impede their ability to thrive and become successful and productive citizens.
During my 41-year career with United Way and throughout nine cities and four states, I have had the good fortune of working with hundreds of nonprofit organizations and a variety of local United Ways. The transformation of the kinds of work performed by nonprofit health and human service organizations that I have witnessed over the past 10 years to 15 years has been nothing short of stunning. Gone are the days when nonprofits (NPs) simply strive to serve and report the largest number of clients possible (for example, meals served; nights of shelter for homeless individuals and families; number of children counseled). Now NPs are focusing their resources on achieving positive outcomes by asking the simple question, “How can we change this person’s or family’s condition?” This could include getting clients through budget or financial literacy training and directed toward employment, or seeing that children are succeeding in school, and then reporting those outcomes. Having outcomes maintained and reported to the public, as well as to funders, has added relevancy to the term “the common good.”
United Way has been a proponent and a leader that has focused on program and community outcomes. With United Way, this transformation has evolved into an overriding business model referred to as Community Impact. As I have written in previous Insights articles, the Community Impact Model incorporates an ongoing volunteer-driven community assessment of the most critical community needs with current assets and program best practices. This assessment then drives specific targets with which annual charitable investments are made by United Way volunteers. This entire concept is based on program outcomes, both current and projected. Volunteers making those difficult annual investment decisions are determining which proposed programs provide the best outcomes. And these can be very difficult decisions because the funding proposals are typically very well done while the amount of funding currently available represents about half of what has been requested. Here at United Way of the Cape Fear Area (UWCFA), the focus is on outcomes in the three community impact areas: health, education and financial stability. Investments to programs in these areas are made for three years, giving each program an adequate period in which to show successful, meaningful outcomes and to continue to work towards “the common good.”
The bottom line is simple: If a community chooses to work toward “the common good,” it must do so in a coordinated, systemic manner in which all community resources can be supported and used in the most efficient and effective way possible. It also requires that everyone in the community do their part. This means voluntarily providing financial resources to area NPs, volunteering time, and advocating on behalf of NPs. If less than half of the community does not actively participate in achieving “the common good,” then “the common good” can never be achieved.
In the Cape Fear Area, let’s all do our part to achieve “the common good” in our region. In the end, the entire community will benefit.
Christopher L. Nelson is president of the United Way of the Cape Fear Area, a local nonprofit organization. Since 1941, the United Way of the Cape Fear Area has worked alongside local agencies in Brunswick, Columbus, New Hanover and Pender counties to assist them in providing substantial and sustainable change within the Cape Fear area. To learn more about the United Way of the Cape Fear Region, go to https://uwcfa.org/ or call 910-798-3900.
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