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Turning Expertise into Service

Growing up in Orlando, Fla., Sarah Jones was always passionate about supporting her community. When her career brought her to Savannah, Ga., in 2008, she wanted to connect to her new city. A portfolio manager for Truist Bank, Sarah knew she could use her skills and education to do some good here as she had done in her hometown.

While she was settling in, Sarah could see the profound effects of the Great Recession on her new community. Looking for a way to put her abilities to work for a cause that would improve people’s lives, the advice of a coworker led her to reach out to United Way of the Coastal Empire. Today, Sarah is co-chair of the United Way Youth Development Investment Panel, a perfect match of expertise and service.

“This opportunity to serve on the investment panel allows me to work and fulfill my philanthropic passion,” Sarah said. “What I didn’t really understand before my experience with United Way was all of the much smaller agencies that may assist a much smaller group of individuals but have a tremendous impact on their lives.”

When people and institutions donate to United Way’s Community Fund, their gift becomes part of a collective effort to strengthen our entire community by providing a safety net and a pathway for upward mobility.

“A gift the Community Fund not only goes to one agency, but it gets spread across over 50 different agencies over 80 different programs. And those agencies then use those dollars that they get from United Way to multiply their reach in the world,” said Sarah.

But how do we know that the funding is being used appropriately? That’s where the Community Investment Panel comes in. Its role is to monitor and steward funding for different areas, including economic opportunity, youth development, academic success, crisis intervention, and health and safety.

Members of the investment panels are a force, with 85 volunteers spending countless hours building trust and ensuring that the dollars are used efficiently to reach stated goals.

“The Community Fund is the best way to make the largest difference of improving lives in the Coastal Empire,” said Sarah. “It’s important to give this year because we have existing agencies that have launched brand new programs, and we have new agencies that have never received United Way funding before.”

Members of the investment panels review financial statements and assess outcomes for the programs that apply for support. With all involved focused on improving lives, the relationship isn’t adversarial—the experts on the panel help from beginning to end.

Many established agencies have been working with United Way for years and understand the process of quantifying and submitting goals with their grant requests. But there are often newer applicants that work with investment panel members to navigate the process and present their plans properly.

After grants are disbursed, the investment panel follows up on progress. To maintain donor trust, there is constant communication throughout the year. Some assessments are more straightforward than others. For example, if an organization provides a specific number of meals to underserved children, that goal is easily assessed. On the other hand, if an agency is working to keep troubled youths out of the criminal justice system, the panel can offer guidance on quantifying and rating a program’s performance.

“All organizations have unique goals. It is imperative to agree to those upfront and monitor progress along the way to ensure the funds are spent properly,” Sarah added. “We would love to continue to grow that funding and support these organizations in years to come.”

Volunteering to work with United Way in this capacity is another example of how we all have something to offer others in need. Without careful and thoughtful spending of contributions, United Way couldn’t reach and help as many people as it does. And building this layer of trust between donors and agencies is another way we all move Forward United.

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