Looking inside CommunityWorks

The program has a name, but several of its board members drew blanks when asked about it.

It has a budget, but the staff who runs it can't fully explain what the money pays for.

And it has a mission – but that's changing.

Meet CommunityWorks, the costliest of the four in-house programs run by the United Way of Central Carolinas. Together, the programs have seen far greater budget increases than local charities the United Way supports.

Spending on the programs increased 28 percent from fiscal years 2006 to 2007. Total dollars given to the 91 United Way charities rose 3.3 percent.

Now the United Way's new leadership is questioning if the agency's money wouldn't be better spent on outside charities.

CommunityWorks, which serves as the United Way's community planning and public policy arm, has seven employees. It received $1.5 million in the 2007 budget year – a 23 percent increase over the previous year.

Cliff Grimes, a United Way senior vice president, said the program was designed to be “entrepreneurial” – charging fees to do broad-based research and community planning.

That didn't work out. Other groups, such as UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute, were already doing such work, Grimes said. CommunityWorks has “not been as active as we'd hoped,” he added.

Nevertheless, its budget grew steadily under former President Gloria Price King, even as its mission was becoming less clear. Its portion of United Way money increased almost fourfold from 2002-2003 to last year, according to United Way consolidated financial statements.

Meanwhile, the program has narrowed its approach, focusing on tasks such as helping member agencies measure their successes and identifying local needs. As of December, when Grimes took over the program, it was re-evaluating its purpose, he said. “We're walking through that process now.”

A former United Way official knowledgeable about the program's history said it has done good work, but expressed shock when told of its current budget and lack of direction.

“Since they don't do planning or studies – what it was designed to do – I'd be real curious to know what they are doing,” said the former official, who asked to remain anonymous.

United Way vice presidents Dani Stone and Mack McDonald said CommunityWorks tracks trends in government policy, raises awareness on critical issues and sets priorities for how United Way money should be invested.

Asked how the program measures its achievements and what results it can show for its work, McDonald said he didn't think the agency had “the metrics” to answer the question but would look into it.

“There's no one left up there at a management level,” McDonald said, referring to the departure of King and her top deputy, Angela Hubbard, who left last year. “We've just lost all our history with that organization. With Gloria gone, every single layer of management involved in that is gone.”

As for the annual budget increases, McDonald said the program hired four new employees from 2003 to 2006. He said “much” of the annual increases were due to higher management costs but didn't provide specifics.

CommunityWorks is overseen by a board of directors, but some board members didn't seem to recognize CommunityWorks' title when asked about it recently. Three current and former board members interviewed said they weren't familiar with the program's finances.

Charlotte United Way board member Michael Smith oversees the program's public policy work. He says volunteers and a staffer research issues affecting the region, and CommunityWorks organizes an annual meeting with lawmakers to raise awareness about critical needs.

“I think it's incredibly important that we have an organization that does more than just raise the money but actually understands the issues that are impacting the most fragile in our community,” he said.

Staff Writer Michael Gordon contributed.