United Way, Hands On Charlotte merge to create volunteer service hub

United Way’s Volunteer Center, which recently arranged a “tiny libraries” construction project with TIAA, will be combined with Hands On Charlotte as part of new volunteer program.
United Way’s Volunteer Center, which recently arranged a “tiny libraries” construction project with TIAA, will be combined with Hands On Charlotte as part of new volunteer program. United Way of Central Carolinas

Charlotte’s United Way is absorbing the nonprofit Hands On Charlotte in a surprise move that will make it one of the state’s largest providers of volunteer labor for community service.

It’s not the first time one of the nation’s United Ways has merged with a chapter of Hands On, but it represents a new level of confidence for Charlotte’s United Way chapter.

Nearly a decade ago, the agency’s image was tarnished by revelations donor dollars were paying the CEO more than $1 million in compensation and salary. The financial fallout was magnified by the onset of the economic downturn, which crippled Charlotte’s banks and prompted thousands of layoffs and pay cuts.

United Way continues to grapple with boosting its fundraising, but the agency has reasserted its influence and power in other ways. This includes using its millions of dollars to support programs that tackle key community problems like homelessness, school graduation rates and school absenteeism.

In the arena of community service, it is now the undisputed authority in Charlotte for connecting volunteers with charities.

“Merging with Hands On is another part of United Way’s re-emergence,” says Carol Hardison, head of Crisis Assistance Ministry and a Hands On Charlotte board of advisers member.

“During the economic downturn, nonprofits had to pare back services like everybody else. In the case of United Way, they were chopped to the core. They are rebuilding and strategically expanding critical parts of their mission that the community demands. This is one of those demands.”

Hands On Charlotte’s executive director, Eric Law, announced his pending retirement back in August and is remaining through the transition. Three full-time staff at the agency will be offered positions with United Way, officials said.

United Way officials say money will be saved by the merger, which is eliminating a redundancy in Charlotte’s charitable community. Both United Way and Hands On Charlotte had staff who were coordinating volunteer projects in the community.

United Way’s Volunteer Center engaged 5,491 volunteers for a total of 15,254 hours served last year, with most of the work benefiting its 78 member charities. And Hands On Charlotte averaged 12,400 volunteers and 30,000 hours served per year as part of its work.

John Papadopulos, chair of United Way’s board, prefers to say United Way is rebounding, rather than recreating itself. And he says the changes are based on responding to what the community wants from United Way.

“The direction of United Way has been changing for several years, as it became more of a community facilitator. United Way’s job is, more and more, to improve the community rather than just be a way for money to pass from workplace giving campaigns to nonprofits,” he said.

“So this fits. People want to get their hands dirty through community service, and they were looking to United Way to help. But it was really the business of Hands On Charlotte to make that connection. Now, it’s our business.”

It’s estimated as many as a half dozen other United Ways around the country have formed similar relationships with a Hands On chapter, combining resources and eliminating overlap.

Nationally, volunteerism at United Way has grown by at least 65 percent in each of the past five years, in part due to the growth of dedicated community engagement groups catering to women, African-Americans and young executives. Charities benefited through the free labor, which cut program costs. (Crisis Assistance Ministry, for example, used 40,000 hours of volunteer service last year to fuel its work.)

Kelli Kreps, a vice president of engagement for United Way Worldwide, says Charlotte’s United Way is emerging as a leader nationally across major United Way markets. She believes the agency is “leading by restoring the sense of community and togetherness that slowly eroded across our country over the years.”

“Connecting people to issues they care about – and volunteering is certainly a key way to get connected – is what starts to knit communities back together. And United Way is uniquely positioned to do that,” Kreps said.

Sean Garrett, executive director for United Way of Central Carolinas, says Hands On Charlotte’s annual budget (just over $500,000) was funded in part through fees, which United Way is looking to replicate in some manner.

The Hands On Charlotte name and logo won’t disappear, Garrett added. It will simply exist as part of United Way.

Garrett believes the merger will increase volunteerism in the community, in part because United Way has a “bigger reach” into the surrounding counties. The timing is opportune, he adds, because of the social ills Charlotte has faced in recent months, including several days of protests staged in uptown last summer.

“How Charlotte responds to what we’ve experienced in recent months all starts with people being involved in the community,” Garrett said. “It’s important for us to drive people to that kind of engagement.”