What It Means To ‘Live United’

By MARY BETH MAASSEN
Executive Director
United Way of Northern New Mexico

Community Impact, collective impact, formal collaboration … this is the language of the new United Way. And United Way of Northern New Mexico has enthusiastically embraced these concepts as we move forward to help end the difficult and complex social and health issues that plague our region.

Community impact can be a hard concept to wrap your mind around as it differs greatly from United Way’s traditional approach. I recently heard a story that does a great job of illustrating community impact:

A villager is walking by the river early one morning. The villager looks out into the water and sees a baby floating down the river. Horrified, the villager races into the water, grabs the baby, and brings the baby to shore. The baby is fine.

Relieved, the villager looks back into the water and sees another baby floating down the water. The villager again dives into the water and rescues this baby as well.  Once more the villager looks into the water and sees dozens of babies floating down the river. The villager calls out an alarm, and the entire village comes running to the river to rescue as many babies as they can before the water carries them away.

This is a village that is mobilized. Every villager is at the river, trying to save the babies from the water. This is a village that is improving lives. Many of the babies are being saved. But the babies keep on coming.

Eventually, a small group leaves the rescue operation and hikes upstream. Upon their arrival, they discovered the source of the problem — an ogre is tossing babies into the river. The villagers realize that as important as it is to rescue babies from the river, it is even more important to get rid of the ogre.

Instead of just waiting down by the river to save the babies, the community impact approach gathers a contingent of villagers to go upstream and stop the ogre. Otherwise, we will be pulling babies out of the water forever. Don’t get me wrong, pulling babies out of the water is essential. How can we live with ourselves if we don’t try? But it is by going upstream to redirect the ogre and put its energies to better use that we create a lasting change in the conditions that are causing this nightmare to begin with.

This might seem like a silly story to some, but I believe it illustrates the work we, as United Way, are called to do in our communities. United Way of Northern New Mexico has a rich history of addressing the needs of people in the region.

For many years, United Way’s approach was to direct dollars to services that assisted people with immediate needs, or who were in crisis. It is a reactive approach, much like pulling babies out of the river. It is necessary to maintain those emergency services, but the ogre must also be stopped.

United Way of Northern New Mexico has embarked on a more proactive approach. We are dealing with the ogre.

Most of the issues our communities struggle with every day are complex — substance abuse, lack of education and life preparation skills, childhood neglect, no access to behavioral health resources, just to name just a few. These issues cannot be addressed by only one organization or system, and these are issues that will take years, not months, to solve.

To improve conditions in our communities and make the greatest impact, United Way must deal with the ogre, or the underlying issues that create these problems. Only when we begin to tackle them together can we achieve results.

United Way’s focus now is two-fold — continue to support safety net services to ensure that our most vulnerable citizens have their basic needs met, and to invest in programs that keep people from reaching a crisis point in their lives. It would be wrong not to do everything we can to try to significantly reduce the number of people who struggle to meet their basic needs.

We know that we cannot solve the region’s problems on our own. It must be done in partnership with health and human service agencies, the business community, local government, educational systems, neighborhoods, and other networks. Combining our knowledge, our experience, our resources, and our funds to create better outcomes for everyone.

In the past, United Way’s primary role in the community was to meet a fundraising goal each year. That was our “end.” Today, our fundraising efforts are a means to an end. Our primary role now is to create opportunities for a better life for all.

That is what it means to “Live United”

Thank you to the United Way of Northwest Illinois for sharing their ogre story.

Please join us at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, at Fuller Lodge for the United Way of Northern New Mexico Annual Campaign Launch Party. Special thanks to the kind folks at Zia Credit Union and Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce for sponsoring the event.

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