The revolution arrived on Friday, Sept. 1 in the mid-valley, as Blake Pang, the new regional CEO of the United Way organizations in Linn, Benton and Lincoln counties, started his job.

"Revolution" might be too strong a word. But maybe not. In any event, the experiment by a pair of United Way organizations to give a two-year trial run to a regional approach is undeniably a remarkable leap of faith by the agencies. (Remember that Linn County has its own United Way organization, but Benton and Lincoln counties are served by a separate United Way, so you have two organizations covering the three counties.)

And now you have one regional director, Pang, setting the tone for the two organizations (and the three counties). Each organization will continue to be directed by its own board of directors. The 37-year-old Pang will divide his time between offices in Linn, Benton and Lincoln counties.

The move already has attracted some national attention in nonprofit circles. And it's raised some eyebrows in the mid-valley, especially among people who believe the differences between the counties are so pronounced that it's unwise to try a regional approach.

Pang apparently doesn't see it that way. In an interview last week with the Democrat-Herald's Alex Paul, Pang recognized the differences between the counties but noted that United Way wants to focus on universal needs. "People want their families to be safe, for their community to be vibrant and for there to be opportunities for quality education," Pang said. "Every person should have the ability to live his or her life and to have an opportunity for meaningful work."

Pang also noted that different communities might have different approaches to reaching those goals, and said he would work to accommodate those differences.

One of Pang's challenges will be figuring out how to best blend those different approaches with the universal needs United Way wants to address.

That'll be just one of Pang's challenges. 

If you spend any time talking with people who work with the mid-valley's nonprofit organizations, a couple of themes quickly come into focus. 

Here's one of the big ones: It's becoming harder to raise the money to keep these organizations going. Big funding sources such as foundations are starting to dry up. The competition is increasingly intense for dollars. It's not the sort of landscape that encourages organizations to work together, although some granting entities increasingly are looking for evidence of partnerships.

Here's another issue: It can be hard for an organization that's headquartered in one mid-valley county to gain much traction in another county, even though it might be providing essential services in both. For example, ABC House works with child abuse cases throughout the mid-valley but has struggled with the perception that it's just an Albany organization. On the other side of the river, the Coalition Against Rape and Domestic Violence is increasingly active in Linn County but still is perceived in some circles as just a Corvallis group.

These are cases in which county lines are meaningless. If this United Way experiment can help to erase these useless boundaries, that would be good.

Here's another issue that goes along with a mid-valley that is crowded with nonprofit organizations: Such a surfeit sometimes results in a nonprofit arena packed with organizations working hard to guard their home turf.  

But perhaps this is the most remarkable thing about this United Way experiment: Two boards of directors, each filled with people who are devoted to their own communities, are extending an invitation to their counterparts to come share their turf. That takes a real measure of courage.

There are plenty of ways that this experiment could go off the rails, and you can bet that the two boards of directors have spent time diagramming those out. (And let's hope they've got open channels of communications to deal with unforeseen bumps.)

Despite the very real risks, the payoff here could be huge, both for revitalized United Way organizations but also to show nonprofit organizations another route forward — and, in the end, to provide better service to the people who depend on those organizations. That's really the bottom line here. (mm) 


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