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Editorial: United Way move has real promise

Editorial: United Way move has real promise

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Greg Roe is leaving his post with the United Way of Linn County. The organization is hiring an executive director who also will oversee the United Way of Benton and Lincoln Counties. Roe is leaving for a position heading up the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Rogue River Valley, based in Grants Pass. 

You might have missed an intriguing bit of news last week regarding the mid-valley's United Way organizations.

The two United Way agencies that serve Benton and Linn counties announced that they had hired one executive director, Blake Pang, to oversee both agencies.

The two organizations will continue to be separate, for at least the next two years. Each will have its own staff and board of directors, under the terms of a memorandum of understanding the organizations signed. At the end of the two-year period, the organizations will take another look at the possibility of additional consolidation. But it's worth noting that the memo of understanding calls for Pang to investigate other areas in which the agencies can work more efficiently together.

It's a gutsy move that could pay off big for the agencies and for the many mid-valley residents and organizations that depend on United Way initiatives. 

It also runs the risk that it could go spectacularly off the rails for a variety of reasons. Much will depend on Pang's skill level, leadership ability and willingness to learn about the mid-valley. (It helps that, as a graduate of Linfield College, he already has some ties to the region.) Much will depend as well on the flexibility and adaptability of the United Way board members and staffers.

But just the fact that the organizations have gone this far tells you something important about the challenges facing nonprofit organizations, not just in the mid-valley but across the nation as well.  

The timing was right for the two organizations to consider at least some consolidation: The United Way of Benton and Lincoln Counties parted ways with its executive director, Jennifer Moore, earlier this year. And the executive director of the United Way of Linn County, Greg Roe, is resigning his post to go to work for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Rogue Valley; his wife, Laurie, has taken a post with Umpqua Community College. So it made sense for the two boards to try an experiment with the leadership of the organizations.

The three-county area that the two United Way organizations cover is the same area covered by the InterCommunity Health Network coordinated care organization, which provides Oregon Health Plan (Medicaid) services for the region. So there's plenty of common ground to explore there.

Economically, the areas covered by the two United Ways have some important things in common: Workers frequently cross county lines in search of employment. Linn County and Benton County also face some of the same social service issues; a combined United Way approach to work with some of those could yield dividends. 

And the fact is that these have been tough times for nonprofit agencies like the United Way.

Considering all that, it makes sense for the two United Ways to explore how they can work more effectively together.

But it's an effort that comes with some challenges. Despite the common factors at play in both Linn and Benton counties, the counties are different culturally and politically; some contributors to the United Way may need convincing that the interests in their county will not be neglected in any consolidation efforts.

And social service organizations that have tried to have a footprint in both counties have found that the going can be difficult — sometimes absurdly so. (Officials at educational organizations that straddle the mid-valley, such as Linn-Benton Community College, sometimes have hammered their heads against the same wall.)

With all that said, it could very well be that the outlook for nonprofit agencies is such that this gutsy nod toward consolidation will become a model for other organizations to follow. It will be fascinating to watch this experiment play out over the next two years. In the meantime, let's give kudos to these two United Way organizations for having the courage to experiment. (mm) 

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