Want to end poverty? Prove it. The United Way is on a mission to measure its charitable impact

Written by Craig Pinhey

Craig Pinhey is a food and beverage columnist for the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and KV Style, & writes for TAPS Beer Magazine, Palate Press, Halifax’s The Coast, Progress and East Coast Living magazine. He covered the Atlantic Canadian wine scene for Wine Access for 7 years, including writing the entire Atlantic section of their Canadian Wine Annual. He has also been CBC Radio's Shift Sommelier for 5 years. Craig had his booze epiphany circa 1985 with his first pint of Ginger’s Best cask conditioned real ale at the original Ginger’s Tavern in Halifax. This led him to a lifelong love of quality wine, beer and spirits. A certified Sommelier and BJCP Judge, Craig has judged at the Canadian Wine Awards, International Value Wine Awards, All Canadian Wine Championships, Atlantic Wine Awards, Moncton’s World Wine Expo Awards, PEI’s Wine Show Awards and the Canadian Brewing Awards. He is part of the judging team for the 2013 Wine Align National Wine Awards of Canada and International Wine Awards. Craig designs wine lists, does restaurant service training, and conducts wine and food events. An Engineer by education, Craig worked 12 years in the steel industry in Ontario - developing his love for local wine and craft beer during his time there - before moving back east to New Brunswick to start a writing career. Craig graduated as a Certified Sommelier in Halifax in 2000, finishing with the top marks in Canada in the Canadian (now International) Sommelier Guild program, and is a member of CAPS (Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers), for which he also teaches. He lives in Rothesay, New Brunswick with his wife and daughter, and travels regularly in the region, and around the world, hunting for great food & drink, and stories.

April 24, 2014

Wendy MacDermott isn’t your typical sales rep because she doesn’t sell stuff.

Today she’s selling an idea.

As the executive director of southwestern New Brunswick’s branch of the United Way, MacDermott has spent the past year overseeing the evolution of one of the region’s most-high profile charities into a more entrepreneurial organization. “We have done things one way for 50 years,” she says. ”We are now making fundamental investment decisions based on key principals: innovation, collaboration and partnerships.”

For some that might mean creating a social enterprise, which is a company with both a social mandate and a commercial revenue source. For others, it means adopting business principles into their charitable operations. The latter is how MacDermott would describe her United Way branch, which grants around $1 million annually. “The United Way is now behaving more like a Social Enterprise than we did in the past,” she says, “but I don’t think we are going to get in the business of creating a product to sell in order to develop a revenue stream. We can, though, choose to see our gifts as investment rather than donations.”

That evolution is born of a desire by MacDermott and her board to be able to measure the United Way’s impact in the communities it serves from Sussex to St. Stephen, N.B., including the city of Saint John. It is also increasingly what United Way donors wants too.“The monies that we steward on behalf of 5,000 donors are social investments,” she says. “They are not just charitable. We have to make the best investment decisions. Leaders are asking for more transparency.”

It’s called a social return on investment, which places the emphasis on outcomes, rather than the financial returns sought by traditional business investors. For example, if the United Way invests in an early childhood non-profit, MacDermott says the board will expect tangible results, in this case school readiness.  “If [the children] are not arriving at kindergarten ready to learn then we’d move the investment elsewhere.”

The Saint John region, with its growing IT and start-up community, provides MacDermott with a template and, she hopes, volunteers and donors to help drive fundraising, growth and community impact. McDermott wants to see more people direct those skills to help solve significant social problems, including illiteracy, poverty, domestic abuse and seniors care. Here’s her pitch: “In addition to making a modest return, you help the community…There is more to it than just giving to charity, she says. “You are helping to start a social enterprise. That is bold and visionary.”

Consider the story of The Hospice Shoppe, a consignment store run by volunteers, with revenues going directly to Hospice Saint John and its 10-bed palliative care home on the city’s west side. “United Way used to provide a lot of funding,” says MacDermott, “but they don’t need us anymore.”

It’s the same story with Voila: Saint John’s Green Cleaning Team, which arose from the Saint John Learning Exchange,got some initial funding from the United Way and is now self-sustaining. Now it’s the United Way purchasing services from them.

“We want to invest in healthy strong, effective, non-profit organizations,” says MacDermott. “We want to help non-profit leaders to be really innovative and effective.”

Wicked Ideas writer Craig Pinhey is a freelance writer, whose work has appeared in The Coast, the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal, Macleans and Wine Access. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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