‘We know it works’: Bill Jackson reflects on a change that reinvented Erie’s United Way

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“Bill Jackson said the United Way of Erie County that he joined 25 years ago collected a lot of money and worked hard to do good things with it.

But sometimes, Jackson said, it was hard to find evidence that the organization was making a measurable difference.

“What happened is our board started to recognize that it’s good, but it’s not really solving anything,” Jackson said. “It’s a Band-Aid approach. We are helping this person over here, this person over there, and this family on the other side of town. But we are not really getting at what is causing these problems in the first place.”

Jackson, who retires from the United Way on Dec. 31, said it wasn’t that the traditional way of running the organization was a failure.

“We could talk all day about the good work that was done and the people we helped,” he said. “The model worked when we could go into large companies and make a very simple ask and folks would donate a little bit out of their paychecks.”

But the world was changing.

For one, there weren’t as many big companies to visit.

Meanwhile, Jackson, the board and the staff of the United Way were listening to ideas about a different way to run the organization coming from places such as the United Way in Fort Worth, Texas.

The message was simple but important.

“We should stop counting our success by how many people we help and start counting our success by how many people no longer need our help,” Jackson said. “That really sums up what the philosophy is. That was a huge sea change.”

Changes didn’t happen overnight.

In 2015, the United Way’s board of directors voted to change its approach. Three years later, Jackson stood before a community group and announced the agency’s single-minded devotion to “crush poverty.”

The plan that would emerge was a focus on community schools, 11 of which have now been designated. Together, those schools serve more than 6,000 students.

In words from the United Way website, those designated schools, each of which employs a director, “bring a wide range of resources directly into the school to support students and their families, removing barriers to learning so children can be successful in school … and life.”

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