Is United Way equal opportunity?

Over 18 months ago, AALF’s executive director met with Sarah Caruso, the CEO of the Greater Twin Cities United Way (United Way), to discuss the “poor” reputation that the United Way had among many leaders in the African American community, who do not consider the United Way to be a friend of the community, and consider its attitude towards the community to be paternalistic. Caruso argued that this reputation was undeserved, unjustified, and that she and her organization would work with AALF to improve this situation.

In the intervening months, Caruso and her staff provided AALF with documentation that it had invested as much as 15 percent of its funding in 2016 in African American led and serving organizations.

African American led and serving organizations are organizations in which a majority of the clients served are African American, and either its chief executive, senior executive staff or board of directors are majority African American.

However, when United Way representatives provided a list of organizations that made up the 15 percent investment, it included organizations like Patrick Henry High School. The last time we checked, Patrick Henry High School was a part of the Minneapolis Public Schools, a public entity with assets close to $1 billion dollars — hardly an African American led and serving organization.

This year, United Way claims that, despite a 13 percent shortfall in its discretionary revenues, it has increased its investments to 19 percent in African American led and serving organizations. However, the list now includes organizations like Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (also known as Legal Aid). AALF questions the sincerity of the United Way in including organizations like Patrick Henry High School and Legal Aid as African American led and serving organizations.

In April of this year, United Way representatives asked to meet with AALF’s executive director, to “give him the heads-up,” on the cuts in funding that would be made because of a 13 percent shortfall in United Way revenues. AALF’s executive director was informed that the cuts would be made equitably across all organizations. However, that is not what has taken place!

While certain African American organizations received “equitable” decreases in funding, some African American organizations had 100 percent of their funding eliminated, and others experienced cuts upwards of 30 percent of their funding — hardly an equitable distribution of the funding cuts. AALF’s executive director felt that he had been misled in the 18-month dialogue with the United Way.

The most egregious example of United Way’s “equitable” actions is the total elimination of funding to the Minneapolis Urban League (Urban League). The Urban League is the premier African American led and serving organization in the Twin City African American community. It was established in 1926, and its mission is to link African descendants and other people of color to opportunities that result in economic success and prosperity, and effectively advocate for policies that eradicate racial disparities.

In 2016, the Urban League served more than 6,000 individuals and families in its various housing, health, employment, financial, and education programs, and advocated for more than 20,000 African Americans on policy issues — not to mention the role that it serves as a convening and meeting place for the African American community. It also houses the Minnesota office of U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison. When African Americans need a “Go To” organization in the community, the Urban League is “the” organization that stands above them all. How could the United Way miss this?

To be sure, the Urban League was not the only African American led and serving organizations upon which the United Way’s ax fell. Other organizations’ names are being withheld, so as not to incur further damage or retribution. In the case of the Urban League, as the saying goes, “They have nothing left to lose.” AALF believes the United Way’s total elimination of funding of the Urban League has been deliberate and intentional.

Since 2009, the Urban League’s funding from the United Way has gone steadily down from $1.1 million in 2009, to “0” in 2017 — a precipitous decline that cannot be considered accidental.

While most community, corporate and private foundations and philanthropic organizations can pick and choose to invest their organization’s funds in whomever and whatever they choose, the United Way holds a uniquely different and distinct status. It is the Community Chest. It receives funding from public and private corporations, foundations and individuals. Its website states, “United Way connects people and resources within our community to challenge and change systems — like Minnesota’s education and jobs gap — that limit our potential.” This statement is particularly interesting, because the United Way also eliminated funding to two of the African American community’s premier educational organizations, both of which have recently received national recognition for their work educating African American children.

So, what do we do about it? First, AALF and members of its board of directors have spoken with Caruso and members of the United Way board, asking them to recalibrate and rethink United Way’s decision concerning the Urban League. To date, that has not happened. Second, we are writing this opinion piece, to bring public attention to this issue. Many in the African American, corporate and foundation communities, as well as individual donors, may not be aware of these concerns. We will wait to see if this has any impact. If not, we are prepared to go directly to the public, corporate, foundation and individuals that fund the United Way, and ask that they start giving directly to African American led and serving organizations. We hope not to have to get to this third step. The United Way, like the Urban League, has a long and storied history in our community. We would like to partner and work together to resolve these problems; but, if we can’t, we must do what is necessary to support our legacy institutions to remain healthy and to thrive. God knows we have a lot of work to do!


Jeffrey A. Hassan

Executive Director, African American Leadership Forum (AALF)