As the leaders of several United Ways, we have a unique perspective into the nonprofit and corporate worlds. We talk daily with nonprofit leaders who share their concerns about declining budgets and increased demand for services. We visit corporate leaders who share with us both the successes of and stresses upon their business models in today’s ever-changing economic climate.
Wherever we are, two themes emerge – employers want to have productive and satisfied employees, and people want to help people in need.
We recognize the hard choices our elected officials face and that they care deeply about the well-being of their constituents. But the public discourse over the current budget and how to address the financial challenges of the state of Connecticut has devolved into a black and white choice of helping businesses or supporting social services. This approach to problem solving will not be successful.
Many residents facing challenges in our community require a level of government assistance, either directly or through services of a nonprofit supported by government grants. However, the fact is that nonprofits also rely heavily on corporate support in order to serve those most in need.
We know from the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) report published in November of 2014 by the Connecticut United Ways and Rutgers University that over 35 percent of Connecticut residents live paycheck to paycheck or in poverty. We also know that education and jobs are the number one way to lift people out of poverty. Without a strong business presence in our state and local communities, we can anticipate that social service needs will go up while resources diminish.
We have heard anecdotally and in the media people talking about business needing to “pay its fair share” without any concrete data on how much corporations actually contribute through taxes and other means.
Corporations provide financial support to United Way and human service organizations through sponsorships, grants, and serving as an access point for employees to give and volunteer. Millions of dollars are flowing from businesses big and small in Connecticut every day.
Many companies in the regions served by our United Ways offer generous matching dollars to their employees’ giving (including Aetna, A.R. Mazzotta Employment Specialists, Beiersdorf, Citizens Bank, Enterprise Rent a Car, FM Global, GE, Genworth, The Hartford, Nestlé Waters, Peoples United Bank, Pepperidge Farm, Pratt & Whitney, Praxair, Travelers, Standard Knapp, United Technologies, Webster Bank, Zygo and many others). If these businesses were to leave Connecticut, the safety net that exists for our most vulnerable residents would be greatly compromised. Government funding is at its limit and could not begin to support the negative implications from loss of jobs and loss of philanthropic dollars.
As we have observed this budget debate, which seems more vitriolic than past years, we question whether there is a mechanism in place where business and government, alongside our nonprofits, can look at the social service needs of our communities. It seems that we must find new ways to work together to support our safety net while also meeting the needs of businesses that must focus on the return to their shareholders.
A desire for quality education, dependable transportation, sustainable wages, safe housing and a motivated workforce are all shared in common. All three sectors have a vital role to play in addressing the challenges we face in Connecticut.
United Ways across the state are well positioned to act as conveners at the local and state level. Substantive solutions to the challenges of ALICE families and other critical issues will not be found in the demonization of business, government or any other stakeholder, but only when business, government and nonprofits commit to working together.
Kim Morgan is chief executive officer of United Way of Western Connecticut. Merle Berke-Schlessel is president and chief executive officer of the United Way of Coastal Fairfield County. Susan Dunn is president and chief executive officer of United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut. Kevin Wilhelm is executive director of Middlesex United Way.