United Way of Central Carolinas gets a reboot

 In August 2018

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Update: Sean Garrett is leaving United Way of Central Carolinas to head the United Way of Metro Chicago, the groups announced on July 26.

By Alyssa Pressler

Refocusing its priorities and ending years of deficit spending means several organizations will lose funding as the United Way of Central Carolinas reboots. The Charlotte-area nonprofit is stepping up its role in tackling a problem for which the city has received national notoriety: Its ranking as the worst city for upward mobility among large U.S. municipalities, based on a study by Harvard University and University of California researchers.

“Where you’re born, the ZIP code you go home to, shouldn’t determine your economic future,” Executive Director Sean Garrett says, a popular line among Queen City civic leaders. “For too many in Charlotte today, when you’re born into poverty, you won’t escape that in your lifetime.”

Attacking the problem is requiring tough decisions by the organization, which plans to donate $14.6 million to 110 organizations over the next year, a 10% decrease from the previous year. Forty-seven organizations will receive reduced or no funding, including 23 whose support has been sliced by 40% or more. Among those getting less money are the top recipients, Salvation Army and YWCA. Meanwhile, 65 groups will get increases or attract United Way support for the first time. (Another $10 million flows through the group to nonprofits specified by donors.)

Garrett, 36, came to Charlotte from New York City’s United Way chapter in 2015. The changes follow months of study on ways to reinvigorate the city’s lower-income neighborhoods. The priority is now on programs that prepare children for school success and improve access to health care and nutritious food options.

An overarching issue is that donations have shrunk sharply since the mid-2000s, when Charlotte’s United Way was a national leader because of support from locally managed Bank of America Corp. and Wachovia Corp. Donations peaked at $45 million in 2007, then declined to $25 million a year later as the recession slammed banking.

Controversy over a former executive director’s salary damaged confidence in the group, prompting her ouster in 2008. The amount of money raised has remained stagnant since 2012, annual tax filings show. Staffing has been cut to 47 people, with 13 positions eliminated recently.

Garrett says donor-designated giving decreased last year, while other types of donations were little changed. In the past, the organization supplemented its programming by pulling money from its reserves, says Bo Hussey, chief marketing and technology officer. While the group plans to rely less on those reserves, he emphasizes the changes in funding aren’t cost-cutting measures.

“[It] was directly in response to our community’s need to address the lack of economic mobility, including increased investments in early childhood education, mental-health services, access to health care and financial stability,” he says.

While key businesses have left Charlotte or been bought out, Garrett sees opportunities to develop new partnerships as the city focuses on its poorest citizens. “It took years and years for us to get to this position, and it will take time to get out of it.”


MONROE — Great American Snacks will lay off 84 workers at its 95,000-square-foot local plant by the end of September. The company, which makes frozen snacks and appetizers, also has a plant in Idaho.

KINGS MOUNTAIN — Firestone Fibers & Textiles plans to invest $20 million and create 25 jobs in an expansion that will add 110,000 square feet to its existing 484,000 square feet. The company makes technical fibers to strengthen tires.

CHARLOTTE — Amazon will invest about $200 million in a distribution center that will create 1,500 jobs near Charlotte’s airport. The company will receive local incentives of about $13.4 million.

CHARLOTTE — The NFL fined former Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson $2.75 million for sexual harassment and using a racial slur. Richardson sold the Panthers to Florida hedge-fund manager
David Tepper for nearly $2.3 billion last month.

CHARLOTTE — UNC Charlotte is considering an $84 million hotel and conference center that would be owned by the university’s foundation. It would include a 226-room Marriott hotel and a 24,000-square-foot conference center. The project is awaiting city approval for $8 million in tax incentives.

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