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United Way adapts to changing times

As the world has changed, Spokane County United Way has evolved to do more than its root mission of raising funds to give to nonprofits to improve people’s lives. 

Janice Marich
Janice Marich said the United Way office serves as a hub of activity.

Janice Marich, vice president of community relations, said its mission of mobilizing resources to improve people’s lives and strengthen the community has been broadened.

Along with running annual campaigns to raise funds and give to organizations, it also collaborates with the community to advocate to change systems  and connects volunteers with organizations to serve the community.

“We are looking at how we can work with others to tackle problems of society to make the long-term changes that will create measurable results to improve the quality of life for everyone,” she said.

To assure quality of life, Spokane County United Way’s goals are to give people tools and resources for 1) education, to be successful in life, 2) income, to be financially stable and 3) health, to improve their access to health care and educate them on healthy choices, she said.

“Research says that if people are not educated, they will struggle in life to meet their basic needs, they will have lower income and poorer health outcomes,” said Janice.  “We focus on education, income and health as building blocks.

“All are interconnected, so we need to work on all three,” she said. 

“We do not provide direct services, but we find programs that support part of the process.  Then we connect and convene people,” Janice explained.

Spokane County United Way, which was founded in 1921, now serves as a convener, collaborator and capacity builder to change systems.

“We are about joining with others and encouraging others to work together.  No one organization can bring all the change needed,” Janice said.  “In collaboration, each comes to the table ready to advance the common good.”

Since moving from the old YMCA building in 2009, United Way finds that its new location at 920 N. Washington is conducive to its role as a convenor.  Its building is now a hub of activity, she said.  Business people come in and out.  Nonprofits use the meeting space for training programs.  It is also a volunteer tax preparation site. 

As a convenor and collaborator, Spokane County United Way encourages people to speak up about their concerns and to advocate for policy changes that will improve systems and lives.

Staff and volunteers talk with people in the community, listening to learn what kind of community and world they want to live in.

“We focus on what everyone values: the dreams and aspirations for children to graduate, be successful and be healthy so they have bright futures,” Janice said.

She recently helped facilitate a conversation with teens at Volunteer of America’s Crosswalk program for street kids.  She found it eye-opening to listen to the teens’ experiences.

“Underneath, they want the same things everyone wants,” she said.

Janice asked an 18-year-old about his dreams.  He said he hopes his son will never have to stand before a group and say he’s an alcoholic.

Foster care children want someone to care, someone to love them, she added.  So United Way helps connect caring adults with them to help address what they need to be successful.

Based on what they heard in conversations, United Way has made some new investments in the community:

• Blueprints for Learning for 82 childcare programs;

• Communities in Schools to connect with 350 at-risk youth;

• The Martin Luther King Jr. FAME after-school tutoring and mentoring program;

• Odyssey Youth Center for at-risk GLBTQ youth, and

The Spokane Salish School for dual-language learning.

Collaborative grants went to Growing Hope community gardens in West Central Spokane, and Youth REACH, a partnership between YFA (Youth, Family, Adults) Connections, Team Child and VOA’s Crosswalk—programs connecting homeless teens with resources that help them return to schools and families.

Spokane County United Way also supports many other programs, including programs for victims of domestic violence.

Seeking to bring new money into the community, it has received funding from the Gates Foundation to address intergenerational poverty.

The vision is for people not to let poverty or adverse childhoods limit their capacity, Janice said.

“I see an evolution in the community from ‘we have the answers’ to ‘we can’t do the work alone’,” she said.  “Grants help people collaborate and partner—to think, act and work differently.

Capacity building is about more than money.  It is also about using volunteers to help people reach goals, she said. 

Another way to mobilize resources and build capacity is to encourage volunteerism. 

United Way recently launched Volunteer Spokane, an online tool at to give agencies the opportunity to describe their programs and their need for volunteers. 

It also gives volunteers a means to match their passions and expertise with issues they want to affect, ways they want to serve and gifts they can bring to the nonprofit community.

Volunteer Spokane, Janice said, is a more effective online platform than the program they previously used to connect organizations with volunteers. 

Volunteer Spokane is also designed to connect people through social media. 

“It’s easy for organizations to update. They can include videos and pictures. They can also advertise events,” she said.  “We continue to explore ways it can be a resource for agencies.” 

Volunteer Spokane helps volunteers match their interests and skills with various categories of service and action.

It can also be used to recruit volunteers in emergencies, disasters or finding people to help seniors shovel after snowstorms.

Before switching platforms, United Way had 27 organizations signed up.  Their information automatically transferred into the new platform, but organizations will benefit by updating their entries to use the new features. 

Now there are 51 organizations, said Janice, who continues to recruit nonprofits.

She likes businesses to encourage employees to volunteer, giving incentives for them to serve in the community during work hours.

Janice, for example, volunteers as chair of the Spokane Public Library board of trustees, because it supports people having access to books and literacy that lead to successful education. 

While hospitals and other programs may still need volunteers to rock babies, Janice said United Way needs volunteers to do the hard work to change structures, as well as to connect children with caring adult mentors who will stick with them, so they stay in school and can enter careers.

Aware that the faith community is part of the caring community, Janice hopes congregations will sign up with Volunteer Spokane to invite people to participate in food drives, senior meals, and other programs and events they sponsor.

  “I urge faith leaders to think of projects they can do if they have more help,” she said.

For Janice, the work with Spokane County United Way combines her small-town roots in Eureka, Calif., with her career in corporate and government public relations and communications in urban areas.

She worked with the Santa Clara County Health Department, Pacific Bell in California, Nevada and Washington, D.C., the Consumer Protection Unit of Washington State Attorney General’s office in Seattle and Empire Health Services in Spokane before joining United Way in 2005.

For information, call 838-6581, email or visit

Copyright © February 2014 - The Fig Tree