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January 30, 2016

The Ununited Way

Reuel S. Amdur

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The Oakville United Way is looking at the possibility of creation of an area-wide United Way, according to a Toronto Star editorial from last year. That reminded me of a United Way consolidation effort of which I was a part back in 1975.

I was a planning associate with the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton and District (SPRC).  At the time the United Way movement in North America was on something of a campaign to consolidate local United Ways into larger organizations covering a wider area, to provide economies of scale.

The local United Way in Hamilton approached the SPRC to address this concern in the area, and I was assigned to the task. 

My approach was one of classical community organization.  I began by analyzing the situation.  There was the Hamilton United Way and another in Oakville, nothing in Burlington which is in between. 

Burlington and Oakville are the two large municipalities in Halton Region.  My plan was to develop a body of some sort to plan a consolidation and expansion.  I saw my role as being responsible to that body, leaving the SPRC. 

The name of the game was that everyone participates, everyone benefits, and everyone pays.  Paying is a demonstration of a buy-in.

I began by making some initial contacts with key bodies.  Among these was Hamilton City Council, where I elicited some interest but also an angry concern by one councilor that Burlington was to be given a free ride. 

I saw that as all positive.  As the move to an overseeing board and common payment, that concern would be resolved.  Then I spoke with the Burlington Social Planning Council.  Their reaction was generally positive, though one member blasted Hamilton’s power grab.  Again, I saw the situation as positive.  If the plan were pulled off appropriately, it would be clear that Hamilton was not in the driver’s seat.

Next I spoke to the Executive Director of the United Way of Oakville.  To start, she was a bit uncertain.  They would hesitate to pay for this consolidation.  But when I said that it would only involve paying their fair share, she was very receptive.

It seemed that everything was a go, but the fly in the ointment was in the SPRC itself.  Their vision was entirely different.  Under the leadership of a new executive director, who was to leave for a position with the federal civil service not too long after this, the chosen approach was that the whole thing would be an SPRC undertaking. 

The SPRC person staffing the process would be responsible to the SPRC.  The SPRC would pay for everything.  The businessman who was president of the SPRC at the time advocated that as a result of the undertaking the SPRC should hurt a bit.

I was unprepared to take the direction I was receiving from my boss, and so there was a confrontation at the board level.  I explained my position, but the board backed the executive director. 

When I said that this approach would fail, one board member commented, “But if it’s successful, it will be a feather in our cap.”  An Anglican bishop sitting on the SPRC board complained that my approach was too much according to the book.  It was clear that my time on the project and with the SPRC was over.

Well, then, what happened with the made-in-Hamilton approach to consolidation?  A new person was hired, and the result was the establishment of a United Way including Burlington.  In fact, the suburban Burlington tail got top billing, wagging the Hamilton dog: The United Way of Burlington and Greater Hamilton. 

But something was missing—Oakville.  Adding Burlington to Hamilton was expansion, not consolidation.  You can’t get Oakville United Way to have consolidation done to it.  The problem was a lack of collaboration, not an Oakville United Way unprepared to move.

Perhaps the expansion was reason enough to put that feather in the SPRC board member’s cap, even if it is a dunce cap.  Perhaps the bishop should recognize that a textbook approach is better than greed for glory. 

Where the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton and District dropped the ball, the Oakville United Way is now trying to pick it up, 40 years later.  

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