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How it Started…How it’s Going

For the last 100 years, United Way has been a champion of bettering communities. While our work has evolved over time, our DNA is and always has been rooted in advancing the common good.

What has allowed United Way to withstand the test of time? 

After looking through archives, reading articles and speaking with donors and team members, one thing remains constant—our ability to adapt and change

Since 1921, United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey has been at the helm of providing life-changing help to people in need. For over 100 years, we have rallied communities and mobilized solutions—all to ensure that our neighbors can thrive. 

In the early days, United Way focused efforts on helping people most in need, particularly after World War I and during the Great Depression and World War II. As time went on, United Way’s fundraising efforts took many names including "Welfare Federation", “War Chest”, “United Fund” and the long-standing “Community Chest” which remained through the 1950’s.

As needs changed, United Way began to focus on singular issues impacting local communities. Through each decade and season, the unwavering dedication and commitment of United Way donors continued to lead the way in making our work possible. In 1984, to honor this strong spirit and passion for giving, United Way’s Tocqueville Society was founded by two local leaders, Ambassador Walter Annenberg and John C. Haas. 

Alex Hoffmaster, Interim Managing Director, Private Philanthropy, added, “The Tocqueville Society remains a strong part of our organization today. Our members share a spirit of philanthropy and are engaged locally in improving the lives of others. Through the commitment of our loyal and generous supporters, United Way can do what it does best – serve the community.”

In the early 1990’s, a greater focus on education, income and health merged as top priorities. Statistics have shown that investing in children's education is one of the most impactful ways to help end the cycle of poverty. 

Ned Montgomery, a longtime volunteer, active Board Member and champion of United Way’s mission reflects, “One thing we really honed in on in the 1990s was early childhood education. After looking at the facts, we came to the conclusion that if a child didn’t start school with the tools needed to learn, they would continue to remain in the cycle of poverty. The disparity starts very early, and this is something that we knew was an important piece to focus on.” 

To this day, United Way’s Early Learning pillar remains a strong component of our mission. Through programs like Vello and the Family Empowerment Program, we continue to prioritize resources for children to establish strong foundations for success. As an early adopter of prioritizing early childhood education, we’re proud to see others following suit, including the creation of Pennsylvania’s Keystone Star Program and Pre-K for PA. 

In 2018, our United Way set out to tackle our region’s largest challenge—poverty. 

As families and individuals experiencing poverty face many obstacles–from housing and food insecurity to underfunded schools and limited access to opportunities–our work is more important than ever. 

As we continue to tackle our region’s biggest challenge, United Way is committed to evolving our approach to best serve the needs of our community. This includes shifting from a broad focus on giving to a more equitable and collaborative approach to identifying gaps, convening partners and mobilizing solutions. 

Collaboration is vital yet oftentimes overlooked. Instead of telling our community what they need, we’re getting out there and listening. We’re engaging in meaningful conversations and asking our neighbors and community leaders, “what do you need to be successful?”—and in turn, we’re working together to solve these gaps and implement scalable, long-term solutions.

This shift in approach has resulted in the creation and on-going success of many United Way-led-and-funded programs such as 211 resource helpline, VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance), Built by Philly, The Promise, and others. 

But we’re just getting started. 

As our President & CEO Bill Golderer has said, “Change doesn’t happen overnight. It’s only through shared commitment and collaboration that we can leave a lasting, positive impact.

Our history is a testament to the dedication and compassion of all Greater Philadelphians who have supported and engaged with us for the last 100 years. What started as a community chest in 1921, has evolved into the strong community-focused organization we are today and we have the support of donors like you to thank.

As we look ahead to the next 100 years, we urge you to join us at our inaugural OpportUNITY Summit on April 22. This summit will bring together community leaders, changemakers, and national experts to discuss our region's toughest issues and amplify our shared goal of building a stronger, more prosperous region for all. 

Learn more and register today. Let’s write the next chapter, together. 

Follow along with our year-long #StrongerTogetherSeries as we feature insights and personal stories of the very people and bodies of work that have made us 100-years strong.

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