When I was a freshman in high school, I joined my local United Way Allocations Committee—the group that awards United Way funding to agencies—with no idea what I was getting myself into. The next six weeks were a maelstrom of agency interviews, committee meetings, and allocation spreadsheets, and I felt like I was barely keeping my head above water.
But, at the end of the process, as the committee spent hours hashing out how to allocate our funding, I had what I could term a “lightbulb” moment, but that, in my memory, feels a lot more like when the stadium lights turn on at a football game. I can still remember exactly where I was sitting in our U-shaped arrangement (at the bottom, on the corner, both of my knees were perpetually bumping into folding table legs) as I realized the scope of the work that was happening in our county of 16,000, done by these 20 partner agencies, and as I allowed myself to reflect upon both the commitment of the agency representatives we’d spoken to, and upon the fact that there was a genuine, growing need for their services.
I served on the allocations committee for the next three years, and, the summer after my freshman year of high school, worked as a summer intern for Susan Goodman, the CEO (which, as Susan’s email signature noted, stood for “Chief Encouragement Officer”). If I had to identify one experience as responsible for my passion for community-based nonprofit work, it would be the people I met and organizations I learned about through Benton County’s United Way Allocations Committee.
So it was with a burst of nostalgia and a sense of things coming full circle that I participated in reviewing proposals for my Food Bank’s Agency Capacity Grant. Agencies could apply for funding for coolers, freezers, and/or laptops for Link2Feed implementation. This grant comes on the heels of a seminar series for agencies, run by our development team, where one of the topics was grantwriting, as well as encouragement from BRAFB to supply clients with more protein (like meat) and fresh produce.
As I read proposals, I was struck—as I was 8 years ago at my first United Way meeting—by the every-day-yet-extraordinary stories from our partner agencies: about the families who had been relying on the bare minimum until they found their local pantry, about the 90+-year-old volunteer who still did all of his pantry’s paperwork by hand, about the difference client choice made in clients’ experiences at their pantries.
And I was reminded, forcefully, that not only were these proposals written predominantly by volunteers, but also that all of the past work and dreams for the future described within those proposals—switching to client choice, revamping a waiting room, personalized, case-management-style connection to other services—was powered by volunteers whose only “reward” is the knowledge (knowledge that may or may not be widely shared by those they know) that their community is stronger and healthier because of their work.
The Food Bank was able to give all 61 applying agencies at least part of their funding request, working on walking the walk and not just talking the talk of partnership. For me, personally, I came away from the process proud to be at BRAFB, inspired by our partners, and with a touchstone to my first experience with “partner agencies” and the moment that, ultimately, led me here.