Through 112 locally funded United Way programs, more than 1,000 people receive United Way assistance every day. As our United Way strives to deliver our mission to increase the organized capacity of the people of central Illinois to care for one another, program outcome measurement becomes a valuable tool that engages agencies and community stakeholders into efforts that will shape community change.

Community impact isn’t only about improving the lives of people served by Heart of Illinois United Way-funded programs, it’s also about improving the lives of people affected by vital community issues—whether they directly receive services from United Way agencies or not. It’s also about changing community conditions so those issues affect fewer people. Our United Way is focused on issues affecting youth and families, efforts to strengthen self-reliance, and promoting healthy lifestyles.

Outcomes are changes sought in the knowledge, attitudes, motivation, skills, behavior, or condition of a specific group. Community outcomes are not just visions or goals—they’re specific changes or benefits the involved organizations hold themselves accountable for influencing. So the appropriate question to ask would be, “Is it reasonable to believe the desired outcome can be achieved?”

There are many factors influencing pressing community issues such as economic conditions, historical trends, media messages, neighborhood conditions, private and public sector practices, education and healthcare systems, and of course, public attitudes. Prioritizing outcomes involves narrowing the focus from a general goal to focusing on particular geographic areas or population groups within the community. The Heart of Illinois United Way’s 2005 Community Assessment has been a valuable evaluation tool. Our organization’s commitment to assessing local needs allows us to better focus on issues facing central Illinois, such as the need for effective early childcare, increased literacy among adults and youth, increased programs and resources for a growing Hispanic community, maintained quality of life for seniors, and much more. Once critical needs and issues are identified in the community, action plans are created and measurement tools are put into place. Our efforts to achieve community change require more than just funding programs. All areas of United Way activity, including collaborative relationships, partnerships, resource development, and public policy, become part of a strategic effort to improve the community.

We use the terms measurable results, outcomes, and community impact when we communicate the human needs we’re filling through the United Way, but the bottom line of these efforts includes increased accountability to donors and the community, as well as strengthened success in retaining, maintaining, and increasing their donations. The strength of community impact rests on the continued strength of the Heart of Illinois United Way to unite a network of businesses, labor organizations, government offices, and health and human service agencies to work toward a community where children are reaching their full learning potential, where people are healthy and fed, where seniors remain independent, and where families can function successfully. IBI