United Way

Calculating Move: Empowering People to Succeed

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by Bethany Stutzman

One of the big lessons that we in the nonprofit sector keep learning is this: We don’t have all the answers.

But much of the time, the people we’re trying to help do.

A case in point: A few weeks ago, I and several of our United Way staff visited the Family Independence Initiative in Detroit. This organization works with low-income individuals to empower them to create their own solutions to reach financial stability.

We sat with a cohort of program participants who were planning a fundraiser to purchase back-to-school supplies. This group focused specifically on items needed by high school kids because most other school supply drives aim for items that elementary school kids need. They specifically came up with the idea of buying graphing calculators for kids whose families couldn’t afford them. Typically, these devices cost around $100—a huge expense for a low-income family.

We thought the idea was brilliant. Here in Jackson County, there are high schoolers who face that costly challenge, too. During our recent Stuff The Bus drive, we were able to use some of the sponsorship dollars to buy 15 of these calculators. Sure, 15 is not a huge number, but for the kids who received them—including families with multiple high schoolers who could share the calculators—it made a huge difference.

What did I learn from this experience? I learned that my ideas for what people need aren’t necessarily the right ideas. I learned that I and my colleagues in the nonprofit realm need to listen more to the people we serve before we jump in with solutions that may or may not be the right ones.

That’s the heart of United Way’s work in Jackson County. We want to help people develop their own personal pathways to financial stability. And who knows? Maybe the first step on that pathway is as simple as receiving a graphing calculator.

Bethany Stutzman is Director of Community Solutions for United Way of Jackson County.