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United Way of Middle Tennessee at 100

The Good That We Do Lives On

A Century of United Way in Nashville

By Nicki Pendleton-Wood

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For a very long time, Nashvillians have lived lives that are safer, healthier, and more informed because of an unseen force working to make things better – United Way of Greater Nashville.

Founded in 1922 as “The War Chest Campaign” (a reference to World War I, which had ended just four years earlier), the name was later changed to “Community Chest.” (Just like the Monopoly square!) Along with the new name came a new giving model: workplace-based charitable giving via payroll deduction. By 1975, the organization had become “Nashville Area United Way,” and the goals had shifted too, from raising and distributing money to individuals and groups to the larger vision of solving community problems.

As Nashville’s corporations and leadership prospered in the 1980s, Dr. Thomas F. Frist, Jr. founded the United Way’s Tocqueville Society for “leadership gifts” of $10,000 or more. The society tapped businesspeople’s expertise, networks, and strategic thinking. The idea of leadership giving caught on, and Nashville’s “alpha” chapter of 27 people became a national society of about 24,000. Cumulative Tocqueville Society giving nationally since 1981 is about $10 billion. Nashville alone has given cumulative $160 million to the Tocqueville Society.

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For the next four decades,  the Nashville United Way succefully pursued its goals of improving the community, and then in 2020 it faced a one of the greatest challenges in its history, a global pandemic.

It was, well, “a crazy few years,” says Courtney Barlar, chief development officer. “We were heavily involved in relief work. We worked with Mayor Cooper’s office on a COVID-19 fund and raised $5 million quickly that went to help keep people stable: housing, rent and utility assistance, PPE, and childcare for essential workers. We worked with the city and state to deploy CARES Act funding. So we were very, very busy with pandemic relief, but also running our own fundraising for our partners.”

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Not surprisingly, the annual campaign brought in $4 million less in 2020 than it had in prior years. “And (giving is) still not back to pre-COVID levels,” Barlar says, since the United Way has not resumed hosting live fundraising events. But the organization was committed to not reduce funding for any of its initiatives, “because people needed it more than ever.” Instead, United Way looked for ways to cut its own budget. “We slimmed down a lot,” Barlar says.

“Over the next three to five years, as the funds make their way into community, our hope is people do feel a difference.”
– Courtney Barlar

But there was sunshine behind that cloud: MacKenzie Scott money. The author and former spouse of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has been steadily giving away her fortune over the last few years to deserving causes and organizations, and in December 2020, the United Way learned she would be giving them $20 million.

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To maximize effective use of that money, Barlar says the group spent much of 2021 “assessing the best way to use the gift where it was most needed.” Focus groups and interviews uncovered three areas of need that money could effectively address: affordable childcare; early reading, focusing on third-grade reading, to make sure students are on track to succeed in school; and workforce development, including job training and skills development. 

“Over the next three to five years, as the funds make their way into community, our hope is people do feel a difference,” Barlar says. 

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With the pandemic hopefully receding in the rearview mirror, Barlar says there’s now enough breathing room for United Way to turn its gaze toward the future. “We’re growing,” Barlar says. “We have lots of new people and companies [moving] here, and we need our city to be strong for the next 100 years.” 

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