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United Way of Lancaster County wants to halve poverty, boost employment by 2025. How's it going?

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An aerial view of the square in Elizabethtown in August 2017.

With a lively liberal arts college and thriving businesses large and small, Elizabethtown is an attractive place to live for many people, but not all.

What the area’s social service agencies have learned in the past three years is they are better able to help people reeling from homelessness, illness or other crisis if they come together and work as one.

The collaboration of 19 agencies, ministries and schools, known as the Elizabethtown Area Hub, is a change the United Way of Lancaster County likes to point to three years after it shook up the nonprofit landscape here by funding multiagency partnerships only.

It was out with giving money to isolated programs, and in with “collective impact,” the theory that change happens best when diverse groups coalesce to attack problems.

Today, the United Way funds the E-town hub and nine other multiagency collaborations focusing on poverty and other hard-to-solve problems throughout Lancaster County. They share about $2.2 million.

Is the collective impact model making a difference? It’s too soon to be sure, says Berwood Yost, a Franklin & Marshall College researcher the United Way hired to track the data. But he’s encouraged by hints of progress.

The United Way in 2015 set four, audacious 10-year “bold goals.” They are to halve poverty, get every youngster ready for kindergarten, have all workers obtain an employment-enhancing credential, and assure health care for everyone by 2025.

“Moving the needle”

Kindergarten readiness may already be improving. The number of preschoolers who attend publicly funded pre-kindergarten has risen from 10 percent in 2014 to 15 percent this year.

Another area of improvement is the number of workers with some post-secondary education. That indicator has risen from 52 percent in 2014 to 55 percent this year.

In addition, the portion of residents who are uninsured has fallen from 14 percent four years ago to 11 percent now.

“We are moving the needle bit by bit,” Sue Suter, United Way president and CEO, said.

Deb Jones is a believer. As the head of ECHOS, a housing agency in Elizabethtown, she recalls the void the community felt over a decade ago when a major, Lancaster-based human services provider left town.

Churches, a food bank and other agencies stepped up to extend a hand to the needy, but they worked in isolation, perhaps unaware that additional help for someone with multiple needs was available across town.

“The United Way pushed us to work together,” Jones said, and a concrete outcome is the newly opened Community Place on Washington, a two-story center at the former St. Peter Parochial School housing multiple agencies.

“It was a big risk the United Way took, but is has paid dividends,” Jones said.

“Tough” transition

Yost has surveyed staff working in collective impact partnerships. He found growing acceptance of the power of multiagency planning and action.

“The solutions that they think about now are radically different than they were five years ago,” Yost said. “That could lead to all kinds of possibilities.”

Sam Bressi, president and CEO at the Lancaster County Community Foundation, oversees grants to community-benefit organizations and has followed with interest the United Way’s transition to collective impact.

“I know it’s been tough. Any change is,” Bressi said. “But what they’re looking to do is very positive for the community ... drive positive change in the most effective, efficient way possible.”

But so far the switch to collective impact has not excited donors.

Annual contributions to the local United Way have fallen by $1.9 million compared to 2011. The fund-raiser last May awarded a third fewer grants compared to three years earlier.

“We just need to spread the word more,” said Kathy Granbois, United Way’s board chair and a cheerleader for collective impact. “We have to figure out a way to get more funds in so we can power this system.”