Uniting their ways?

Sarasota Herald Tribune, A10

Original Story

Three United Ways in our region have announced the pursuit of a plan that, if it comes to fruition, would bring together the organizations serving Manatee and north Sarasota counties.

The proposed merger makes sense on multiple levels.

Perhaps most important, it would unite the Manatee United Way with a neighbor to the south that has not only a common border but extensive, longstanding cultural, commercial and political ties.

Manatee-Sarasota is a true regional economy. It shares numerous legislative and congressional districts, bays and estuaries, the State College of Florida, water and infrastructure. Cultural institutions, such as The Ringling art museum, the Sarasota Orchestra and theaters depend upon patrons and attract students from both counties. Lakewood Ranch, one of Florida’s largest master planned communities, spans both counties as well.

One excellent, recent example of bi-county collaboration is the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, which has joined Manatee and Sarasota in a much-needed effort to improve early-childhood learning. A United Way merger could and should continue to enhance that admirable campaign.

Also vital is the potential for Manatee to benefit from efficiencies of scale in so-called ‘back office’ functions as part of a United Way Suncoast alliance that includes north Sarasota and Hillsborough County.Carefully managed, merged organizations can realize savings in overhead and administration — which can enable a United Way to direct more of its resources and the community’s financial contributions to programs that aid individuals, families and local service providers.

When Sarasota joined the Suncoast alliance, it leapfrogged its neighbor to the north, creating an awkward gap.Manatee’s United Way board considered joining Suncoast, but its board reasonably determined that ‘the timing wasn’t right.’

But with the imminent retirement of Manatee’s president, Philip Brown, and evidence of an improved relationship between the north Sarasota organization and the United Way Suncoast leadership in Hillsborough, the timing seems right now.

The terms of the proposed merger, announced Wednesday, appropriately call for Bronwyn Beightol, who has earned respect in the community, to be area president in charge of Manatee. (In Sarasota, Mireya Eavey, who has both expanded and focused her organization’s mission, has the same role.) Successful mergers provide all of the partner organizations with expanded expertise, new ideas and access to additional resources at lower per-unit costs. But they also recognize that communities and their institutions must retain their local character and leadership to function effectively and maintain deep connections with donors and the recipients of assistance.

If this merger moves forward, which we encourage, all of the area presidents and their boards should maximize the value of their common interests, yet recognize the differences that define the communities they serve and encourage donors to contribute to the United Way. The relationship should be a true partnership, not a venture that might be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as being driven by the headquarters in Hillsborough.

We hope the merger is accomplished in a fashion that serves each of the participants, and their communities, well.
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