At United Way of Central Iowa, Michelle Rich is the bridge between Des Moines philanthropy and financial success advocates in the neighborhoods. 

Rich is the community impact officer overseeing United Way’s income branch, and got her start in public policy after she was confronted with the reality of economic disparity while going to school at Tulane University in New Orleans. 

“It was quite the experience for sure,” said Rich, who lived in New Orleans post-graduation until she evacuated to Dallas during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “I think it was the right environment, seeing the disparities in the community and then wanting to understand how government structures and influences the way we live. Government can do good, and I believe [it] has a role in supporting people to be successful.” 

Today, Rich has her eye on how sustainable private philanthropy can build up financial security for Central Iowa families. Her work at United Way connects donors with the community advocates and programs dedicated to establishing financial education and stability. 

 “We commend our organizations and others on the success of the Des Moines region and how it’s doing so well for a lot of people, but we also have to recognize that there are some people that aren’t being successful in this economy,” Rich said. “We need to make sure that we prioritize human beings.” 

What was your background before United Way?
My background professionally is in public policy, and for the past 12 years prior to coming to United Way for this role I was a senior program manager at State Public Policy Group. That company does public policy consulting project management, facilitation, [and] really had become a jack of all trades for policy conversations. What I loved about State Public Policy Group was that it was a private company but mission-driven to engage Iowans in the policy development process. It was a lot about engagement, empowering people, giving them voice, ensuring that they’re part of the process to develop policies and hopefully that means it will be more effective in the long run. … I learned a lot over my 12 years at SPPG and really loved engaging stakeholders in that work. 

I went to Tulane University in New Orleans, and it was quite the experience for sure. It matches the stereotype [of] a very fun-loving city, but there’s significant disparities there as well. It was my first real exposure to severe economic disparity, and I knew that was something I wanted to influence later in life. 

What interested you in coming to United Way?
[At SPPG] I had done a lot of work with United Way as a community member, and I was on the education cabinet for several years before becoming a funded partner under education. I did a lot of work in after-school programs at SPPG, and a lot of the focus under education here is through informal learning environments, like after-school programs. 

I was also a volunteer with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program -- I still am. I did Grad Walk for several years. … So I was volunteering and working professionally with education here, and I’ve just always had a very good view of what United Way does. 

We have three pillars of strategy here: education, income and health. Under income also falls our “essential needs” work and investments. I oversee our investments in income -- so raising self-sufficiency [levels] here in Central Iowa. Also under that falls our VITA program, our labor relations. … I am supervisor to people that manage those programs, and then also in my role, I am supporting our investments in income/essential needs -- so I support the volunteers that make decisions on those investments.

Who are these volunteers, and what decisions do they lead?
Through our investments cabinet -- income cabinet and essential needs committee -- we probably have 30 volunteers that are making investment decisions. I think there’s a myth out there that the [United Way] officers make investment decisions, when in reality it’s volunteers from the community and our donors that make those decisions. 

The value that United Way brings in the philanthropic community is a strategic approach to investment. As a donor you can donate to various individual organizations, or you can come to United Way and we can strategically invest in the community where we’re making the most impact in certain areas. Volunteers making those investment decisions are looking at impact first, so is this going to move the needle on our self-sufficiency goal? 

They’re also looking at the sustainability of the efforts. United Way is often not the sole contributor or donor to an organization, so we want to see that organization has community support through their financials. That gives us an indicator of sustainability -- if United Way wasn’t here the next day, would the organization be able to continue? 

What are your goals at United Way for this year?
My goal is to raise self-sufficiency in Central Iowa -- Polk, Dallas and Warren counties -- to 75% by the end of this year. Likely we won’t see that goal made; we’re at 67.7% this year as of last year’s data, but it doesn’t mean that the work doesn’t move forward in trying to raise that number. 

What we mean by self-sufficiency is that individuals and families are making at least 250% of the federal poverty level, so for a family of one, that’s about $30,000 a year. That’s just to meet a survival budget. We also talk in terms of families of four, so two adults and two children. … That doubles the size of the basic needs, about $60,000 a year. 

The recession hit hard, some people more than others, but a lot of people were struggling at that time so we saw a significant drop in self-sufficiency -- just not making the income that’s needed for that essential needs budget. So we’re seeing a slow progression increase year over year. That’s great to see that increase; we certainly don’t want to see it drop. 

We need to be mindful of how we’re going to respond when economies aren’t doing so well. 

Do you see any trends in where donor interests are in relation to community needs?
I think our financial literacy work is a microcosm of this, where we’re seeing [that] certainly there’s a desire on the part of certain donors to get financial education to people so they can be included in banking and all of these financial services. What we’re seeing is an understanding that financial education has to happen in the moment when people are struggling -- that’s when they learn about better ways to do things, or better ways to manage their income. 

First, we need to ensure that people are earning good income, but then understand how best to engage in the financial economy, in financial services to use that money and grow it. But financial education is an example of where donors at one point thought that it was a one-off training, where people could get this training once and then be good. Now … there’s an understanding that it has to happen over time. 

I think donors evolve, just like people. It’s part of our job to bring this kind of information to donors as well, being that liaison between donor interests and the needs of the community. 

What’s the best piece of advice or feedback you’ve received since taking on this role?
I think the biggest piece of advice has been [that] to provide a good service, you have to know what’s going on in the community. Being out there, knowing people, listening to people in the community and hearing what’s really happening and what could really move the needle. 

What have you been reading/watching/listening to lately?
At SPPG I was heavily involved in developing [the One Economy] report with the Directors Council guidance [link to the 2017 Polk County report: bit.ly/2THtC7m]. It just so happened that an article from CityLab popped up on why we shouldn’t necessarily be focusing on homeownership and black business [ownership]. We need to get to the root of why there’s such disparity in homeownership of the majority population and African American population, and why there are less successful businesses in the black community. It’s really important for us to challenge our traditional thinking every day, and that was a great example of it. … Is it as simple as improving homeownership rates or better interest rates, or just making sure that we have more black businesses, when those efforts might not be as impactful as if we had really looked at the root causes of some of those issues? 

I’ve been reading “From Generosity to Justice” by Darren Walker. It explains how to move from a model of charity -- where solutions are determined by those giving charity -- to a model of justice -- where solutions are designed for and by marginalized communities and get to the root causes of disparate outcomes for such groups of people. It really is the model of philanthropy now and in the future.