The purpose of the agency we know today as United Way of Central Iowa has varied little during the past century, although the people it serves and the methods it uses are constantly evolving.

This is the second of several columns I’ll write this year marking the 100th anniversary of United Way in Des Moines. 

From the beginning, the goal was to improve the quality of life in Central Iowa by addressing health, education and employment issues.

When the agency was launched as the Public Welfare Bureau by the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce in 1917, its initial focus was on reducing the fundraising expenses of two dozen local nonprofits. By lowering the front-end costs for organizations as diverse as the Boy Scouts, the Roadside Settlement House and the Public Health Nursing Association, business leaders believed more money could be directed to needed services.

The founders succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The agency they launched soon became one of the most efficient and successful nonprofit fundraisers in the country, a designation that it has maintained ever since.

But raising money was only half the solution. The founders knew that real success would be determined by the impact their money had.  

Des Moines in the early 20th century was a major boomtown, with a population that doubled between 1900 and 1920 to more than 126,000. Many of the newcomers were from Europe, making immigrant settlement and education a major concern. Much of the nearly $92,003 raised in 1917 was spent helping new arrivals. 

But the founders also took a holistic view, noting with concern in 1919 that Iowa was “one of six or seven states with no minimum wage for women.”

They also worried about the connection between healthy families and a living wage. “In families living on $500 or less per year, 230 out of 1,000 babies die,” said minutes from a 1919 meeting that coordinated free health care for low-income families.  

During the 1930s, the agency’s name changed to Community Chest of Des Moines as the Great Depression expanded needs and squeezed resources. 

“Some firms have gone out of business and their subscriptions (donations) will not be included,” the campaign chairman for 1931 warned. “Everyone should make a larger emergency contribution,” he urged. 

By 1933, the demand for services had grown to “approximately 10 times what it was in 1929,” according to board minutes. 

By the 1936, the list of agencies receiving money had grown to 53, and the Community Chest was using statistics and surveys to more clearly target needs. For each of the $323,399 raised that year, 33 cents went to family welfare services, 10 cents to child welfare, 34 cents to education/character building, 16 cents to health services and 7 cents to administration and coordination. 

During World War II, contributions and beneficiaries grew with the addition of a National War Fund. 

In 1957, the name changed to United Community Services, and four years later, the fundraising campaign was extended to include the suburbs. 

The name was tweaked again in 1969 to Greater Des Moines United Way.

More recently, Central Iowa has taken the lead nationally in holding grant recipients accountable. It’s not just about measuring individual results, said Stacey Stewart, U.S. president of United Way Worldwide. It’s how each recipient agency’s plans fit into the overall plan for improving quality of life.

Stewart cited two recent Des Moines efforts. One involves bringing together leaders in business, education and government to reduce poverty by creating opportunities for 20,000 Central Iowans. The other is called “Bridges to Success,” an effort to obtain high school equivalency certificates for least one-third of the 33,000 Central Iowans who lack high school diplomas.