United Way of King County Celebrates Centennial

By United Way of King County, on December 29, 2021 | In Breaking the Cycle of Poverty, Covid-19, Fighting Homelessness, Helping Students Graduate, Racial Equity

One. Hundred. Years.

That is how long United Way of King County has partnered with other organizations to help address the issues and confront the concerns of residents in the Seattle area. As we come to the close of 2021, we commemorate a century of coalescing people, resources and agencies to solve challenges through innovation, compassion and action.

United Way began as the Seattle Community Fund in 1921, five years after the founding of Boeing and the same year as the Great Blowdown, a 100-mph hurricane that struck the Washington and Oregon coasts and destroyed billions of board feet of timber. The Seattle Community Fund was a federated campaign of 43 separate fundraising efforts among the city’s health and welfare agencies.

Over the next 40 years–before the fund changed its name to United Good Neighbors in 1952–Greater Seattle and the nation would endure some of the most challenging and watershed moments.  There was the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 that made all Indigenous people residents of the United States–about a hundred years after being forced off land they had lived for thousands of years. There was the Great Depression in 1929 that left nearly 13 million people unemployed. There was World War II in 1939 that led to the 1942 interment and incarceration of thousands of Japanese Americans.

Both the Seattle Community Fund and United Good Neighbors served as a vehicle to bring like-minded agencies together. In 1972 United Good Neighbors linked with United Way of America (formerly Community Chest and United Community Funds & Councils of America) to become United Way of King County. By then, the local organization had gone from simply raising funds for organizations to working with them to solve problems and serve communities that many other United Ways did not.

Said former United Way vice president Lynda Matthias, “When I came out here in 1978, they started funding a Stonewall counseling service, which was very rare in United Way circles.” Mattias referred to the Stonewall Riots, following police raids of LGBTQ establishments, particularly at the Stonewall Inn in New York City that was one of the watershed moments in LGBTQ activism.

Matthias said, ultimately, United Way focused on solving problems such as ending homelessness and ensuring that all children were ready for school. “We funded agencies that were doing the best job in solving the problems,” Matthias added. “We also always worked to get collaboration between agencies to solve problems.  We had big values; we made sure agencies were efficient and effective. Whether we were problems solving or supporting agencies, we always looked to make sure they were delivering services appropriately and at the best cost.”

In the years that followed, United Way continued to make inroads in responding to community’s needs.

  • In 1989, United Way implemented a new donor involvement plan in response to requests for more donor choice in directing contributions. Donors could contribute to the Community Care Plan, direct their dollars to other nonprofit health and human service agencies in Washington, or split their gift between the two options.
  • In 2001, after the September 11 terrorist attacks, United Way of King County worked in conjunction with United Ways nationwide to establish The September 11th Fund to aid victims, families and communities directly affected by the tragedy. The fund, which ultimately raised $525 million worldwide, helped provide food, emergency shelter, counseling and money in each affected area.
  • In 2002, United Way of King County launched the Free Tax Preparation Program to help low- and moderate-income people file their taxes and claim all the tax credits for which they are eligible, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit.
  • In 2005, United Way revamped its efforts to focus on solving community-wide issues. The organization cultivated strategies with community-based nonprofits, business and government leaders to leverage resources. It provided volunteer opportunities, educated public officials and raised public awareness of community issues.
  • In 2010, United Way launched the ParentChild+ program and a $25 million fundraising campaign to bring the program to every eligible child in King County.
  • In 2013, United Way reached its fundraising goal of $20 million for the Campaign to End Chronic Homelessness, which aimed to place 1,000 of the most vulnerable people on the streets into permanent supportive housing. We ended up helping to create more than 2,000 supportive housing units through that campaign.  
  • In 2014, United Way launched Reconnecting Youth, a program targeted at the 15,000 young people in King County ages 16-21 who have stopped their education short of a diploma and are not working.
  • As of 2015, United Way and its partners provide on-site services for people living in 2,241 units of supportive housing. 
  • Since 2020, United Way and its partners have responded to the COVID-19 crisis by providing assistance to King County residents who have lost part or all of their income due to the pandemic and are behind on their rent. We’ve also help get food to people who need it through extra support at food banks and community meal sites.

“United Way has been critically important for the culture of the work and for innovation,” said Walter Washington, Executive Director of Lake City Partners and a former United Way team manager. “United Way listens to the community. They listen to what is needed, and they make adjustments. Hence programs like diversion funds, which is a response to rapid rehousing and other programs that have not been effective.”

United Way is … on the ground, seeing what is necessary, what’s innovative and what’s going to move the dial.”

Walter Washington, Executive Director of Lake City Partners and former United Way team manager

“And United Way is invested in prevention work, because the difference between someone who is almost homeless and homeless is not that much,” Washington added. “They’re on the ground, seeing what is necessary, what’s innovative and what’s going to move the dial.”

So, what’s on the horizon as we move into the next century of United Way of King County? United Way will launch a new strategic plan in 2022, advocate for 2022 state and federal policy agendas, and continue to work toward a racially just community where people have homes, students graduate and families are financially stable.


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