Photo: Megan Zabel Holmes for United Way of the Columbia-Willamette

Thinking small can indeed be the start of something big.

That’s the potential that longtime United Way partner Wells Fargo saw in our Catalyst Fund Grants.

“Catalyst is designed to initiate or strengthen an effort or to raise awareness of an issue that helps break the cycle of childhood poverty by diminishing educational, economic or health disparities in underserved communities,” explained June Reyes, United Way’s Program Coordinator for Community Collaborations and Investment. 

What United Way of the Columbia-Willamette began five years ago as a way to propel new or burgeoning social programs forward has now dispersed $540,000 throughout the Portland metro region to improve services and systems for families in underserved communities.

Collaboration is key to not only these programs, but to the effectiveness of the Catalyst Fund since it began in 2012. Each $5000 grant is made possible by United Way partners like Wells Fargo, who not only contribute financially but are part of the Catalyst Review Committee with United Way staff to award the grants twice a year.

Take for example the two projects that Wells Fargo backed with its first Catalyst Fund investment earlier this year.

Latina Associates for Collaborative Endeavors (LACE), with support from the Nonprofit Association of Oregon, used its grant to focus on increasing Latina leaders in nonprofits to address disparities, improve racial equity, and increase culturally responsive resources for the area’s growing Latino population. 

The Blueprint Foundation, which works to connect youth of color to a wide variety of learning and career opportunities, used the grant for environmental education and community improvement projects.

When these community-led efforts get a boost, the impact for children and families is exponential.

“We believe that even small gifts can have a huge impact by removing roadblocks and providing seed money,” said Andrew Tweedie, Wells Fargo’s Vice President and Community Affairs Officer in Portland. 

These gifts can have just as much impact as Wells Fargo’s larger, longtime partnership with United Way, which includes an active employee volunteer program and has contributed more than $6.4 million to our community work since 1996. 

Wells Fargo’s decision to become a Catalyst sponsor in 2016 aligned with the company’s support of small businesses and organizations that make a big impact.

“By funding to strengthen systems that support communities in our region, the Catalyst grant allows smaller, nimble agencies the opportunity to move more quickly,” added Tweedie.

Many current and past recipients of Catalyst Fund grants like LACE and Blueprint are laying the foundation for transformative change by supporting new leaders who will energize creative ways to break the cycle of childhood poverty. 

Organizations such as Building Blocks to Success and Momentum Alliance used funds to provide youth of color and LGBTQ youth with mentorship, safe spaces and community learning opportunities to fuel their wellbeing and success. Impact NW and ROSE Community Development focused on educating and empowering parents to improve health and advocacy to meet their family’s needs. 

Many Catalyst grantees are also creating new initiatives or looking to expand innovative pilot projects that address immediate challenges families face in our community. 

3 to PhD is developing an “educational corridor” in Northeast Portland to address multigenerational needs for healthcare and education from early childhood to parent literacy. Domestic Violence Safe Dialogue was able to raise awareness for survivors about accessing their restorative justice model to heal from trauma. The Welcome Home Coalition expanded their work to secure funding for affordable housing to more Portland neighborhoods.

As the next round of Catalyst grant awards approaches, Tweedie, who also recently joined the United Way Board, is excited about what new ideas will be made possible. 

“This is another important way we are working together to strengthen our communities and create equity for all,” he said.

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