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United Way of Lancaster County


Innovation, inclusion and transformational philanthropy: Holiday reflections from Tanzania (opinion)

Melissa and Kevin Ressler and their daughters, Iriana and Acacia, at Nam Lolwe (Lake Victoria) in Tanzania.

Greetings from the other side of the world!

Right now, my family is on a long-planned trip to introduce my children to my mother’s side of my family in Tanzania, East Africa. Having not been able to visit for 10 years has made the brevity of life more present in my reflections.

This past week, I was able to preach in the village church where my grandfather was the first indigenous bishop ordained by any Mennonite church in all of Africa. As the church transitioned from mission-led to local control, there were many challenges confronting each group around control, acceptance, trust and release.

I thought of many present challenges in American philanthropy and local Lancaster development work while I spoke with local leaders about the history here and issues of broken trust, including when American church abandoned any educational or medical projects because they weren’t evangelism.

This year, we have seen a new approach in philanthropy as MacKenzie Scott has upended the relationship dynamic between grantor and grantee, putting trust in the expertise of local organizations instead of the classic, more heavy-handed approach of control we’ve seen where the heavier the donation, historically, the heavier the demands on organizational reporting.

Locally, we have seen an inspirational shift in how business can exist with a community-centered focus. The decision by S. Dale High and the High family to transfer ownership of their privately held company to a community-focused foundation will have a transformative impact on the fight against community challenges, particularly those of poverty and barriers to economic opportunity, for generations to come.

The approach we take locally to philanthropy is incredibly important if we want effective change. This is especially true as income disparities grow throughout Lancaster County and as rapid development alters the economic landscape in Lancaster city, where those with the greatest financial challenges historically have lived.

As development projects gentrify the community and push historically and currently financially burdened populations out of the city, there will need to be a redoubled effort to think about who lives where, why they are there, and whether or not our institutions are capable and prepared to serve them where they end up.

This means, of course, that there is a need for governments in the county (not just the commissioners but also borough and township managers and supervisors) to work together and include the city as plans are made. We cannot have some parts of the community taking on housing and others commercial development without thinking about who should be the focus of these conversations: the people. We should work towards changing our processes from decisions “for” to decisions “with,” and that means widening the table of decision-makers and influencers.

I’m wrapping up here before heading off on further explorations with my family, but I want to take the opportunity to mention a few United Way-focused items.

Please pay attention to our relaunched Project Blueprint program. This is where we will prepare institutions to widen the table of those in decision-making positions by providing a sound curriculum to assist in understanding authentic inclusion, beyond tokenism, of those individuals who have historically been marginalized.

The program is about to move into the recruitment phase. The training is designed to empower and inform those who can bring diversity of thought and experience into leadership conversations, so they can lead organizations more effectively and drive impactful decision-making. Project Blueprint is oriented toward creating the sort of equitable development needed to meet the challenges that are already being laid at our feet.

The other hope I have is that you consider making an end of the year donation to United Way of Lancaster County. We have been working on multiple innovations, beyond Project Blueprint, aimed at rethinking how we live and thrive together.

There are new problems, yes. But many problems in communities, whether here in East Africa where I’m writing, or in Lancaster County, are longstanding and not new. That means that doing the same thing to solve stubborn problems is essentially giving up on the idea that there can be solutions. I don’t believe that. I believe in you and me and the future.

Thank you to each member of United Way of Lancaster County for your hard work and deep compassion day after day after day. Thank you to the board for your support and visioncasting.

And most of all, thank you to the reader of these words. You wouldn’t be this far down this letter if you didn’t care deeply about our community and the shared prosperity that we all desire for one another. I am grateful to be in league with you!

May whatever celebrations you bring to the end of the year be joyful, whatever reflections you bring to the end of the year be mindful, and whatever aspirations you bring to the new year be impactful.

Be well, and take care of one another,

Kevin M. Ressler