United Way of San Diego County aims to create better opportunities for San Diegans

By Kristina Houck

From helping students graduate high school, to assisting the unemployed find work, United Way of San Diego County aims to create better opportunities for San Diegans.

“We are always encouraging community support in a way that allows the less fortunate people in the community to increase their ability to function effectively in society,” said Doug Sawyer, president and CEO of United Way of San Diego County.

For more than 90 years, United Way of San Diego County has been a local nonprofit fundraising organization that focuses on bringing together people and resources to assist those in need and improve the quality of life for all in the county. Like the nearly 1,400 other United Way organizations across the country, a local volunteer board of directors governs United Way of San Diego County, and all funds raised in San Diego are invested back into the local community.

A board member in the early 1990s, Sawyer returned to the organization in 2005 after he retired from banking. At the time, United Way was not meeting its fundraising goals, but still donating to about 150 agencies every year.

Donors requested the organization make a change to make a bigger difference in the community, Sawyer said.

“We were raising less money each year,” Sawyer said. “We needed to change and be more focused on what we were doing as opposed to scattered.”

To meet the needs of the community United Way of San Diego County serves, Sawyer created a business model for the organizations. Leaders decided to focus on ensuring all San Diegans have education, income and health, or “the building blocks for a good life.”

In addition, United Way works toward a scalable solution to move the region’s most chronically homeless into housing and support services.

Behind Los Angeles and New York, San Diego has the third largest homeless population in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2012 Point-in-Time Report.

To end chronic homelessness, United Way created a 10-year plan. The “Plan to End Chronic Homelessness in the San Diego Region,” or PTECH, was released in 2006. The plan, which is currently being implemented by United Way and its partners, advocates providing affordable housing and supportive services to help move the chronically homeless off the streets and into stable living and working situations.

Last year, the organization helped transition 177 people off the streets, Sawyer said.

“We feel real good about the progress we’re making,” he said. “It’s good progress, but there is still a long way to go.”

The progress wouldn’t be possible without United Way’s donors, roughly 50 staff members, about 125 governing volunteers and several hundred other volunteers, Sawyer noted.

Last fiscal year, the organization raised almost $19 million. This fiscal year, the organization has set a $20 million fundraising goal, Sawyer said.

The long-term goal for United Way is to get at the root of problems and change the conditions before they become critical issues. Sawyer added he wants “United Way to be recognized as the go-to organization dealing with major social changes in San Diego.”

“What we’re doing is creating systemic change in the community,” he said. “It’s really just ongoing efforts every day as opposed to one major emphasis or event.”

To learn more about United Way of San Diego County, visit