United Way Celebrates a Century of Service

By Steven Libowitz   |   May 16, 2023
Through fires, the debris flow, and a pandemic, United Way of Santa Barbara County has been here for the community … and that was only in the past five years.

As might be expected with an organization that has been around for 100 years, there have been a lot of changes at United Way of Santa Barbara County (UWSBC) over the course of a century of service that began in 1923. Originally known as the Santa Barbara Community Chest, the nonprofit’s model focused almost exclusively on raising and distributing funds to support worthy causes in the area. Reimagining – sparked by the growth in its programs and partnerships – led the organization to diversify its approach by building community partnerships and delivering direct programs and services to residents throughout Santa Barbara County. 

Over the past 100 years, their programs have kept focused on core issues of concern to the community, largely education and financial empowerment (Courtesy photo)

In the wake of the twin disasters of the Thomas Fire and Montecito debris flow, UWSBC expanded its approach to include crisis response programs and initiatives to rapidly respond to a massive increase in need. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, UWSBC was ready, again marshaling its resources, leadership, and collaborative partnerships to develop programs supporting thousands of local families with emergency childcare services, remote and hybrid learning support, and rental and utility assistance. 

Throughout the century and through all the growth, United Way has stayed steadfast in its focus on core issues of concern to the community, largely education and financial empowerment, with an eye toward addressing ever-evolving needs. That commitment, as well as a focus on research-driven programs that provide significant, measurable results, has helped UWSBC remain a key leader in local efforts to empower children, families, and communities through its unique collaborative programs and initiatives, partnership convening efforts, volunteer development, and funding.

“The beauty of the flexibility of our model is that we’re able to quickly address any major issues within our scope of work that suddenly arise,” says President and CEO Steve Ortiz, who joined UWSBC in 2005. “There’s recognition and trust in our brand, strength in our existing relationships, and faith in our ability to coordinate large efforts in a way that allows all the players in a robust collaboration to employ their best resources.” 

Those partnerships and collaborations will be a big focus when early next month, the nonprofit officially marks its milestone century of service with United Way’s 100th Anniversary Celebration. The engaging evening fundraiser, UWSBC’s biggest of the year, is slated for Santa Barbara Historical Museum on Thursday, June 1, when guests will enjoy an elegant dinner, dancing to live music, and a program that includes a video tracing decades past, and honors many of the longstanding partners and philanthropists that have made turning its mission into reality possible with a presentation of community awards. 

“It’s meant to be a celebration of our history and a ‘thank you’ to people and organizations that have been involved throughout the decades of our organization,” Ortiz said. 

United Way of SBC was founded in 1923 as the Santa Barbara Community Chest (Courtesy photo)

“Thanks to our partners and supporters, we’ve experienced incredible growth, and we’re looking forward to celebrating this century of service alongside those who made it possible.”

Many local organizations, service agencies, businesses and community volunteers will be recognized at the event, which will celebrate United Way’s growing network of partners here in Santa Barbara County. But the event will also bring together corporations, philanthropists, volunteers, service agencies, and nonprofits – and even those who have received services in the past to honor a century of partnership and service here in Santa Barbara.

“It’s going to be unique in the comprehensiveness of the people who attend due to the nature of United Way,” said Marina Gutierrez, UWSBC’s Grants and Communications coordinator. “Our base of volunteers, donors, supporters and organizations is large – basically everyone in Santa Barbara. So, in a lot of ways, it’s also a celebration of Santa Barbara’s philanthropic and service community as a whole, just due to how expansive and extensive our network is. It’ll be a really fun gathering of all different types of people.” 

In the meantime, Ortiz has his attention on keeping United Way vital and flexible to face the next century of service. 

“We’re celebrating a hundred years, but this organization is gonna be here forever,” he said. “Our goal is to continue to provide the programs and initiatives that our community will need in the future. We have the flexibility as an organization, and the support of our community, to make the adjustments needed to support those most in need at the right time. That’s our future focus.”  

More information, sponsorships, and tickets are available online at www.unitedwaysb.org/anniversary-celebration, or by calling or emailing Gutierrez at (805) 882-0505 or mgutierrez@unitedwaysb.org.


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