Grand Forks-area United Way turns focus to direct services, helping families and 'making a difference'

In the fall 2019 and spring 2020, two community conversations were held with representatives of other nonprofits, key stakeholders, lead businesses for the campaign and social workers. “We asked a lot of questions,” said Heather Novak, the local organization's executive director.

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Heather Novak, executive director of United Way, says the organization has shifted its focus to providing direct services to meet basic needs of families in the area. Shown here on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022, Novak became United Way's executive director about a year ago.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS – United Way of Grand Forks, East Grand Forks & Area has made a major shift in its mission, turning the focus from pass-through funding to becoming a direct service provider to help meet basic needs – such as rent, food, clothing and utilities – that some area families are facing.

In the last year or so, “We have changed so much,” said Executive Director Heather Novak.

The trouble is, she said, public awareness is lacking.

“We still collaborate with other nonprofit partners," she said. "We’re just not a funder.”

Novak, who was named interim executive director in July 2021 and took over as executive director Oct. 1, 2021, said the impetus for change stems from decreased annual campaign revenue and a recognition of quality-of-life gaps in Grand Forks and other communities.


United Way’s fall campaign “had been declining for about four to five years prior to 2019,” Novak said. Fewer dollars coming in has meant smaller grants going out.

Feedback from some donors questioned why they should give to United Way when they can give directly to an organization, she said.

In the fall 2019 and spring 2020, two community conversations were held with representatives of other nonprofits, key stakeholders, lead businesses for the campaign and social workers, Novak said.

“We asked a lot of questions,” including, what are the main gaps in the Grand Forks area and where does United Way belong in those gaps, she said.

Three challenges emerged: transportation, child care and homeless families. Regarding the latter, Grand Forks lacks a family homeless shelter and United Way subsequently took up that issue. In fall 2020, it launched its Families First program, partnering with the Grand Forks Police Department and the local school system, providing shelter on a long-term basis, if necessary. Social workers help families overcome barriers to employment and permanent housing.

Connection with other partners, including the Community Violence Intervention Center, is an important aspect of their work, Novak said.

Under the direction of her 18-member board, United Way has launched programs that impact the everyday lives of people in need. Donor feedback has been mostly positive, Novak said.

Fundraising “has been going really well these last couple of years,” she said. “We have a lot of community members and businesses who really like the direct-services change that we’ve made and (that we’re) making sure that we’re not duplicating our services, and that we’re really trying to focus on closing the gaps in the community.”


United Way has an income budget of $1.1 million, Novak said. “And that’ll be everything from the campaign, from designations to programs, to donations and grants, and in-kind donations. So we’re really trying to change to be a year-round fundraiser, instead of only focusing on having the fall campaign, to support these programs.”

Of that budget, only 1% is sent to the national organization for dues. That means 99% of donations stay in the community, Novak said.

Expanding to rural communities

United Way is expanding to serve rural areas in a 35-mile radius of Grand Forks. A fairly new program, Kidz Closet, has been launched in Grand Forks and, more recently, in Emerado and Minto; Kidz Closets are in the planning stages for Larimore and Grafton, she said. Donations of clothing, school supplies, hygiene products and household items are distributed free to families.

Last summer, United Way hosted nine pop-up events, bringing its 16-foot trailer full of Kidz Closet items to distribute free to families in rural communities, she said.

“And it’s not just parents who come,” she said. “A lot of times they bring their kids and the kids can pick items they want.”

“It’s amazing the amount of people who donate great clothing items, hygiene products, and household items for these kiddos,” Novak said. “It’s just so much fun to go to these pop-up events and to be able to say this is all free because of the amazing community we have that donates items.”

Through the Kidz Closet, “which is continuously growing and dispersing, just last month, we distributed about 3,500 items” to people in Grand Forks, Minto, Larimore, Emerado, and surrounding communities, “because anybody can go on our website and fill out an application,” she said.

Parents can list their needs in the application, “and we will pack those items and have those ready for them,” she said.


Last fall, United Way took on the Larimore Food Pantry and, in a remodeling project to double the space, plans to include a Kidz Closet. The food pantry is operational; the Kidz Closet should be open by the end of January, she said.

“Our kiddos that we’re serving, we want them to be able to have access to their basic needs, because then we all know that they can better excel in school and into the community.”

Fighting food insecurity

United Way has taken on increasing responsibility for the Backpack program to counteract weekend food insecurity among children. Its staff delivers about 650 Backpack bags to East Grand Forks middle school and two elementary schools, Head Start programs in the Grand Cities, the Grand Forks Public Schools SAIL program and Larimore Elementary School.

The bags are provided Fridays during the school year. Each bag includes two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners, two snacks and two juices, Novak said.

In the Families First program, during the fiscal year ending June 30, United Way provided more than 1,500 nights of shelter to homeless families in the community, Novak said. Since the Families First program began, nearly 70 families have been served.

The families are in need of rent and utilities assistance as the result of changes in family situations and other factors, she said. “There are lots of different reasons, and barriers, out there.”

Increased financial pressures, due to inflation, make budgeting even tougher for families struggling to make ends meet.

“As the year goes on, especially with it being cold out now, I think we’ll see a lot of different situations come in, with people needing the help with rent and utilities. …

“I think it’s always going to be a need, and will continue to be a need,” she said. “I just think our needs are going to be higher in these next years.”

Lingering misconceptions

Novak has found a general lack of awareness about what United Way does or lingering misconceptions about its mission, particularly that it is no longer a pass-through funding organization.   

“We had done grants for so many years and, changing our focus, a lot of times people don’t have the awareness of (our) programs,” Novak said. “I’ve given 50 to 100 presentations this fall, and yet people still say, ‘I didn’t know United Way did this.’ ”

No other organization in the community sponsors a Kidz Closet, for example, she said. It’s basically “a free thrift store.”

Some people are unaware that United Way is housing homeless families and helping with rent and utility assistance with intensive case management to get to the root of and solve budgeting problems, “and so we really want to get that awareness out there, not only for our donors, but for community members that might need these services.”

Dedicated to improving lives

It only takes a few minutes with Novak to realize how important United Way’s mission is to her – even on a personal level.

“This sounds so cliche’ but helping people has always been a passion of mine,” Novak said. “I’ve been told I wear my heart on my sleeve. That probably comes from my love for children. ...

“Helping families through United Way is truly the most amazing job. I may not always get to see these families, but I know the effort my amazing staff put in each day is making a difference to many kiddos and families out there.”

"It’s easy to make assumptions about a person based on their outfit or their day job," Coming Home columnist Jessie Veeder writes. "I mean, my dad used to work in a bank and he also broke horses and played in a bar band at night."

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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