For more than six decades, the United Way of Okaloosa and Walton Counties has followed a simple formula. Each year, the organization put on a major fundraising campaign with volunteers who encourage local residents to make payroll deductions and other donations.

Once the campaign was complete, another group of volunteers would take a look at each of the more than 40 nonprofits associated with the United Way and decide how much money each agency should receive.

Things are going to be different this year.

The 2017 fundraising campaign will follow what’s called a “community impact and investment model.” Under this method, United Way staffers have invited donors, volunteers, agency executives and members of the public to identify the key issues facing the community in three areas: education, financial stability and health.

“We had our first set of meetings on Monday and Tuesday (of last week), and we came up with a list of the most pressing issues,” said Sarah Costello, the United Way’s program director. “Starting in 2018, when our agencies apply for funding, they’ll be applying for grants that will help them to address one of those key issues.”

Thats model differs from the current system, in which agencies apply for funds to meet their individual needs.

“For example, one of the issues that came up during our first set of meetings was the fact that there are over 1,000 homeless kids in Okaloosa County alone,” Costello said.

With a preliminary list of issues already identified, the next step will be for the focus groups to come up with a set of measurable goals to address each issue. Costello said the groups will take up that task at the next set of meetings, which are scheduled for some time in May.

Costello said the majority of United Way agency heads have responded favorably to the change.

“So far they’ve been incredibly positive,” she said. “We had a round of applause at the end of each of our first three meetings.”

Julie Hurst, the president and CEO of the Emerald Coast Children’s Advocacy Center, is willing to give the new method a chance.

“It’s going to be a learning experience,” Hurst said. “But we’ve always been about trying to identify the different needs in our community, so we’re hoping that this will help us move in that direction.”

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