Unify Project is now 'Unify Labs,' New Partnership with United Way Raises Questions, Eyebrows

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click to enlarge Unify Project is now 'Unify Labs,' New Partnership with United Way Raises Questions, Eyebrows
The organization formerly known as the Unify Project is now Unify Labs. Under that name, it is entering into a partnership with United Way of Greater Cleveland (UWGC). Though the partnership was formally announced at United Way's annual luncheon last week, neither organization is prepared to disclose details of the arrangement. 

United Way CEO Augie Napoli, in his prepared remarks Sept. 27, was enthused to promote a new "Impact Institute," a place where "ideas—AND DATA—are the currency of innovation."

The Impact Institute was made possible by a $1.5 million gift this summer from former United Way Board Chairman (and current "Life Director") Alexander Cutler and his wife Sarah Cutler. It will be led by former Cleveland Clinic CEO and current United Way director and 2018 campaign chair Toby Cosgrove.

United Way Board Chairman Paul Dolan called the Impact Institute a "think tank with an action plan." According to Napoli, it will put "the WHY of poverty—not its symptoms but its ROOT CAUSES—under the microscope."

United Way describes itself as "an independent nonprofit organization relentlessly dedicated to building empathy for the profound needs of our community." It is the largest private-sector funder of health and human services in the region and has recently prioritized anti-poverty programs.

In the new approach to combating poverty that Napoli outlined, a "Community Hub for Basic Needs" will fund organizations that address the "immediate, here-and-now" exigencies of the community, while the Impact Institute will study deeper issues in an attempt to identify systemic solutions.

"We have to recognize that this isn't just about 'those people' in the inner city," Napoli said, in surely one of the speech's weirdest moments, "or 'those people' in the neighborhoods miles away from where we sleep at night. This is about all of us."

Napoli described Unify Labs as the engine of the Impact Institute's forthcoming work. His fetishistic references to "data" and "outcomes at scale" mimicked the language that the Unify Project and its emissaries have used since that organization's much-ballyhooed, if hazy, conception.

Napoli stressed that part of the United Way's new focus, indeed part of the "new United Way," will be placing a high priority on measuring outcomes.

"What we measure and learn," he said, "will provide a valuable data set that will be used as an informed jumping-off point for the Impact Institute's development of more effective and powerful solutions."

United Way's partners at Unify Labs, Case Western and the Center for Community Solutions will all, said Napoli, help "create a more dynamic measurement set" to power those solutions.

"One of the important components of these solutions," he said, "beyond what we learn through our real-time delivery of services, will be the addition of groundbreaking technology and data powered by our partner, Unify Labs. At our fingertips will be the predictive modeling and testing that's vital to creating the right strategies that can grow into real-life sustainable solutions."

When asked to elaborate on the relationship with Unify Labs and the services they would provide, United Way's Director of Corporate Communications, Katie Connell, said it was "too early" to comment beyond Napoli's remarks.

(Imagine our surprise! United Way of Greater Cleveland, after all, purports to "embrace the values of accountability and transparency as a matter of ethical leadership, as well as legal compliance.")

But Unify Labs wouldn't comment either. Their VP of External Affairs, Jessica Cohen, only provided a brief comment on their new name—"the tweak reflects how we continue to evolve as a tech start-up"—but said they were "not ready" to answer our other questions.

Our other questions sought clarification on the "groundbreaking technology" Napoli referenced, the data to be measured, and the nature of the relationship with United Way. (Is it a contractual relationship, for example? And if so, what is the contract's length, dollar value and deliverables?)

Or is Unify Labs, in effect, becoming an arm of United Way?

That's what some current United Way employees are concerned about. And perhaps for good reason. United Way of Greater Cleveland is currently headquartered at the Mandel Community Building on Euclid Avenue in Playhouse Square. Though Cohen would not confirm, Unify Labs is rumored to be relocating to the fourth and fifth floors of that building, which are currently under renovation. One employee told Scene that negotiations on the space are nearly complete, though the paperwork may not yet be signed.

Before the renovation, United Way's top executives, including Napoli, occupied the fifth floor, and they are likely to return there when renovations are complete in early 2020. If that's the case, Unify Labs and United Way leadership will be working alongside one another, a highly unusual arrangement that some feel goes beyond a traditional third-party relationship.

The new partnership raises additional eyebrows because Unify Labs' CEO, Sharon Sobol Jordan, and one of its founders, Charlie Lougheed, both serve on United Way of Greater Cleveland's Board of Directors.

Moreover, United Way, in recent years, has funneled significant funds to contractors with direct or indirect board connections, as in its major expenditure on digital marketing through cleveland.com. (Editor Chris Quinn serves on the board.)

United Way employees would be less suspicious if Unify Labs was a known entity that provided any recognizable service. But Unify Labs' work and products are still totally unknown.

Scene was shown slides of a Unify Labs presentation at an UWGC all-staff meeting last month. It was meant to explain the "new partnership," but its content left employees baffled. The material was either utterly inscrutable or utterly rudimentary. One slide featured a graph about automation and "The Knowledge Network" that no one understood. Others, which focused on the "future of work," harvested data from Wikipedia and the U.S. Census.

One United Way employee told Scene that if the new partnership was merely an experimental data-sharing arrangement, there was little cause for concern. It could even yield some productive insights.

But if United Way was paying Unify Labs — or was, in some sense, fusing with them — it would be extremely troubling because United Way would be providing the equivalent of venture capital. This would be an irresponsible use of donor dollars, in the employee's view.

Stephen McHale, one of Unify Labs' co-founding partners, happened to appear at a Blockland meeting Wednesday. He was asked by attorney Jon Pinney to explain his work. His response provides some perspective on what Unify Labs may hope to accomplish with United Way. (The following is a transcript.)

"We organized a board of CEOs of those who are key drivers of the economy—the health systems, banking, higher ed, sports teams, things like that—to get together to work on modeling, using data science, tech, social science, behavioral science and modeling, to not just build theories, but to actually build actionable solutions, that by coming together through profit, private sector, nonprofit, public sector, how do we come together and start to really leverage our strengths and the opportunities and find optimization? And so I think Blockland fits right on it. JobsOhio fits right on it. And as we all keep triangulating on this, our hope is to—we are a 509(a)3, so we are an independent trusted broker of data and analytics—so what we really want to center on is solutions that we can build together. We're not gonna be the solutions. We're just gonna make the problem solvers better. That's our mission, and the purpose that was set by the executives and the CEOs, to create the first expanding economy powered by inclusive prosperity." 

Creating an expanding economy powered by inclusive prosperity is exactly the sort of specious drivel that CEOs and executives can be counted upon to champion. And creating the first such expanding economy is the sort of distinction Cleveland CEOs and executives relish with special fervor. Cleveland, lest we forget, boasts the first United Way chapter in the United States. The city's tradition of corporate responsibility is vastly more storied and sacred than the tradition, say, of the Browns.

But if CEOs and executives' idea of inclusive prosperity now means giving millions of dollars to start-ups like Unify Labs, who study poverty according to the whims and directives of a board of CEOs ... who are key drivers of the economy," the results are unlikely to pinpoint real root causes, which have at least something to do with the fact that CEOs and executives tend only to concern themselves with "inclusive prosperity" once they've achieved prosperity for themselves.

Here's one systemic solution free of charge, divined without the use of data science or analytics. Why doesn't Paul Dolan (net worth: ~$4 billion), Chairman of not only United Way but also the Cleveland Indians, start paying property taxes on Progressive Field, (which he conveniently doesn't "own"). Taxes on the stadium would net the City of Cleveland (in 2015 dollars) about $6.2 million per year, $3.72 million of which would go to funding CMSD. Say Yes!

One can't help but recall the words of Roldo Bartimole, the sharpest and most prescient critic ever of Cleveland's "corporate responsibility."

"I believe that not only is the carefully nurtured image of corporate responsibility in general a myth," he wrote in the Business and Society Review in 1973, "but most of its Cleveland forms have amounted to little more than subterfuge for the advancement of private interests."

Thus can United Way of Greater Cleveland purport to tackle poverty by giving millions of dollars to Dr. Toby Cosgrove and an untested tech-start up led by two of its own directors. And receive a standing ovation.

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About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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