Trust Your Heart and Take a Chance

The Union Benevolent Association (UBA) was founded in 1831 to assist the suffering poor of Philadelphia during an unusually harsh winter. It offered money, medicine, food, clothing, and counseling to families across the city. UBA also helped many people find employment and encouraged parents to send their children to school.

During the early twentieth century, UBA provided money to the city’s poor to help pay for transportation expenses across a growing city, food, medical bills, and rent. Clothing was frequently donated as well. In addition, UBA’s workers visited homes, helping families in need make contact with other agencies and fill out paperwork.

Philadelphia is the nation’s poorest big city and has the highest rate of deep poverty, that is, household incomes below half the federal poverty level.

In May 1958, UBA changed the method by which it administered aid. Instead of giving money directly to applicants in need, it became a foundation that distributed funds to other charities with similar missions. In recent years, the organization funded a wide range of nonprofits including education and youth development programs.

A few years ago, UBA was privileged to discover a wonderful leader as she launched her first effort. “We met Alysia Lee, director and founder of Sister Cities Girlchoir, by chance,” says UBA Grants Administrator Lisa Dugan. “We were visiting The First Philly Charter School for Literacy about a library project and were invited to stop by the music room to see the new choir rehearsing.”

”Get out into the community, trust your heart, and be willing to take a chance.”

A professionally trained opera singer, Alysia was the first vocalist ever to receive an El Sistema fellowship, and study the methods of this renowned music program from Venezuela. She returned to Philadelphia with a dream, skills, and a passion to make a difference in the lives of inner-city girls.

UBA gave Sister Cities Girlchoir its first foundation grant two months after that chance encounter. In a year, they were on the map. Alysia’s dream became a reality. Starting with fewer than a dozen girls, the organization now operates in three states, empowering hundreds of girls every year through a comprehensive choral training academy where they learn so much more than music.

As board member Phyllis Martino notes, “Funders, be open, get out into the community, trust your heart, and be willing to take a chance.”

In 2018, UBA reviewed its funding priorities and narrowed its giving focus to organizations that assist Philadelphia’s poorest residents in meeting basic needs. This focus reflects the board’s recognition that the vanishing social safety net means that far too many Philadelphians struggle daily to obtain the basic necessities for survival. Also, in an effort to have more impact on both the organizations it serves and the challenges it seeks to address, UBA increased its maximum grant from $5,000 to $10,000 and will provide unrestricted funding to its grantees.