Greater Twin Cities United Way is known for giving grants to frontline nonprofits that help Minnesotans with everything from food assistance to mental health.

Now the Minneapolis-based organization, among the largest of the 1,200 United Way chapters in the United States, is taking on more of a direct role. It's increasing contracts with government agencies and universities to operate call centers that Minnesotans are increasingly relying on to find food, rental assistance and other social services.

"There aren't very many places that we provide frontline services. We typically fund and work through our nonprofit partners," CEO John Wilgers said. "But 211 is one of those places and we have grown and expanded there."

United Way's longstanding 211 helpline is responding to a surge in demand, fielding 480,000 calls in 2021 — a 40% increase from 2020, according to a new report from United Way, one of the largest social services nonprofits in Minnesota. The helpline connects residents to resources such as food shelves.

United Way for the first time started operating a suicide and crisis lifeline in 2021, which relaunched this year nationally with the new 988 phone number. The nonprofit's 17 crisis counselors answered 9,300 calls from Minnesotans, ranging in age from 9 to 90, in 2021.

In 2021 and 2022, United Way operated a call center for RentHelpMN, the state's federally funded emergency rental assistance program that ended earlier this year. And it contracted last summer with the Minnesota State system to expand the 211 helpline to its 30 colleges and seven universities, connecting students to mental health and other resources on campus and in the community.

The 988 and RentHelpMN call centers were funded by the state through contracts with United Way. According to tax forms, government contracts increased nearly $1 million last year for United Way, but Wilgers said the call centers — which employ about 50 people — added expenses, so the profit margin is narrow.

The contracts are part of United Way's growing focus on various ways of obtaining revenue instead of relying on traditional campaigns based in the workplace. These have declined in recent years as more employees give directly to charities rather than through payroll deductions. The nonprofit's revenue peaked in 2014 at $102 million and has fallen every year since.

United Way's revenue in 2021 reached about $56 million, though that was less of a drop than in previous years. Even with the decline in revenue, the organization recorded its first surplus since 2015, stemming six years of deficit spending, according to new financial data.

Wilgers said the nonprofit is looked for new ways to connect with donors, including fundraising around specific issues. A few years ago, it launched an online workplace giving tool to help employees research charities, target donations and sign-up to volunteer. The nonprofit is on pace to end the year on budget.

"Diversifying revenue streams has allowed us to stabilize overall revenue," Wilgers said. "It is a good sign. The stability in our revenues, the surplus, the growth in our net assets all are indications of a strong financial position."