This past Valentine’s Day, I celebrated 30 years of service with United Way of Chatham-Kent. Several folks have asked “So I’ll bet you’ve seen a lot of changes in that time!” While the answer is obviously “yes”, it got me thinking about some of the significant changes that I’ve witnessed over the past three decades in my role as Executive Director/CEO. And a lot of those changes have to do with technology.

 As a young thirty-something, it was my first foray into a leadership role in the not-for-profit sector. I had worked – over the previous 15 years — in business, government, health care and education, but always in an assisting position. I had much to learn. Although I had served for a couple of years as an Administrative Assistant for the Canadian Mental Health Association, I had little experience in the role of leading an organization and much less in supervising staff and working with volunteers – the people who truly make the difference in the work that we do. But, as the daughter of a civil engineer, I loved numbers and building things. At the time, I didn’t know what a rewarding career it would be.

 In February of 1983, the local United Way had just wrapped up its fall campaign – raising a total of $413,157 in Chatham and Tilbury only. After only one year “on the job”, the Board of Directors asked me to expand the campaign to cover all of Kent County (pre amalgamation). This involved numerous meetings with funded agencies and presentations to the various Town Councils in Wallaceburg, Blenheim, Ridgetown, Thamesville, Dresden and Bothwell. Before United Way was welcomed into these outlying areas, it was critical that each of the areas become educated about the services to be provided by the members of the United Way family of agencies. I vividly recall the presentation to one of the town councils. As I outlined how many folks would benefit from the services provided by CNIB – one of the agencies to be supported financially by United Way — I watched as members of the audience silently mouthed the names and counted on their fingers those in their home community who were blind or visually impaired – and then nodded – just to confirm my numbers. To this day, our organization’s “numbers served” or “service matrix” document is still a critically important component of our promotional strategy. The local media in each of these areas has been an outstanding partner in this process. Today, it is much easier – through the use of computerized spreadsheets – to stay on top of these numbers and to update them as necessary.

 I began my role with a part-time secretary and later acquired a part-time bookkeeper. We were housed in a small office in what is now the Montessori School adjacent to the Cultural Centre. Thanks to the generous support of local businesses who were buying new, I inherited an old oak desk which I placed in my office at the front of the building overlooking Tecumseh Park. And that is where I spent many hours meeting with volunteers and donors, typing minutes and agenda, tallying campaign pledges and preparing promotional materials for the annual fund-raising campaign.

 It was in the days before the computer, so things took a wee bit longer to complete. The ribbon on my manual typewriter (also a hand me down from a local bank) needed replacement often as reports were typed on stencils and run off on a Gestetner machine. It was a messy process. I often had to plan what I was going to wear to work to ensure that my clothing didn’t get ruined by the ink that usually covered the area from my wrists to my elbows when the printing job was done.

As the donations arrived, I recorded each contribution on foolscap (some of my younger staff have never heard of it) and again on recipe cards so I could keep donor names in alphabetical order in little file boxes. My adding machine (another well used donation) had a broken tape holder – so I added the columns on the foolscap while holding my breath to ensure that I didn’t punch in the wrong number. If I got the same answer three times in a row, I went home. I remember designing a brochure for one particular campaign using drawings from a kids colouring book. I wanted the little girl to place her head on her big brother’s shoulder so I sliced her paper neck with a pair of scissors and tilted her head southward to gain the affect I wanted. Funny how you recall such small accomplishments. What a difference graphics software makes today.

 We acquired a mascot in the person of “L’il Red” to accompany the promotion for our “L’il Red” household mailer and for our Red Feather events. Linda Creswick from Dream Costumes made us two of them (but don’t tell the children there was an imposter!) I was the first to wear the costume because you can never ask others to do what you are not prepared to do yourself. The Mayor of Blenheim never knew who gave him a hug at the hockey game that fall! Just like the training received at DisneyWorld, you can’t speak when you’re in the role of “L’il Red”.

 Thirty years later, our annual campaign has grown to over $2 million. Our organization is now serving over 32,000 residents – one in three – throughout Chatham-Kent – in every community. This past year we provided funding to 25 local member agencies, programs and services. Another 200 charitable organizations benefited from gifts provided through our Donor Choice Program. Our United Way Women’s Leadership Council supported hundreds of vulnerable women and children and our Community Impact Programs continue to make a positive difference in the lives of those we serve. We own our own building – affectionately called “The 425” – United Way’s Centre for Community innovation at 425 McNaughton Avenue West and we share it with numerous local not-for-profits and neighbourhood groups. And, we’re honoured to be a community leader and/or partner in some exciting community building initiatives currently underway. Today we have Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn to assist us in our work. Am I’m still learning. Thank goodness that there are others out there who are willing to teach me.

 I look forward to sharing – in future monthly columns – more of United Way’s community impact work and the “change” which “starts here”!

Karen Kirkwood-Whyte, Chief Executive Officer