Reflecting on 30 years at United Way

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

United Way Announces Community Impact Grants – Applications Now Available

At their 2013 FEBRUARY 27 meeting, the United Way Board of Directors approved the allocation of $60,000 for Community Impact Grants.

 The purpose of Community Impact funding is to enable not-for-profit human service agencies and organizations to respond quickly and creatively to pressing human needs in our community.  In addition to supporting quick response, Community Impact Grants allow time to develop program sustainability where the need is ongoing.

 With the Community Fund and the Women’s Leadership Council Grants as the traditional funding streams, United Way’s Director, Community Impact, Helen Heath, is delighted to provide yet another avenue of United Way funding. “The support we received through this year’s campaign exceeded our expectations.  As a result, we are now able to give an opportunity to more social service providers to explore new or improved ways of delivering needed services; develop services which address emerging or newly identified needs; respond to unmet needs and expand existing services into new communities through-out Chatham-Kent; or adopt models of service delivery which leverage existing community resources.”

Applications are available at United Way’s three locations: United Way Centre for Community Innovation – 425 McNaughton Avenue West, Chatham; Wallaceburg Information and H.E.L.P. Centre – 152 Duncan Street, Wallaceburg and Tilbury Information and H.E.L.P. Centre – 20 Queen Street, Tilbury.  Grant applications are also available on United Way’s new website at

 Deadline for submissions is 2013 MAY 15 at 5:00 pm.

 For more information contact Helen Heath, Director, Community Impact at 519-354-0430 or

From Poverty to Possibility

All too often, people wait until they are experiencing financial difficulty to see the assistance of a qualified credit counselor. Susan was happy that she made the decision to get expert advice on managing her household before trouble started. Financial Coaching provides tools and guidance to ensure that families meet their financial goals.

The Case for Ongoing Funding

As we wrap up this year’s United Way campaign and begin planning for the next, I’d like to add my heartfelt thanks to those traditional and new donors who helped us surpass this year’s ambitious campaign target. As I reviewed the original listing of 53 United Ways in Canada who were aiming to raise over $1 Million dollars in 2012, I was struck by the reality that here in Chatham-Kent – in the midst of a very tough economy – our United Way was targeting the second highest percentage increase – 7.19% – in the nation. Yesterday – with a campaign achievement of $2,045,843 – we, in fact, celebrated a nine percent increase!

So, now what do we do with the funds raised in this year’s United Way campaign?

This month, 16 local volunteers participated in a Saturday morning training session hosted by United Way. This session was held to provide orientation to the United Way’s annual Citizen Review Process and to highlight the importance of ongoing, stable funding for our “family” of agencies. In addition, over 100 registered Canadian charitable organizations and qualified donees will also receive designated dollars through United Way’s Donor Choice Program. Within the month, the United Way Board of Directors will know the amount available for distribution to the United Way Community Fund and approve recommendations by the Community Investment Committee which oversees the Citizen Review Process.

As we enter this traditional process, I am reminded of the importance of core funding to those in the voluntary sector who must rely on ongoing funding to sustain their operations. A stable, ongoing base of financial support is critical to these organizations who cannot survive on special project funding or one-time grants. Core funding is what distinguishes United Way from many other local funders of social services. Annual allocations are provided to ensure that agency staff and/or volunteers are able to continue their valuable work, eliminating the need to “shop” for alternative sources of financial aid.

In order to be eligible for funding from the United Way Community Fund, organizations must be registered Canadian charitable organizations with the capacity to achieve proposed results and be located within the community of Chatham-Kent. They must be willing to provide periodic progress reports and evaluation results and adhere to United Way’s Funding Agreement which outlines the role of each partner to the agreement. Volunteers participating in the Community Investment Process utilize a checklist which is used to evaluate the recipient agency’s performance against a series of 21 criteria. These criteria include a demonstration of community need, program and service effectiveness, efficient resource utilization, community support, management, need for United Way support, compliance with United Way obligations – as outlined in the Member Agency Agreement – and accessibility.

With a current annual United Way allocation of $127,000 – representing approximately 8% of its total budget – Family Service Kent is just one of the United Way funded agencies which relies on United Way for core funding. “While the majority of funding for our agency comes from provincial and municipal grants and user fees,” says Family Service Kent Director Brad Davis, “we utilize United Way dollars to ensure that our individual, family and credit counseling services are provided to those who cannot cover the full cost. In this tough economy, there are many individuals, couples and families with modest to low incomes who desperately need help to cope with life’s challenges but can’t afford to pay. United Way ensures that we don’t have to turn anyone away.” Over the past year, the agency has seen a steady increase in demand for counseling services and they expect this trend to continue.

The Learning Disabilities Association is another agency where core funding is vital. With a current allocation of $93,323 – representing approximately 76% of their total budget – this agency relies on United Way to fund its Tutoring and Social Skills Programs. Statistics reveal that learning disabilities can affect the way in which a person receives, remembers, organizes, understands and expresses information. Living with LD can have an ongoing impact on friendships, school, work, self-esteem and daily life. It is a life-long disability, ranging from moderate to severe and it cannot be cured. Ten percent of the population is affected by learning disabilities and only 3% of school-age children with LD receive special services within their schools. Many students with LD – which can coexist with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – remain unidentified. After years of struggling and failing to perform in school, at home and in the community, feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem often arise. Being labeled “lazy” or “stupid” time after time, some people with ADHD may act out these feelings, become aggressive, get into fights or impulsively strike out. Others may internalize their feelings, becoming depressed and withdrawn. Still others may channel their feelings into their bodies, developing headaches or other physical symptoms. Some believe that they are less worthy, and come to expect failure. “Core funding from United Way ensures that individuals with LD and/or or ADHD receive specialized interventions in home, school, community and workplace settings appropriate for their individual strengths and needs, “says Dawn Babkirk of the Learning Disabilities Association, “where – through the dedicated efforts of hundreds of community volunteers – we break the cycle of failure, and inspire confidence and self-esteem.”

Without core funding, local social service organizations are challenged to continue vital programs. Without core funding, these organizations must compete against others for ongoing funding and sometimes are forced to take precious time and talent away from the provision of service to organize special events which are often time-consuming and do not generate the amounts needed for sustainability. And this is particularly challenging in times of fiscal restraint.

Internally at United Way, we know this only too well by the increase in requests for financial support for vulnerable women and children through the United Way Women’s Leadership Council (more on this exciting initiative in a future article!) and increases in requests for the Operation Cover-Up and BackPacks for Kids Program.

Please stay tuned for future articles on the programs and services funded by your local United Way – and the lives changed through your gifts!