The Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce would like to welcome guest blogger Richard Payonk with the United Way of the Wabash Valley.

Guest Blog:  Spreading Our Local United Way’s Value Proposition

RJP - Head Shot

Each Fall, our local community and thousands of others around the world are familiar with this thing we call “The United Way Campaign.”  Goals are set and announced; local businesses and individuals are asked to participate.  In the end, celebrations take place for reaching a goal.  A goal of raising money.   To me, it’s not the right goal.

Since last spring, when I retired from a long career in one of those same local businesses who supported the United Way and began work with the organization, I have learned much of the culture of our businesses and their attitude about our local United Way.  There is a wide gamut of responses from the business community, from enthusiastic support, to mediocre (almost resigned obligatory) interest, all the way to emphatically “not interested!”  I’m not surprised and am working daily to affect positive change, but that change must start with our United Way.

Our mission is not to raise money

United Way’s strength over the years had been a strong partnership with local business employers in their community.  The ability to reach thousands of individuals with a message to “help your local community by donating” was a mainstay for resources for the organization from the 1970s up until the end of the millennia.  But a mantra and goal to “Raise Money!” in today’s world is not a compelling reason to give for any donor, nor is it a great value proposition for a local business.   Our experience supports this.  Just 10 years ago, our Wabash Valley United Way Campaign partnered with businesses and produced just under $2 million in corporate and employee donations.  Since then, we have suffered a steady decline, reaching a low point of just over $1.1 million in 2015.  Responsibility to turn this trend around lies with our United Way, not with local business.

Since I started over a year ago, our Board and staff have dedicated the organization to communicating our compelling mission.  We are trying to spend less time talking about “our campaign” and more time showing our value as community problem solvers.  We are more than the fundraisers.  We are the hand raisers. The game changers.  The-stop-talking-start-doing-band-together-and-take-on-the-impossible-task-masters.  Nationally, United Way touts that we fight for the education, health and financial stability of every person in every community.  More importantly, we are trying to renew our partnerships with businesses and their employees by demonstrating a clear value.

Spreading the word

So, how do you approach a local business and say… “You know what?  We haven’t always been a great partner.  But we are more than many people understand.  Could we please talk?”  This is the conversation that our local United Way is trying to have with hundreds of business leaders so that we can continue our work in the community.  Seems daunting, especially for a small organization with just a few good-hearted, hard-working employees.  But volunteers are at the core of all we do.  That is why we are once again seeking volunteers in our community who would like to work with us and help us approach our business community – one business at a time – and engage in conversations involving their community aspirations and how our United Way can help achieve them.

Last year, about 25 energized and engaged community volunteers helped us open the door to many local businesses to start these conversations.  When we spread a message of our mission and when these local businesses took the opportunity to hear what we do and the value we bring, then for the first time in 6 years, we saw renewed strength in our workplace partnerships and a slight tick upwards in the resources for our mission.

Being George Bailey

Oh, I suspect some reading this might already think, “Oh, I see, this is just fundraising disguised as something else.”  I have a different way of thinking about our work.  The greatest fundraising initiative I ever saw took place in the movie It’s A Wonderful Life.  In it, the unassuming hero to the community, George Bailey, is short $8,000 on a day the bank examiner has come calling.  Jail looks certain.  His wife Mary and business partner scatter to the streets going door-to-door with four simple words…George is in trouble.  A large part of the town came from their homes and emptied their pockets to donate without question.  It’s crazy!  Why would anyone do that?  But the answer is simple.  They all knew who George was, what he meant to them and their community.  They understood the value he had brought to the little town of Bedford Falls.

Perhaps it’s a pipe dream of mine, but our United Way must become George Bailey.  We have focused far too long on raising money and not on who we are, who we partner with, and our value to businesses and their employees.  This is the conversation that must continue and grow.

How to help

If just 25 volunteers achieved success in 2016 for the first time in 6 years, imagine what the work of 75 or 100 energized volunteers could do?  In mid-June, our United Way will host a series of Lunch & Learn Sessions to help potential volunteers decide if they might be interested in joining our work to approach local business partners.

If you have been a long time United Way supporter, or just want to help build your community, these sessions are a great, no-commitment way to learn more about how we can better spread our message of mission.  Business leaders can also take a first step by encouraging and/or allowing their employees to join this effort.  Please contact Danielle Isbell, Resource Development Director at our United Way, to hear more (, 812-235-6287).