Across Indiana, dozens of United Way offices are working hard to advance the common good. And according to a sampling of the leaders within those offices, having a strong relationship with the local business community is absolutely integral to the success of that mission.

Established more than 125 years ago, United Way bills itself as the largest privately funded nonprofit in the world, working in nearly 1,800 communities across more than 40 countries and territories with the three-pronged focus of helping to improve education, strengthen financial stability and make communities healthier.

In Indiana alone, the nonprofit boasts more than 40 active United Way offices, all independent of one another and tied directly to the communities in which they serve.

“We fight for the health, education and financial stability of every person in our community, and we’ve been doing that nationally over 125 years and locally here in northern Indiana almost 100 years,” said Bill Rieth, president and CEO of Crossroads United Way, which serves Elkhart, LaGrange and Noble counties. “It’s really working families helping working families. And again, it’s in these three areas of education, health and financial stability, and providing a safety net. So, helping to fund and provide that safety net for when bad things happen, because bad things do happen, like COVID, or house fires, or unexpected job loss, etc. Bad things are just, unfortunately, a part of life as human beings.”

But in order to provide those services, United Way offices such as Crossroads require funding. And according to Rieth, a major portion of that funding is tied directly to the nonprofit’s relationship with the local business community through what is known as the workplace campaign.

Through the annual fundraising campaign, which typically kicks off in the fall, United Way offices contact businesses in their local communities urging employees of those companies to donate a portion of their paychecks each week in support of local United Way programming.

“Our partnership with local businesses is critical,” Rieth said. “About 80% of the donations we receive are from people that are working in local businesses. So, that partnership with local business is critical, vital, it’s our lifeblood.

“And we are so grateful for the partnership we have with businesses, because typically, what we ask of businesses is just the ability to not only connect their employees to resources that might be helpful to their workforce, but also the ability for their employees to be philanthropic themselves, because we believe that everyone can be a philanthropist,” he added. “So, that ability to connect with their employees is critical.”

Zella Taylor, CEO and executive director of United Way of Daviess County, agreed, noting that for small counties such as Daviess, maintaining strong relationships with the local business community is particularly important, as it can mean the difference between a successful annual fundraising campaign and a campaign that falls short.

“It’s essential that we have strong relationships with businesses and donors,” Taylor said. “We’re a very small community. Our county is about 32,000 people. So, our largest supporters, we only have a handful, and that’s going to make up half of our campaign, or a little bit over. That’s how important it is. So, we really try, strategically, to have that one contact per business so that we can at least get our shoe in the door, and then expand our relationship. But most of our business partnerships are 20 years or longer.”

For most United Way offices, while fundraising work does continue year-round, they do try to keep that big funding ask to once a year, with the rest of the year focused on sharing exactly how those donations are being used to help better the communities they serve.

“That’s been a big shift for United Ways as we try to talk about how we do really, really good work in the community, and we always have,” said Abbie Smith, president and CEO of United Way of Howard County & Tipton Counties. “We haven’t always talked about it very well. We tend to minimize ourselves. But without this coordination, and without the asking, a lot of work in the community doesn’t get done. So, we’ve stopped shying away from the value of having us here, and, we’ve also taken on impact in a different way.”

But no matter how much good work a nonprofit does, trying to fundraise during a global pandemic can be difficult to say the least, and many of Indiana’s United Way offices found they were not immune to that fact as COVID-19 swept through the state in early 2020.

“So, last year revenue was down,” Smith said of her office’s fundraising efforts. “Pledge revenue was definitely down, and we’re working closely with leaders in companies where we have workplace campaigns to strategize how to get that back up to where it was, and even grow it. And they’re absolutely walking with us hand-in-hand on that.”

Danielle Isbell, resource development director with United Way of the Wabash Valley, which serves Clay, Parke, Sullivan, Vermillion and Vigo counties, offered a similar sentiment when discussing how local businesses have been rallying around nonprofits such as United Way in her neck of the woods in recent months.

“Even in the midst of the pandemic, our community really seemed to rally behind our local nonprofits and support charities in more ways than we could have ever imagined,” Isbell said. “We also very quickly were able to mobilize resources and create a COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund to help those in the Wabash Valley burdened by the financial wake of the coronavirus. We were also able to secure a $1.1 million COVID-19 Economic Relief Initiative Grant, made possible through a partnership between Lilly Endowment Inc. and Indiana United Ways.”

Jump forward to today, and many of the state’s United Way offices are currently smack in the middle of their 2021 workplace campaigns. And while many of the challenges that hampered fundraising efforts in 2020 — lack of face-to-face access to company workers, for example — still remain in some cases, lessons learned over the course of the past year are easing some of those challenges just a bit, according to Smith.

“We had some trouble connecting with people in 2020, but at the same time, we’ve developed some new skills,” Smith said. “This year, we have a hybrid of both in-person presentations where it is safe and responsible, and virtual presentations where that is the safest and most responsible way to connect with people. So, I think tools that not everybody was using before the pandemic now have become second nature, and so people can connect a lot more easily even if we’re not in the same space.”
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