United Way’s Seasons of Caring takes different shape

Feature United Way Seasons Of Caring Panel

During most years, United Way of Dane County would hold its Seasons of Caring event at the Duck Pond in Warner Park, but with the COVID-19 pandemic taking new turns and public restrictions being resurrected, a better-safe-than-sorry approach has emerged.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that volunteerism is being celebrated and encouraged while members of the community gain a full understanding of community needs and how United Way partners with local nonprofits to address them. And so, in conjunction with National Make a Difference Day on Oct.23, existing and would-be volunteers are invited to mark their calendars and visit VolunteerYourTime.org to select a volunteer opportunity that fits their skills and interests. It might not be the same as a warm summer evening at the Duck Pond, but it still presents a host of opportunities to contribute to the community.

In recent months, the UWDC has been doing virtual, in-person, and hybrid events, including outdoor events with mask requirements and spacing, as it did for its annual Community Kickoff on Aug. 17 and the 20th anniversary remembrance for Sept. 11. “We’re doing things a little bit different this year, and part of that is so that we can adapt to the ever-changing situation we live in,” says Ashley Reynolds, director of communications for the UWDC. “But on Oct. 23, it’s National Make a Difference Day, so we’re using our platform [volunteeryourtime.org] to promote a lot of local opportunities that need all sorts of age levels, interest levels, and different things.

“We’re encouraging people to get out there and take advantage of some of the [volunteer] opportunities in our community.”

Future engagement

When it comes to helping local businesses keep their employees engaged in local philanthropy, the UWDC has gotten creative. Some of the organization’s affinity groups have done onsite volunteerism — LINC, its young professional group, did so at Forward Madison FC soccer games — and the organization has offered onsite volunteer packaging at locations such as Olin Park. It recently held a Women United breakfast, and for companies that want to ramp up volunteerism in their workforce, it has held on-site team volunteer programs with masks and spacing required.

“We’ve also been doing some at-home volunteerism, so American Family Insurance, for example, asked us to do Joy Kits so their teams can volunteer,” Reynolds notes. “But we have all the materials, American Family distributes them to its employees, and they can turn on their cameras or not, but then they do the volunteerism at home and they aggregate all of that and distribute it to the nonprofits. So, we’re just being nimble, and we’re trying to keep everybody safe.

“We had one event at Exact Sciences where vaccination cards were required, and other places where we try to keep things open and keep people masked.”

Campaign season
In August, the UWDC kicked off its annual fundraising campaign with the goal of raising $18.1 million. Attorney Ginger Zimmerman, United Way of Dane County campaign co-chair and president of Murphy Desmond S.C., notes several different features with this year’s campaign. Traditionally, she says, the UWDC tries to identify community needs through hundreds of conversations with corporate CEOs, donors, and others, but this year it required that and some reimagining.

“In terms of the reimagining, how are we, in light of the pandemic and the effects of the pandemic, not only on our economy but also the uncertainty that still lingers, and the fact we still are working in a hybrid world or a remote world, how are we going to reach that goal?” Zimmerman asks. “I’ll tell you that both [Co-Chair] Dan [Frazier] and I are both very optimistic that we’ll do it, in part because we’ve seen that this community is still generous, and it rises to the level of the challenge — whether it’s an emergency, as we saw last year in the pandemic, or just heightened needs. We have the second situation right now, as the heightened needs are prevalent today, although we obviously still have a pandemic.”

In anticipation of the United Way’s 100-year anniversary celebration in 2022, the UWDC has put in place some corporate matches through funds that were donated by American Family Insurance and Exact Sciences, and the UWDC hopes this will incentivize contributions of both new and existing donors.

In addition, the organization has created a Leadership Giving Step-Up program with corporate matching dollars that allow people to participate in its Lead United leadership network without having to meet donor requirements on their own. “It allows us to provide a step up over three years where they can increase their giving, but in the interim be able to participate in some of those programs and network opportunities in Lead United,” Zimmerman says.

Campaign leaders have been in discussions with its corporate donors about either increasing a corporate gift or holding a new employee workplace campaign where an increase in dollars will be matched for additional impact. “We’ve asked them to active their employees to agree to meet a challenge of increasing participation by 5% per year, year over year, for three years,” Zimmerman explains, “and if they are able to do that, each year that they do that, we unlock additional impact through some of the matches. And then, of course, they inspire their own employees in leadership by encouraging them to join the Lead United Step-Up program.

“So, those are some of the things that we’ve done to try to leverage, to reimagine the campaign in the future.”

Other changes are tied to pandemic innovation. Last year, United Way found new ways to leverage its Mobile Cause software program, and there are additional engagement opportunities in terms of how it reaches people to educate them and engage them in the fundraising campaign “so that we can make some generational change that United Way is focused on doing year in and year out,” Zimmerman states. “Those are some of the things we learned during the pandemic, and we hope to use this year’s campaign to reenergize employees.”

Programmatic pivots

The UWDC also is tinkering with some of its community programs, according to President and CEO Renee Moe. First, its board has asked the health community solution team to update its mobilization plan, which is basically a social impact business plan that guides investments of unrestricted money. In the health space, Moe says one thing that shows up across every indicator of well-being is racial disparities, so the health community solution team did a yearlong deep dive into community health data. “The first thing they want to do is make sure that a goal of reducing racial health disparities is present, so they shifted that priority into a new mobilization plan,” Moe says.

The second health-related change centers on mental health services. “We know there is no shortage of quality health care in Dane County. We’ve got great, great health care,” Moe states. “However, we don’t have culturally safe health care at all different levels, whether it’s mental health, dental, or physical health. And so, one ‘aha!’ we found with our nonprofit partners and with families is that we can have more of this community health navigator and culturally competent mental health support to help people, especially if they have experienced trauma through poverty or other things, then build that healing, build that resilience, and build that ability to continue to thrive in the workforce, family, and beyond.”

Another programmatic change is with the Schools of Hope program. The UWDC has activated over 13,000 community volunteers and helped more than 88,000 school children read better, but “it’s time to take a fresh look, especially post pandemic when so many kids are learning virtually,” Moe says. “We want to refresh community mobilization and remind people that kids learn to read up until third grade. After third grade, they read to learn, and so to support kids by giving them another trusted, consistent adult in their lives who can read with them and spend time with them is going to help their literacy skills, which of course helps our talent pipeline because that is a direct correlation to graduation rates — that third-grade reading.”

There were three major goals for the Schools of Hope refresh. First, the UWDC is looking to use trade tutors working in concert with the teacher curriculum to motivate students to do schoolwork and see academic achievement as important, Moe says. Second, the United Way wants to ensure the program curriculum is aligned with overall school goals in reading and literacy. Third, it wants to make sure the program is culturally relevant — racially and linguistically — and includes student and family input.

“We know that you can’t have literacy in a vacuum,” Moe explains. “If you can cascade it into parent engagement, that also helps with the stickiness and the ability to read more effectively, which is such a big deal. Obviously, we’re still doing all the early childhood home visitation work, which has been tricky in the pandemic.”

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