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Jim Ayres Directs the United Way Through a Time of Change, Challenge

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Jim Ayres

Jim Ayres

Jim Ayres, who took the helm at the United Way of Pioneer Valley this past spring, arrived knowing he would be leading the organization through a time of significant change and challenge. His elaborate to-do list includes efforts to increase efficiency, do a better job of telling the United Way’s story to the younger people who probably don’t know it, and continuing the work of building coalitions to take on the many issues confronting the region’s communities and families.

There’s an old map hanging on the wall just inside the door to Jim Ayres’ office within the United Way of Pioneer Valley’s suite at the TD Bank building.

One of many he owns, it depicts Hampden and Hampshire counties and the areas just outside them, which means it covers the territories served by his last two employers — the United Way of Hampshire County was the other.

There’s no visible date on the map, but there are plenty of clues as to how old it may be. For starters, Dana, one of four towns disincorporated in 1938 to make way for the Quabbin Reservoir, is on the map. (Greenwich, Prescott, and Enfield were the others). Also, Holyoke takes what’s known to some as its ‘old’ shape, meaning the one before the area in Northampton known as Smith’s Ferry (that finger-shaped sliver of land so recognizable on today’s maps) became part of the city in 1909.

The map drives home the point that changes to the region’s landscape came about slowly, over several decades.

And that is in sharp contrast, in most respects, to the changes in the landscape for the United Way as a whole, the two that serve the region on the map, and the one based in Springfield in particular.

Indeed, that suite of offices downtown is roughly half the size it was just a few years ago (the Springfield Symphony Orchestra now occupies the other half), and the group working there is also about half the size it was not long ago. And most importantly, its annual fund — the amount it puts to work in the communities it serves — is about half as big (roughly $2 million) as it was.

A decision by MassMutual to no longer run a traditional United Way campaign and instead contribute to groups serving the community through its own foundation played a huge role in those developments, but other factors have contributed as well.

These include everything from changes in the demographic breakdown of the region’s business community (there are far fewer large employers now) to changes in how businesses of all sizes give back to the community — there’s more direct giving now, and also a host of new vehicles such as Valley Gives Day and individual foundations like the one at MassMutual.

“United Ways are in a place where technology, giving practices, and general educational changes have all changed the work that we need to do,” Ayres explained. “And while for a long period of time United Way was a household name and people widely understood what United Ways did, a lot of that has changed.

“There are a lot of other options now for people to give to support organizations in their community,” he went on. “It really behooves our organization to make the case as clearly as possible about what we do and the benefits of giving through this particular option.”

All this adds up to a serious, complicated, even painful period of adjustment that is very much ongoing, said Ayres, who last spring took on the job of leading those efforts for the UWPV.

He did so for a number of reasons, including the fact that he isn’t daunted by stern challenges; in fact, he’s always embraced them. Also, though, he believes he possesses the proper skill set for the multi-faceted task at hand, including the ability to build coalitions, strong communication skills — both within an organization and externally as well — and even achieving success in a region dominated by small (make that very small) businesses, Hampshire County. He also has an MBA, one focused on nonprofit management, and another degree in international relations focused on migration issues.

There are a lot of other options now for people to give to support organizations in their community. It really behooves our organization to make the case as clearly as possible about what we do and the benefits of giving through this particular option.”

“My career in Western Mass. has been about bringing people together in communities to make communities a better place to live and a better place for kids to grow up,” he explained.

Ayres said this adjustment period for the UWPV involves a number of initiatives, from work to become leaner and more efficient to efforts to better tell the agency’s story and relate its still-substantial role in bettering life for residents of area communities, to initiatives that go well beyond merely writing checks.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Ayres about his new assignment with the United Way of Pioneer Valley, and also about the changing landscape for the United Way and philanthropy in general, and how organizations like the one he now leads must adjust to those changes.

Change Agent

As noted earlier, Ayres brings a diverse skill set to his current role, one amassed through nearly 30 years of work in education and nonprofit management, realms he says have more similarities than most would believe.

A graduate of Hampshire College, where he concentrated in “political and social issues in education,” he started his career in Boston’s Chinatown and surrounding neighborhoods as co-director and lead classroom teacher for the Boston Catholic Chinese Community Children’s Program.

After relocating to Western Mass., he went to work for the Springfield Public Schools, specifically as education summit coordinator and ‘community involvement coordinator.’ In that role, he said, he built effective coalitions between the school system and community stakeholder groups, including neighborhood associations, human-services providers, parent groups, communities of color, and private industry.

From there, he went to work for the Hampshire County Action Commission, serving as project director of the Hampshire County Family Network. In that role, he developed and administered a multi-agency collaborative that provided comprehensive services for families and children. Later, he became executive director of the Northampton-based Center for New Americans, a regional education, advocacy, and resource center for immigrants and refugees in Western Mass.

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His career with the United Way began in 2011, when he became CEO and executive director of the Hampshire County agency. During his tenure there, he was credited with energizing the organization and expanding the donor base, funding diversity, and overall revenue at a time when most United Ways were going in the other direction.

“I had worked in individual organizations, but had been very interested in addressing challenges from a strategic level and from a macro level,” he noted while explaining why he joined the national organization. “And United Ways are organizations very well-suited to do that; we have relationships with the nonprofit service community, and we have relationships throughout the business community and with individuals as well. And United Ways are uniquely positioned to pull those assets together to make a difference, so I was excited to join the United Way and do that work.”

His track record of success in Hampshire County certainly caught the attention of UWPV’s board as it went about the task of finding a successor to the retiring Dora Robinson, and Ayres came on board late last spring.

Since then, he’s been focused on what he called “structural changes,” a broad term used to describe efforts to enable the agency to operate as efficiently as possible while still carrying out its multi-dimensional mission, shore up relationships with existing businesses, and develop ways to recover the donations lost from MassMutual’s decision.

At the same time, he and the agency continue to proactively adjust to that changing landscape described earlier, he said, adding that both assignments obviously constitute work in progress.

As he talked about the assignment he’s assumed — and the situation facing all United Ways across the country — Ayers said the challenges come on many levels, including one that Baby Boomers probably couldn’t fathom — name recognition and awareness.

Indeed, while those who grew up decades ago are well-versed when it comes to the United Way name, mission, and even some of the controversies that have enveloped the agency over the years, Millennials are far less familiar with the organization — and the concept.

“We’re finding more and more young people we approach either in the workplace or in the community who are very open to the idea to the idea of supporting the United Way, but haven’t necessarily heard of it before,” he said. “Or, if they have heard of it, they aren’t necessarily familiar with what it is that the United Way was created to do. So introducing ourselves, or re-introducing ourselves, is very important.”

And in that respect, the United Way has dropped the ball, or at least taken its eye off it, he went on, adding that, in many ways, it failed to realize these generational differences.

“A lot of United Ways didn’t recognize the degree to which generational changes were going to impact our work and have wound up playing catch-up,” he explained, adding that this was a challenge to most all United Ways, including the UWPV.

Forward Progress

Another challenge, obviously, is to maintain the ability to stand out amid the many other ways that individuals and businesses can contribute to nonprofits and causes.

“The history of United Way, and a piece of where we see our impact, is allowing people to give easily through payroll deduction — giving where they work,” he told BusinessWest. “And giving with the trust to know that the dollars they give will have a long and lasting impact. Part of the power of United Ways come from our ability to aggregate those gifts; so, even though roughly 40% of the gifts we receive are from people giving between $1 and $4 per paycheck, we’re able to aggregate those into significant-size grants that really change the capacity of the organizations we work with.”

A lot of United Ways didn’t recognize the degree to which generational changes were going to impact our work and have wound up playing catch-up.”

Overall, the United Way and individual chapters like the UWPV have to do a better job of telling their story, said Ayres, adding that this is just one of the subjects discussed at the regular gatherings of United Way officials.

Part of this ‘telling the story better’ involves making it clear the many ways in which this is still your father’s, or your mother’s, United Way, but one that nonetheless has changed with the times. And these discussions focus on everything from a more results-driven approach to the agency’s giving to the ways it goes beyond awarding grants, to its ongoing ability to bring groups together to tackle larger problems that require such coalition-building efforts.

And Ayres had specific thoughts on all of the above, starting with the coalition-building work, which, he said, is essentially the essence of the United Way.

“This organization is based on the idea that, to create a meaningful and lasting impact in our community, very few of us have the resources, the time, or the volunteer hours to do that on our own,” he said. “But if our businesses, our employees, and our neighbors are able to come together and work on challenging problems together, we’re able to have a much stronger impact than we would alone.”

And this operating philosophy is being put to work, and to the test, with efforts to assist those who have left hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico for communities in Western Mass.

“Many of the funders in Hampden County have been asking the question, ‘what can we do to support those individuals, and what can we do help the organizations that are going to helping those displaced people coming in, and what can we do to shore up the core functions that those organizations already provide so they don’t have to pivot away from their core services?’” he said. “So United Way convened a core group of eight or nine foundations and funding organizations to look at how we can use our dollars collaboratively.”

A fund has been established by the United Way to provide grants to the welcome centers that are assisting those displaced by the hurricane, he went on, adding that this is just one example of the agency’s coalition-building powers, and also an example of how it can and does go well beyond the traditional payroll-deduction method of raising funds for specific causes.

“This was a case of philanthropic organizations putting our heads together and saying, ‘how can we be stronger?’” he went on, adding that, moving forward, the United Way will playing even more of a convening role, as he called it, because this is one of its greatest strengths.

Mapping Out a Course

Getting back to that map on Ayres’ wall, it does a good job of driving home the point that time doesn’t stand still.

Dana, Prescott, Greenwich, and Enfield were erased from the map almost 70 years ago. And the Smith’s Ferry area has played a huge role in Holyoke’s history.

Time doesn’t stand still for the United Way, either. Thus, it is incumbent upon the organization to change with those times in order to be relevant and continue to carry out its important work.

It doesn’t say as much on Ayres’ job description, but that’s essentially what he was hired to do.

And he believes he’s in the right place at the right time.

George O’Brien can be reached at obrien@businesswest.com

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