Opinion

Raising the Profile

Since taking the reins at the United Way of the Pioneer Valley early this year, Jim Horne has been working hard to make the agency more visible in the communities it serves. His broad goal is to see the institution evolve from an organization that merely raises money and then distributes it, into one that helps communities identify needs, establish priorities, and set agendas.
Jim Horne says that, historically, the United Way has been an organization known for raising money and then allocating it. It’s also been known as a group that is anywhere and everywhere during the annual fall campaign, but then goes into hibernation when it’s over.

Since he became president and CEO of the United Way of the Pioneer Valley (UWPV) in January, Horne has been working overtime to change both of those long-held perceptions.

He wants the United Way to be known as group that doesn’t just ask for money every September. Rather, he wants it understood that this is an organization actively involved in the cities and towns it serves — one that takes a leadership role in determining where and how investments should be made in area communities.

In other words, he wants the organization to be part of the agenda-setting process in those communities it serves.

Meanwhile, he’s been working to significantly raise the United Way’s profile in those communities, with the goal of familiarizing people with its purpose, and letting people know that when they take part in a YMCA program or join the Girl Scouts, they’re benefiting from United Way-funded agencies, or partners, as they’re now known.

In his first nine months at the helm, Horne, 43, has made visibility a priority — for himself and the United Way as a whole. He’s spoken to every Rotary Club in the region and has been a regular on the chamber of commerce breakfast circuit. But he’s also gone much further in his efforts to get to know the cities and towns in the area and the issues that impact them.

"I want to establish relationships," he explained. "To do that, you have to really know a community, its leaders, and its issues. I’ve spent a lot of time in Holyoke, Chicopee, Westfield, Palmer, Monson, and all the other communities we serve; I’m doing a lot of listening, and I’m showing them the face of the United Way."

Horne, who came to Western Mass. after a stint as vice president and COO of the Akron, Ohio-area United Way, told BusinessWest that United Ways across the country are facing a number of challenges today.

For starters, he noted that, while Baby Boomers and those who preceded them generally understand the United Way and the reasons for its existence, the younger generations do not, and they need to be convinced there is still a place for it. "It’s not enough to say we’ve been around since 1918 — that’s not going to cut it," he said. "We need to show people that through our work, we can make the community stronger."

Meanwhile, the business landscape has changed across this region and the entire country. The large corporations that facilitated fundraising efforts for United Way chapters are disappearing from the landscape, replaced by smaller businesses whose employees and managers are much more difficult to reach.

Locally, Horne said, there is a perception that the United Way is a Springfield organization, leaving many in area suburbs with questions about if and how the organization benefits them. At the same time, the local business community’s involvement in the UWPV has declined over the past decade or so, he said, adding that he wants to "re-engage" many business leaders.

Since arriving in January, Horne has been addressing all these issues simultaneously. His first priority has been to make the United Way more visible — 12 months of the year — but he is also working to make sure the organization is heard, not just seen, and that, more importantly, it listens.

The Job at Hand

"Upside potential."

That’s the phrase Horne used to describe the UWPV, and the reason why he chose that organization over a United Way in Michigan that was also vying for his services.

While he didn’t actually use the term, Horne implied that the local organization has been underachieving in recent years — from a fundraising perspective and several others — and he saw an opportunity to achieve profound growth.

"I like challenges," he said, noting that, while the UWPV has been successful in raising millions for the dozens of groups it supports, it lags statistically compared to other United Ways nationwide. For example, the UWPV has 12 ’major gift’ donors ($10,000 and above), while other groups its size average between 30 and 50. Meanwhile, the UWPV has 600 gifts in the $1,000-to-$9,000 range (the group known locally as the "Pillar Society"), while others its size have 800 to 900.

Overall, the UWPV has a rate of participation (those who donate) of about 26%, while the national average is closer to 35%. Over the past several years, fundraising has been flat (at or around the $6 million mark), Horne said, noting that there have been several factors contributing to this, including the sluggishness of the economy, a sharp decline in the number of major employers, and some campaign strategies that haven’t been effective in getting the message out.

Beyond the dollars raised, however, the UWPV has some work to do to become more involved in the communities it serves, he said, and move beyond the roles of fundraiser and check-writer.

"I looked at the two geographic areas that I was considering and what their needs were, and became intrigued by the possibilities in the Springfield area," he said. "I wanted to be part of raising the profile of this United Way."

Horne has been involved with the United Way since 1994, but he likes to say that the relationship began much earlier, when, as a 10-year-old growing up in Bridgeport, Conn., he would venture to the city’s Boys & Girls Club after school while his mother, a single parent, worked.

The club was a beneficiary of United Way funding, but he didn’t know it at the time. He would find that out nearly two decades later, when, as a production analyst for Sikorsky Aircraft, he became a loaned executive for the United Way of Eastern Fairfield County.

Active in the Bridgeport community — he was on the school board for three terms — Horne enjoyed the work as a loaned executive so much he decided in 1994 to make a career change and join the organization. He described it as a difficult decision, but one he has never regretted.

"I loved the work I did at Sikorsky … I enjoyed my assignments there, which included product support for the presidential fleet and being involved with some experimental projects," he said. "When the offer was put in front of me and I was trying to decide which way to go, my vice president at Sikorsky, who was also board chair for the United Way, sat me down and asked me where my passion was, and where I saw myself being the most productive in the future.

"I really enjoyed helping people see the value of supporting the community through philanthropy," he continued. "It was my experience then that a lot of folks didn’t understand fully the work that the United Way was involved with and how that work improved the community. I realized that there was enormous potential to engage the business community and potential donors to support the United Way."

He started in Bridgeport as a campaign division manager, and in two years became executive vice president of that United Way. He left in April 2000 to become vice president of the United Way of Summit County, Ohio, and eventually assumed the title of chief operating officer there.

Summit County is what’s known as a metro-1 United Way — one that exceeds $10 million in fundraising — and Horne was enjoying his work there, but he desired to direct his own United Way. Late last year, he became one of 70 candidates vying for the opportunity to succeed long-time UWPV director Ty Joubert.

Horne has spent his first several months in the region getting to know the communities served by the UWPV, and also setting a course for expanding the organization’s role in the region.

The Buck Stops Here

When asked how to go about improving the UWPV’s fundraising numbers, Horne said that assignment has a number of components. Generally, however, it comes down to two factors: access and education. In other words, the organization needs to get in front of more people, and when it does, it needs to present a strong case for the United Way and its partner organizations.

The first task becomes more complicated in today’s business community, one dominated by small companies rather than large corporations, he said. In years past, the United Way could visit those large employers and make a presentation that would reach hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Today, there are only a handful of companies in that category, while the numbers of sole proprietorships, home businesses, and telecommuters are on the rise.

And in many smaller businesses, time-strapped managers don’t have the hours in the day to offer a lengthy program highlighting the reasons why someone should give generously to the local United Way.

To reach the managers and employees of smaller companies, as well as professionals such as lawyers, doctors, and dentists, the UWPV will rely on modern tools like the Internet and direct mail, said Horne, and it will also make more and better use of volunteers who have connections to those in hard-to-reach groups and can provide access.

"What we know is that people give to people," he continued. "And people give to causes — good causes."

Which brings Horne to the second part of the equation — education. "Once we get access, I feel we have a compelling message," he said. "We can show people that, when they contribute to the United Way, they can make their community stronger."

Horne was hesitant to set hard goals for the UWPV, but he believes the organization can reach the $8 million-to-$10 million mark within the next decade.

"If all things remain constant, I think we can get to that level," he said, adding quickly that he will likely need more support from the business community to get there.

"There are a number of community leaders and business leaders who are actively engaged in improving the quality of life in the Pioneer Valley," Horne told BusinessWest. "One of my goals is to find ways to increase their involvement with the United Way’s agenda and have them become a greater part of our work."

"Looking back at the ’70s and ’80s, we had more involvement from the business community," he continued. "While things have improved somewhat in recent years, we still have a number of opportunities to re-engage."

While working to improve fundraising totals, Horne said he also wants the United Way to play a much larger role in setting priorities for how the funds that are raised are allocated — and he said the two initiatives are in many ways intertwined.

"When we increase the visibility of the United Way, and people see us as a true community partner," he said, "I believe people will donate more and they’ll donate more often."

Horne said the goal for the UWPV is to be part of the agenda-setting process, which is somewhat of a departure from its historical mission, but a necessary evolutionary step if the organization wants younger generations to fully understand its purpose and importance to the community.

"Our current process is to raise money in the campaign and then talk with our community agencies to understand better what programs they’d like for us to invest in," he said. "Part of our new strategy is to continue conversations with those member agencies, but also expand them to other service providers and potential programming partners so that we’re better understanding how to maximize our resources."

Ultimately, the goal is to create partnerships with a broader range of non-profit groups, said Horne, who told BusinessWest the shift is part of a nationwide trend toward moving well beyond fund allocation.

Part of the process of partnering with communities is convincing area residents and business leaders that the UWPV is not a Springfield organization, he said, and to that end, the chapter this year staged five campaign kickoff events, instead of the one program traditionally held in Springfield.

"That’s one of the ways we’re making the campaign more personal," he explained, adding that the UWPV is also encouraging its employees to become more involved in their communities by joining civic and fraternal groups and taking roles with neighborhood organizations, human services agencies, and economic development bodies.

"The more people are involved, the better they can help assess the needs of a community and find ways to address those needs," he said. "That’s part of the process of becoming better partners."

United Front

Horne said it wasn’t until he became a loaned executive that he realized that, as a youth, he was benefiting from programs supported by the United Way.

He told BusinessWest that he doesn’t want people to recognize 20 years after the fact that their lives have been improved thanks in part to the United Way.

Through awareness, visibility, and active involvement in area communities, Horne wants to raise the United Way’s profile. By doing so, he knows he can also raise a few more dollars.

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