Test Driving a New Model
Steve Lowell says he took the phone call back in early August; he doesn’t recall the exact date.
Everything else, though, he remembers quite clearly.
That’s because on the other end of the line was Paul Mina, president and CEO of the United Way of Tri County, who asked for a moment of Lowell’s time — and used it to get a whole lot more than that.
Mina was calling Lowell, president and CEO of Monson Savings Bank, and chairman of the board of the United Way of Pioneer Valley (UWPV), with a proposition of sorts, a unique partnership that has many potential — and, in some cases, already real — benefits for both United Ways.
That partnership comes in the form of a management agreement (two and a half years in length) whereby UWTC, as it’s called, will essentially share a CEO (Mina) with UWPV and handle backroom operations — bookkeeping, marketing, and others — for this region’s United Way for a percentage of the funds raised during its annual campaign.
This partnership, forged after several years of unsettledness at the top for UWPV — it has seen two CEOs and two interim CEOs since early 2016 — brings what Lowell called some “much-needed stability,” while also enabling UWPV to maintain its autonomy at a time when many such agencies are entering into mergers.
But it also gains much more, including perhaps $200,000 in savings on administrative costs and, even more importantly, a CEO with 30 years of experience working within the United Way family, said Lowell, adding that Mina brings a wealth of experience, and energy, to his expanded role.
“We needed some stability in the organization, and we needed a forward-looking, positive strategy,” he explained. “And in talking with Paul, our board of directors became convinced that he could do all that; he’s hit the ground running and done more in the month he’s been on board than I would have thought possible.”
Mina’s comments on his expanded duties and his approach to them echo those sentiments.
“We needed some stability in the organization, and we needed a forward-looking, positive strategy. And in talking with Paul, our board of directors became convinced that he could do all that; he’s hit the ground running and done more in the month he’s been on board than I would have thought possible.”
“I’m not a United Way CEO who hangs around and goes to meetings,” he told BusinessWest. “I’m a get-your-hands-dirty, fundraising person; I’m the chief fundraiser here, and I’m the chief fundraiser at our other office in Framingham, and I lead by example in that regard.”
By that, he meant that he’s generally not in his office at 1441 Main St. and is instead on the road, visiting area companies and stressing to decision makers that, while the times, and charitable giving habits, have changed, the United Way is still relevant, and it still plays a pivotal role within the community it serves.
“The first thing I said to everyone here in Springfield when we met on the first day was, ‘take your job descriptions and throw them out the window,’” he went on. “That’s because we’re all fundraisers, and that includes people who never leave this office.”
Such energy — and such a focus on fundraising — will certainly be necessary because, as most know, this United Way is much smaller (in every way) than it was a decade or even five years ago, especially when it comes to annual donations.
Indeed, this was a $5 million United Way — that’s the parlance used — earlier this decade, and is now closer to a $2 million agency. The loss of financial-services giant MassMutual as a major contributor — that corporation now gives back to the community through its own foundation — has been a major factor in the decline of the UWPV, but there are other factors as well.
These include changes within the business community, especially the smaller number of locally based banks and other types of companies, as well as those noted changes in how many individuals and businesses give back. Many now donate directly to a specific cause or charity, often through vehicles like the hugely successful Valley Gives program.
In response to these trends, and to bring its numbers higher, UWPV has to go back to basics in some respects, some Mina, and remind companies why it’s so important to support the United Way.
But it must also think outside the box, which in this case means beyond the traditional payroll-deduction model of giving back, as is the case with a new initiative called ‘Feed a Family,’ which invites individuals and businesses to donate specifically to the many food banks supported by the United Way (more on that later).
For this issue, BusinessWest looks at the new partnership arrangement, the projected benefits, and how the UWPV looks to capitalize on them.
When a Plan Comes Together
Summing up his first several weeks on the job, Mina said he’s on what he described as a ‘thank-you tour.’
By that, he meant he’s reaching out to many individuals who have been strong supporters of UWPV over the years, letting them know their support is certainly appreciated. He’s doing so, he said, because, due to all the transition in leadership in recent years, such acknowledgements have been somewhat lacking.
“We didn’t thank people enough — we didn’t honor people enough,” he told BusinessWest, adding quickly, “you can never thank people enough.”
Mina said that’s one of many lessons he’s learned over a more than 40-year career working for and behalf of nonprofits. It began with a lengthy stint as director of the Lincoln Square Boys Club in Worcester and, later, the Worcester Boys and Girls Club’s Camp Hargrove as well. He joined the United Way organization in 1988 as senior campaign fundraiser for the United Way of Central Mass., and in 1994, he became president of the United Way of Assabet Valley in Marlboro.
Since 1996, he’s led the UWTC, an entity created through the merger of several smaller United Ways based in Marlboro, Framingham, Norwood, Westborough, and Clinton — the three counties (actually parts of them) being Middlesex, Norfolk, and Worcester.
And since 2006, he’s also been president and CEO of Mass211, a program (a phone number, really) that connects callers to information about critical health and human services available in their community.
With these stops on his résumé, Mina is well aware of the many challenges facing United Ways across the country and across the region, especially the smaller organizations. Most all of them are looking for creative answers to the twin challenges of increasing revenues and reducing expenses.
It was with this thought in mind that a proactive Mina — aware that UWPV had launched a search to find a successor to Jim Ayers, who left his position as president and CEO to seek another opportunity, and looking for a way to help two United Ways — picked up the phone and called Steve Lowell.
“I said, ‘it’s very important that the western part of the state has an anchor United Way,’” he recalled, adding that he invited Lowell to breakfast to “hear him out.”
He agreed (Mina, Lowell, and Denis Gagnon, vice chair of UWPV, got together the next day, in fact), and Lowell recalls soon liking what he was hearing.
“He said that he might have a solution for a solution for our organization that would allow it to keep its autonomy and the local oversight we want, but also gain some efficiencies,” Lowell recalled, adding that, with that opening, he was all ears.
Fast-forwarding a little, the two sides worked out a proposal and took it back to their respective full boards. Mina said his board had a number of questions, which were answered sufficiently to garner a 17-1 vote to enter into the agreement. The vote was unanimous at the UWPV, which, said Lowell, viewed the partnership as the best possible path for the agency moving forward.
“This really benefits both organizations,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, beyond the help on the expense side of the budget, UWPV gains from Mina’s vast experience working for the United Way and guiding agencies through the recent whitewater.
“He has more than 30 years of United Way experience; he’s been through some tough times and been successful at turning them into positive situations,” Lowell said. “When you put it all together, it was a great solution for us.”
Gagnon agreed with that assessment.
He noted that Mina and UWTC have a strong track record of bringing United Ways together in a merger, creating efficiencies, and providing ways for these agencies to carry out their missions effectively given the many challenges they’re facing.
This arrangement is not a merger, he said, stressing that point repeatedly, but the goals are similar, and so are the basic strategies for achieving them.
“We needed a new leader and a few other key staff members,” he said, noting that, with Ayers’ departure, there were some others as well. “The United Way of Tri County can provide that all in one shot, rather than have separate recruiting efforts.”
The plan is for Mina to spend half his week in Springfield and other half in Framingham, leading the UWTC, although he knows there will some weeks where he’ll be in one region more than the other. And these will certainly not be 40-hour weeks.
But will this arrangement work as intended for both agencies?
Those we spoke with are, as noted, certainly optimistic, and also convinced that this partnership is better than the alternative — hiring a CEO specifically for UWPV and keeping the backroom operations in Springfield, especially at this critical time for the organization — the middle of an all-important annual campaign.
More to the point, both United Ways need it to work and are committed to making it work, said Mina, noting that all United Ways are facing a host of challenges, including those mentioned earlier with regard to how people give and why.
Which brings him back to those notions of stressing the basics, but also thinking outside the box.
“People give through their heart to their head to their wallet,” he explained. “And we have to do a good job of telling people what happens when they contribute to the United Way. It’s not a right that we have that people give to us, it’s a privilege, and we have to prove that what we’re doing is valuable and that it helps improve quality of life for the people who live and work here.
“And in order to do that, you have to be able to show ROI,” he went on, “and you can’t do that if you’re not out in the community seeing what’s important and doing what’s necessary to be done.”
As an example of this, he noted the Feed a Family drive, which specifically targets food pantries and other agencies that help feed those within the community.
“At the United Way of Pioneer Valley, we have focused for decades on funding safety-net services that assist this very vulnerable population. One such service area is our food-security initiative where food pantries and congregate meal programs feed hungry individuals and families in our region,” he said, noting that last year, United Way- funded programs provided more than 251,000 meals in the Pioneer Valley.
“While that’s an impressive number, the need unfortunately continues to increase rapidly, and donations lag far behind,” he went on, adding that the initiative will directly support the Gray House, Home City Development Inc., Open Pantry Community Services, the Salvation Army, and the Springfield Rescue Mission (all based in Springfield), as well as Neighbors Helping Neighbors in South Hadley, Our Community Food Pantry in Southwick, and Providence Ministries for the Needy in Holyoke.
The Feed a Family drive is, as Mina noted, somewhat outside-the-box thinking for this United Way, but something definitely needed amid these changing and very challenging times.
The same can be said for the management agreement between the UWPV and UWTC. It is something different, but also something both boards deemed ultimately necessary — not just for this area’s United Way, but for both agencies.
Rather than an act of desperation, Mina called it “an act of intelligence,” and he credited both boards for having the imagination, and good sense, to make it happen.
Will it work? Time will tell, but so far the arrangement has generated what its architects hoped it would — stability and optimism.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]