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United Way Looks to Young Leaders to Help Spread Its Mission
Sarah Tanner and Tracy Trial

Sarah Tanner (left) and Tracy Trial say the Young Leaders program was formed to recruit new philanthropists into the United Way’s fold.

There’s a flurry of new ideas flying about on Mill Street in Springfield, as some of the area’s young professionals kick off their first year as philanthropists for the United Way of Pioneer Valley.

The initiative is called the Young Leaders’ Program, and its mission is to cultivate a new cadre of community and volunteerism ambassadors, through community involvement, learning opportunities, and social and networking events. It targets the under-40 set, and was introduced to the region this year as part of the United Way’s outreach and recruitment work.

Sarah Tanner, vice president of Resource Development with the United Way of Pioneer Valley, said the idea of a young leaders program is not new; however, it’s a broad concept within the United Way that can be tailored to various agencies across the country.

“It’s an example of a best practice within the United Way, which can be used to expand the organization and introduce it to a new audience,” she said. “In this region, we’re hoping to use it as an agent of change that appeals to the under-40 crowd.”

One for the Ages

In some respects, Young Leaders is centered on community service, while in others it’s a social program, which pulls a number of young professionals together through a series of networking events. Tanner, who helped institute such a program in New York City, said the initiative typically reflects the region it serves.

“New York is a very active, corporate environment, and the program there was a perfect fit,” she said. “But in the Valley, the chambers of commerce and other organizations really take care of that social component.”

After careful consideration, the United Way of Pioneer Valley chose to use a mix of three components to introduce Young Leaders to the area, said Tracy Trial, the agency’s director of Individual and Planned Giving.

“The first piece is community involvement,” she said. “We are working to identify some volunteer opportunities that appeal and are accessible to this age group. The second piece is learning opportunities, which will provide educational programs that are relevant to professional and personal development within the under-40 set, such as meetings with civic and community leaders or financial-planning seminars.

“The third piece will be that social aspect,” she added. “We’re going to try to stay away from loose cocktail hours, and hold some meaningful events, perhaps tied in with larger events taking place in the region or within the United Way.”

To create these events, a steering committee made up of young professionals in the area has been formed, and work is now underway to formalize Young Leaders and add to its ranks.

“The group will also raise funds and determine where those funds will go within the community,” said Trial, “which is something we know is important to this age set. They like to see the impact their dollars are making.”

Follow the Leaders

Gainer O’Brien, a steering committee member and creative director with Darby O’Brien Advertising in South Hadley, said the three-pronged approach to marketing Young Leaders and recruiting new people appealed to him because of its creativity, and its understanding of the generation it is targeting.

“The Young Leaders program hopefully will allow me to do some good in the community, forge friendships with other young business people, and do so without having to make a huge financial investment,” he said. “Most young people, like myself, have more currency in time and effort than in monetary donations. I look forward to approaching the program with a creative eye and working with others to make it relevant and unique.”

Similarly, fellow committee member Jayson Falcone, managing partner of Falcone Retail Properties of Springfield, said he liked the United Way’s broad approach to community service and philanthropy.

“I’m a new member, and I saw this as an opportunity to get involved with a great organization,” said Falcone. “I heard fantastic things, like the high-level view they take toward a locality, which is something I think our region needs.

“The United Way chapters are also not dedicated to any one niche, and they evolve their mission over time,” he added. “That’s appealing to me, and Young Leaders seemed like the appropriate way for me to get involved. It’s a group of entrepreneurial minds who are already doing things, and now we’re mobilized.”

Among the issues Falcone said he’d like to tackle in his new post are homelessness in the region and the lack of quality job opportunities.

“This area in general is ripe for a next generation,” he said, “for people to step forward on all levels of philanthropy. I look forward to sharing my time and my ideas.”

O’Brien and Falcone’s first impressions are not far off from the message the United Way is trying to convey across the country — that a new generation is poised to take on its mission, and therefore the face of the organization is changing, as well.

“This is not your father’s United Way,” said Tanner. “Nationally, there is a shift toward more proactive programming, and a focus on finding solutions to long-term issues. We’re moving away a bit from the annual campaigns, and measuring our impact in specific areas.”

The Young Leaders are playing a major part in that evolution within the United Way — by identifying the causes they hope to support, various Young Leader groups across the nation are combating some very real issues on a local level and positively affecting various communities’ quality of life.

In Burlington, Vt., for instance, Tanner said the Young Leaders chose to battle truancy, and since beginning their work have spurred a double-digit drop in truancy rates.

“Every group has autonomy to pursue the issues they feel are pressing in their community,” she said, “but at the same time, we’re creating a national grid of sorts, and a ripple effect that spans the country.”

Building a Legacy

As the program moves forward, said Tanner, the Pioneer Valley Young Leaders have expressed interest in working with children and families and increasing financial stability on both individual and community levels. As work in those areas begins, she added that continued attention will be paid to the group’s unique identity, to ensure that Young Leaders doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

“There are many under-40 programs popping up,” she said, “and our first task will be to differentiate ourselves from those. We all need to rise up and find our own value points, while at the same time not tear each other down. That’s huge.”

Tanner added that a second challenge will be keeping the program going strong during this important launch phase.

“We know there’s a high demand for programs for the under-40 set, and also for people to volunteer,” she said. “We need to keep our own program moving, and not let it be an incubator for too long, so people won’t lose momentum or faith.”

Tanner said the United Way of Pioneer Valley is again turning to its Young Leader steering committee to keep that energy flowing.

“These are people who are already very involved in the area, and in their own right are fabulous,” she said. “Now, we have them sitting around the same table, so I feel strongly that something great is going to come out of this.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

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