Our Views: United Way Blackhawk Region merits support to strengthen local communities

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Gazette editorial board
Saturday, October 3, 2015

The United Way Blackhawk Chapter has launched its annual campaign and hopes to raise a record $2.82 million.

The chapter supports 103 programs overseen by 42 nonprofit agencies in Rock County and northern Winnebago County, Illinois. It focuses on health, education and income—“building blocks” to better communities. The United Way offers these examples:

-- Edgar is showing signs of early cognitive impairment. When his wife of 55 years died, his son and daughter-in-law wanted assurances he was safe each day. He's thriving with a busy social life through Lutheran Social Services' Adult Day Care Center.

-- Autism makes interactions challenging for Jessie, 8. By working with a SMILES therapy horse, he improved his confidence and listening skills. The experience has bolstered his courage to attend school. His mom sees incredible emotional and cognitive growth.

-- At 13, Alejandra is learning financial skills from seasoned mentors through Money Matters. The teens get hands-on experience in sales, inventory and purchasing by managing a concessions stand.

The United Way raised $2.68 million a year ago, missing its $2.8 million goal. President Mary Fanning-Penny knows this year's goal is aggressive and ambitious. But the organization set that target after its board of directors sensed an economic resurgence. She hopes the goal energizes her organization and the communities it serves. She believes the United Way can reach it with the right campaign strategy.

She might have the right parts in the right places. Cassie Hartje, formerly in marketing with Beloit College, is the new marketing and communications manager. Rick West moved from marketing to full-time resource development manager. The United Way tried to skate by with a part-timer and then volunteers in that role in recent years. It found the need to reinvest in someone to support volunteers, orchestrate the campaign and attend year-round meetings.

Finally, rather than campaign chairs, Milly Babcock and Kim Hendricks are serving as “community campaign champions.” Their connections could open doors to companies that haven't conducted United Way campaigns in recent years, if ever.

Fanning-Penny has worked for businesses and nonprofits. Though long a United Way supporter and volunteer, the Janesville native was new as president a year ago. Since then, she found observing United Way-sponsored programs a “phenomenal experience.” She better understands the value and the challenges ahead. She knows the United Way is losing long-time donors as baby boomers retire. She sees how social media taps local dollars to support causes elsewhere.

To counter that, Fanning-Penny emphasizes how, through payroll deductions, the United Way offers an easy way for local workers to support local people, programs and causes. Just as important, each program must justify itself through annual scrutiny by local volunteers.

Still, Fanning-Penny isn't satisfied. She wants to make the United Way even stronger in the next few years by better gauging what's important to its communities, using data to assess needs, then creating proactive solutions. The United Way would become an agent for change with measurable results.

Liken it to helping homeless students while digging deeper into and attacking the root causes that lead to that homelessness.

The United Way is an impressive agency. It deserves your support today while it evolves to steer long-lasting change that makes our communities better places to live, work and raise families tomorrow.


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