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Two Counties, One Mission

In the past year, Benefactor Group worked with two Ohio United Way chapters, in two very different counties. The United Way of Ross County is located in Chillicothe, in an Appalachian county in southern Ohio with a population of 80,000 people. The United Way of Summit County in Akron is an urban community in northeast Ohio with a county population of 500,000. Though the communities differ greatly in size, both are battling the same issues—poverty and growing gaps in education, income, and health.

While the challenges are great, the strength of working collaboratively to make their communities stronger is apparent. Benefactor Group supported their individual efforts by leading a CEO search in Ross County and facilitating a strategic planning session in Summit County.

Communities Power Change: A New Leader

In 2014, the United Way of Ross County’s executive director decided to retire after nine years of service. The challenge of finding someone new to lead the organization was brought to Benefactor Group in July. Senior Consultant Ron Guisinger led the executive search and connected with an extremely qualified and accomplished applicant, Catherine Whalen.

Catherine Whalen was hired as CEO in November 2014. “They seemed to pick up that I would be a good fit. I wasn’t the normal nonprofit person that came up through the ranks, but they found things on my resume that stood out,” Whalen attests. Originally from Ross County, Whalen finds it easy to connect to the community. Though she has traveled around the country and the world for years, Whalen says, “My heart has always been in Southern Ohio.”

Communities Power Change: The Fatherhood Initiative

A lack of fatherhood involvement was a growing problem for all of Summit County where 52% of children grew up in a fatherless home. Summit County had multiple agencies working to combat these statistics, but the problem was too large for any single agency to tackle alone. Community leaders believed three fatherhood agencies should join together under one United Way initiative to make an impact on this issue. United Way Initiative Coordinator, William Macchione, and United Way Senior Director of Community Impact, Devoe Johnson, knew that a strategic planning process would be the best way to start conversations between the three agencies and “bring the broader community together,” according to Johnson. Benefactor Group was chosen to facilitate the process.

The strategic planning process, facilitated by Senior Consultants Catherine Fynes and Ron Guisinger, included a daylong session with superintendents of local school districts, court magistrates, representatives from ministerial associations, other nonprofits, and business leaders from across the county. Johnson explains that their involvement in the strategic planning process caused community leaders to become more invested in the cause. “They had input in the strategic planning process, and now they are excited and want to be involved,” Johnson said.

Strengthen the Community, Strengthen the Impact

In the past eleven months, Catherine Whalen and her team at the United Way of Ross County have been able to implement many programs that have been “in the pipeline for a while,” Whalen states. The programs are all geared toward community improvement. They began a volunteer center website where all the community needs for volunteers can be found in one place. They are operating a pilot program to feed children on weekends, which currently serves 160 kids in four schools in three different school districts. They also received an $80,000 grant from the governor to help youth be successful in work or college. The United Way of Ross County continues to expand. “Today our automated grant process went live,” Whalen adds, “and we are moving to a new building because we have outgrown our space.”

Whalen’s next big goal is to align more closely the United Way’s vision with the community’s goals and visions.  She has been invited to sit on a number of community committees, including The Partners for a Healthier Ross County, The Strategic Committee for the Entire Ross County, and the Learning Enhancement Committee. Whalen is excited that the United Way can participate as a community member and advocate. “The fact that we are now included as a major player in the community is great,” she states.

In Summit County, the Fatherhood Initiative sees the most success and the most growth by partnering with existing community efforts, Macchione explains. In small cities outside Akron, SCFI partners with school districts and ministerial associations. “We are helping community organizations and schools teach fatherhood classes,” Macchione states. “As they begin to see our classes given, then we can pass it on and they can deliver their own. That is how this thing can have more legs without growing our staff.”

The Fatherhood Initiative has been invited to speak and provide classes to organizations such as the Akron Metro Housing Authority and the Summit County Health Department, as well as at conferences such as the Children’s Hospital Lactation Conference and the Bureau of Prisons’ “Make Our Streets Safe” conference.

Two Communities, United

Whether rural or urban, small or large, both United Way communities are working to create a sustainable and effective community relationship. Comparing the two counties, Whalen shares, “We have the same mission, but it is just tailored to each community, which is one of the great things about the United Way.”

When reflecting upon the relationship between the two United Way chapters, Devoe Johnson states that the larger, more urban-centered chapters with the larger staff can “drive initiatives like prison re-entry, bridges out of poverty and the fatherhood initiative, to name a few. The smaller United Way organizations can focus on meeting the specific needs of their communities. The work of the United Way is a community effort, by the community and for the community.

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