A new way forward

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United Way secured a grant to refresh its community areas that see more than 200 visitors a week. (Photo courtesy of United Way)

A few months after Jaime Saunders took the helm as CEO of the United Way of Greater Rochester, the agency received feedback that a board portrait and other historical artwork displayed in its community areas did not accurately represent Rochester’s diversity. The artwork eventually was transferred to a gathering space within the College Avenue building. 

While the move was part of a redesign of community areas on the first floor, it is emblematic of a shift under Saunders to position United Way as a convener, bringing about change. 

“Some people viewed that picture as indicative of things we need to change in this organization,” says Leonard Brock, executive director of the Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, adding that the move of the picture, though symbolic, “spoke volumes.” (United Way is the fiscal agent for RMAPI.)

Saunders is in her second year as the seventh chief of United Way. Her optimism, enthusiasm and passion for Rochester is palpable, even as she acknowledges the challenges faced by the community, such as high poverty rate. 

“There’s no one organization that can accomplish what needs to be done in this community,” Saunders says. “United Way is not just a name. It’s a way of behavior, it’s a way of action.”

That action, she hopes, will snowball, creating momentum where community members are active stakeholders, banishing the notion that United Way is just a workplace campaign. Saunders would like to tell the United Way story in its breadth of scope and scale, urging Rochesterians to see themselves as part of the solution, and take pride in an organization that has stood the test of time.

“United Way cannot be viewed as transactional; it is transformational,” she says. “If all we’re viewed as is an easy way to give money, we’re missing the point. It is really about how we have alignment, how do we look at the scale and scope of what’s happening in our community, how do we make sure we meet the most critical needs of today while we can innovate for tomorrow. Because there is absolutely no way we’re going to serve our way out of the challenges in front of us. It’s endless.”

Strong roots

United Way’s gathering space features a 100-year visual timeline of the organization’s history. (Photo courtesy of United Way)

Unlike some local United Way organizations across the nation, Rochester’s chapter enjoys a healthy community commitment. In Niagara County, for example, two United Way agencies—United Way of the Tonawandas and the United Way of Greater Niagara—merged to better support program needs.

Established by George Eastman in 1918, Rochester’s United Way has held its own for a century. Eastman and community leaders established the Rochester and Patriotic Community Fund, or War Chest, to raise funds for agencies supporting war efforts at the time. Eastman donated $500,000, and the seven-day campaign raised more than $4.6 million.

United Way has grown to an organization that today employs 74. For the year ended March 31, 2018, it reported revenue, gains and other support totaling $32.6 million and expenses of $34.2 million. Net assets were $144.1 million, up from $136.9 million a year earlier.

The tenets set a century ago, to make the community stronger, continue to resonate with United Way, Saunders says.

“Organizations and even institutions don’t make it to a 100 without being innovative and meeting community needs,” she says. “As we turn to what is the next role, what does the next century look like, we have enormous challenges in front of us and United Way is often turned to as the community core leader in solutions, in connecting and convening, and that hasn’t changed.”

Saunders points to the recent federal government shutdown as an example when nonprofits were worried about cash flow, and government partners that provide food stamp benefits were struggling to reach recipients and federal workers who were going without a paycheck. They coordinated efforts among these partners. Those efforts continue. 

Last week when I walked into the Wegmans on Pittsford-Palmyra Road, I was greeted with a sign that announced temporary price reductions—prompted by a United Way partner, Wegmans said—to help families still affected by the shutdown. 

“United Way was uniquely positioned to gather information across the sectors scattered across the community and to ensure there are these connections and conduits of information,” Saunders says.

Faheem Masood, a United Way board member and CEO of ESL Federal Credit Union, says United Way realizes that simply funding programs doesn’t change things. He points to systemic change, viewing the needs of the community as cutting across sectors and segments and coordinating actions so that the outcome is not just service provision but also helping people move beyond the need for that service.

“They are not playing the role of telling people what to do, but they are playing a role of catalyzing that by convening, by enabling that collaboration and then bringing the voice of that collaborative whether it be for policy advocacy or for just having common goals and communications sometimes, common data,” Masood says.

Lauren Dixon, chair of United Way, believes the organization needs to continue to see new and innovative ways to connect donors and organizations, and look for best practices from United Ways across the nation.

“Our community is known for innovation and we have a great board of directors who run very successful businesses and we all need to come to the table and just be open and think differently on the multitude of ways we engage donors,” Dixon says.

Saunders’ openness to try new things bodes in the agency’s favor.

“What I love so much about her leadership is that she’s really open to the new and different,” Dixon says. “If it hasn’t been tried before, Jaime is going to think about it and think carefully about it. She’s not afraid to take risks, and we need to think differently.”

Campaign shift

The most obvious difference in the way United Way has done things for decades is its decision to do away with the goal for its annual workplace campaign. Having a goal, Saunders says, limited the scale and scope of United Way’s actions.

“How do you tell the United Way story where candidly for 99 years the formula was here’s our launch, here’s the announcement of our number,” she says. “We work really hard for four months, (and) gather together to say if we hit the number or not.”

The campaign, which started in January, will extend to May or June and then continue through the rest of the year through efforts like grant funding and ROC the Day, an online giving program aimed at the broader value of what United Way does. It experimented with this approach in 2018, the year Saunders came on board.

For the first time in its history, United Way chose a family to lead the effort. ESL’s Masood, the 2018 campaign chair, passed the baton to developer Andy Gallina and his family. The theme: Dear Rochester.

While there are goals for the campaign, Saunders says the main focus is to ensure the 75 programs that meet community needs are fully funded. In 2018, United Way leveraged more than $30 million, up from the $25 million raised the year before that.

“Everyone wants to do better than last year because we all know the needs outstrip our ability to spend. … The shift in the focus of the goal was to say our campaign is much more than the workplace,” Masood says.

A new way of thinking

The business model of United Way has evolved from the workplace campaign. It remains the cornerstone, however, evidenced by the fact that Saunders gave 50 speeches at various employers in town during her first two months on the job. 

“It is such a joy and just such an honor that companies open their doors. … It is this wave of everybody counts and everybody’s little contribution swells up into these profound millions that help our community every year,” Saunders says.

Still, she acknowledges that the workplace landscape has changed. Large employers no longer dominate the scene; the focus has shifted to small to midsize firms. 

“From a giving and a fundraising perspective, our community is very different than it used to be,” Masood says. “It’s a much more fragmented; if you thought of it as a business that’s trying to engage its customers, its customers are much more fragmented than they were when we had a few large employers. 

“You basically worked at a single point of entry and then raised the funds. … You have to work with hundreds of companies now.”

Says Saunders: “(We face) the pressures of how we define community where … more people live outside their place of birth than ever before. So, how do we think about all of that and still meet those needs that continue to compound?”

Explaining the scope of United Way’s capabilities and its ability to connect plays a critical role in its future. 

“It’s not about United Way being propelled forward as much as about our community where United Way is a key partner in supporting that work,” Saunders says. “That’s the message, that it is our United Way.”

As a community partner and in an effort to preserve independent journalism, United Way late last year lent a hand when WXXI Public Broadcasting decided to acquire City newspaper and its assets. Through its Synergy Fund, the agency helped WXXI evaluate the deal. United Way has done more than $1 million in synergy projects that assist with alignment, mergers and the like.

“United Way is the first call and we’ve been there for more than 10 years helping projects like that. … (Our) role is to champion the sector of not-for-profits, help them accomplish their missions and outcomes for the greater good,” Saunders says.

Jaime Saunders, center, seen with April Purdie, left, and Kesha Carter, co-chairs of the United Way African American Leadership Society. (Photo courtesy of United Way)

The organization has expanded its leadership development programs over the years to include the Latino, African-American and LGBTQ populations. Brock and others have looked at this as a sign of progress.

“They are just now turning the corner as far as being socially responsible to the African-American demographic or the minority demographic,” says Tracy Williams, a real estate investor and a partner at WGW Publishing. 

Williams, who was involved with RMAPI in its early days and did a health and housing workshop at United Way, admits he hasn’t been a fan of the agency for a while.

“I thought their programs didn’t do enough or reach down far enough to make any change. … Within the last year or two I’ve begun to have a more favorable opinion of them,” he says.

Imam Hanif Abdul-Wahid, president of New Africa Cultural Center, says the one constant perception of United Way is that “it is just a charity with a big administrative staff to carry out the designed benevolence.

“This may not be a bad or good perception, but nonetheless, if United Way is not clear in its mission and vision, this is the default understanding of most: ‘I donate to United Way and they in turn give to the needy on my behalf,’” Abdul-Wahid says.

He would like to see an increase in involvement at the grassroots level, the population United Way is intent on serving. Abdul-Wahid says misperception of United Way is most common among this group.

Though Brock credits Saunders’ predecessor, Fran Weisberg, for increasing diversity in the ranks at United Way, he would like to see that grow.

“It’s not just at United Way, it’s all these organizations responding to the needs of the community,” Brock says. “I do not accept when organizations or people say they can’t find qualified candidates. That’s a microaggression, that’s an excuse.”

Reducing poverty

Saunders has been a reliable ally for Brock and RMAPI, an initiative that has faced harsh criticism over slow progress at reducing the area’s poverty rate. The latest U.S. Census Bureau update of five-year data shows that the Rochester poverty rate is 33.1 percent and the child rate is 51.9 percent.

“She has an awareness and understanding of RMAPI, but she also hears the criticism,” Brock says. “So, she’s trying to figure a way to broker and bridge the gap there, but she’s doing it in a way that’s productive and supportive versus jumping down our necks saying this is what everyone else is saying and this is what I believe to be true too. She’s not taking that approach.”

Sanders says she is deeply affected by Rochester’s high poverty rate. She keeps the children at her previous employer, Willow Domestic Violence Center, in her mind’s eye as she focuses on the north star for the United Way’s strategic plan: poverty reduction and ensuring everybody in the community has an opportunity to thrive.

“She sees herself as responsible for helping move the needle on poverty,” Brock observes, adding that RMAPI’s work is in direct alignment with United Way’s strategic plan.

Says Saunders: “When we think about not getting this right, when we think about let’s wait and let’s plan and let’s figure out some of the ways in which we can shift—we do need to shift and work differently. We also have an obligation, a core obligation, to get it right today, because these kids (and families) are suffering today.”

She sees United Way helping meet immediate needs as well as shifting the conversation.

Scott Benjamin, CEO of Charles Settlement House and Community Place of Greater Rochester, understands the urgency to try to talk about issues in different ways.

“It’s not that the United Way hasn’t done it before, but as we change, through social media, political issues and everything else, people are much more single-minded in how they view things and it becomes more of a challenge,” he says.

Benjamin, who calls himself a fan of Saunders and has worked with her in a previous role at the Salvation Army, is not alone in thinking she is the right person to shepherd United Way into the future.

“When she was a young woman you could tell that she was extremely passionate about human services in general (and) the career path she’s taken puts her in a good position to understand a wide swathe of human service needs in our community,” he says. 

Saunders has two decades of experience in human services, nonprofit administration and fundraising. She previously served as president and CEO of Willow (formerly Alternatives for Battered Women), where she grew the organization by 40 percent and completed an $8 million campaign for a new facility. Prior to Willow, Saunders served in various leadership positions including associate director at the Center for Governmental Research and as chief operating officer/vice president of operations at Foodlink. 

“Jaime is the right person at the right time for the next stage of evolution, because obviously everything is constantly changing, not only in the community in terms of people with needs but just in terms of what the giver’s needs are,” says Masood, who like others I spoke with, remarks on Saunders’ likability, empathy and energy.

Looking ahead

United Way this spring will unveil its United for Impact plan, the first time in a decade that the United Way will be communicating its vision and goal. The document aims to convey United Way’s role of listening and being responsive, and its commitment to innovation and meeting core needs. The organization has held listening sessions in its effort to share this plan and better understand community requirements. 

United Way expects to provide opportunities for the younger generation who prefer being involved with organizations in a more hands-on way, in addition to giving easily, moving beyond the traditional three-ply form. On a larger scale, the organization can be better at being present in more places and broaden the tent, Saunders says. In addition, United Way has a systems integration project underway to develop a community information exchange, akin to a health information exchange, to link human services, health care and education. It will help lift families in a different way, Saunders says. She would like United Way to increase its connections with different generations’ and donors’ needs and expectations.

“What I hope is that people will give us that time and that patience and that support. It won’t take us long, but we do have some work to do,” Saunders says, adding that the staff at United Way are some of the best-kept secrets in Rochester. 

The days of giving to United Way and letting the organization worry about where the funds will go are over, Benjamin observes.

“People don’t give that way anymore,” he says. “So, it becomes even more of a challenge to explain what’s going on, why they’re funding what they’re funding, and what’s the return for the community. I think (United Way’s) message continues to evolve around those kinds of things.”

Adding new people to the mix is critical, Brock says.

“This is not about let’s convene the same people we’ve convened for the last 10, 20, 30 years,” he says. “That in my opinion is just marshaling the status quo, that’s not convening change. If United Way is looking to be a convener and convene change, I think we need to bring change agents to the table.”

Brock, who says United Way is at an inflection point, doesn’t see the organization doing this in isolation. He believes the agency and RMAPI can be at the forefront, working hand in glove, and be accountable for doing things differently.

“We’re going to miss, we’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to learn and course correct and grow,” Saunders says. “So, if anything, we want to hear from the community. We are here to serve the community and also to ask patience from the community as we find the new role and the new space for United Way that the community needs us to play. And that is a two-way conversation. … It’s not one and done; there will be (continual) opportunity and evolution.”

Is the community ready?

“We just need to develop a trusted relationship with the people that are leading this,” Williams says. “I think it’s overdue… So, I think that we’re ready.”


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