Live United: Validation of moving in the right direction in community

Published 10:27 am Saturday, June 11, 2022

Live United by Erin Haag

Recently, I spent a few days in Madison, Wisconsin, for a four-day regional United Way Conference. This conference has been on my radar since I started, and it has a really good reputation. It’s hard for me though — definitely out of my comfort zone. I’m not particularly introverted, but this huge conference with over 300 United Way professionals from 12 states — I will admit to a few tears about it.

Erin Haag

Don’t get me wrong, there was excitement about it, too. Over the past three years, I’ve developed relationships with United Way professionals across the country but rarely got to meet with them in person. The opportunity to network on a different level and really engage and hear about the strategies to make real, lasting change? That was exciting to me, too.

As hard as it was, I knew that once I got there, I would be fine, and I was. I was good, too. I didn’t’ sign up for all the fun splashy sessions. I made sure that I balanced those with some of the financial sessions, and the latest tax laws and best practices in presenting budgets. But did I learn anything earth shattering? Did I learn any really cool innovating ideas that are going to save the world? Or at least our little portion of the world in Freeborn County? Not really.

Woah, wait. Not really? You went and spent four days and didn’t come back with a major idea? That sounds bad, but I promise you, it wasn’t. Because a major idea would be start from scratch, and that’s a long process. Slow. As. Molasses. My most important takeaway from the conference was validation. Our team has been in the process of developing some strategies for several areas over the past year — and I found other United Ways developing those same strategies. How awesome is it to realize that the work your team has been working on has been a successful idea somewhere else? So instead of earth-shattering ideas, I got to fine tune the work we’re already doing and the chance to fine tune approaches. One session I sat in, I’ve had some research data, and some information rattling around in my brain, I just haven’t been able to pull it all together to make a solid presentation to my target audience. Cue in a presentation with a former city manager turned United Way director and it was like he took everything in my brain, sorted through it and handed it back to me in a nice pretty package.

I can nearly hear my readers thinking, “What strategies are you talking about?” Well, one of them is the development of the Seniors United in Service Club at the Senior Center. Starting last November, each month, Nikolle, our community impact and resource coordinator, has a volunteer project for the seniors to participate in. They’re “kits” of some kind. We bring the supplies, and the seniors work to put them together and then we take them and distribute them. So far, we’ve done hygiene kits that were shared with different schools, literacy kits for Read Across America that were distributed to Head Start classrooms, homemade dog treats for the Freeborn County Humane Society, and seed kits for the children’s library to celebrate Earth Day.

This has been so well received that we wanted to expand on this and take our show on the road. Would your company like to engage in volunteer engagement? We hope so, because studies show that companies that have a strong culture built around giving back are able to attract and retain employees. Nikolle has developed a roster of kits for your service club, team building event, employee wide giving back efforts. Want to create mental health kits? Let us know your budget, and we can come and set up in your break room. Education, engagement, and giving back all in one. We handle the supply list, the ordering and the distribution, ensuring that the items needed are truly needed in our community.

After all, that’s where we hear people that want to give back in this way struggle the most. Lots of ideas, but they’re not quite sure what’s really needed. It’s work to call different places and figure out what a list would be, the specific brands, and then make the arrangements to drop them off, etc. 

Here’s an example. Many people lovingly want to give gloves to our Winter Gear Drive. So they buy gloves by the dozen, making their dollars stretch by choosing the one size fits all “magic gloves.” What we’ve found though, is that we really can’t use them. School social workers have begged us to not give them to kids. What’s needed for our cold Minnesota Winter are waterproof gloves and mittens, designed to play in the snow. (By the way, we still give the gloves out, we just make sure we give them waterproof ones along with them).  Hygiene kits are another popular one — but recently I heard from a nonprofit that received so many hygiene kits they didn’t want any more. Seems like several groups had the same idea at once. No one wants to say “no, we don’t need it,” because then they might seem ungrateful. Many nonprofits are terrified at alienating potential donors, volunteers that they’re afraid to say no.

I was thrilled to learn that a United Way was working with American Family Insurance to do mental health kits. I attended a “packing event,” so I could see the items, see the flow of the event and replicate it. Nikolle was happy that I brought her home a mental health kit, minus the smiley face stress ball that my son absolutely had to have.

Would you like to be one of the first to sign up for this? Give me call at 507-373-8670, and we’d be glad to work through the process. Until then, stay tuned for more ways to live united. There’s lots more happening that we have to share!

Erin Haag is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.