Live United: Choosing to give in your way 

Published 8:45 pm Friday, October 14, 2022

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Live United by Erin Haag

This week, I was reading an HR manager advice column. I’ve found this to be valuable, as it helps me develop vocabulary and tools for different situations, and then there’s always the comedic relief of the truly bizarre situations. As I started to navigate away from the column, the comment section caught my eye with United Way. Of course, I had to dive down that rabbit hole. I read the comment thread where employees complained about the United Way at their workplace. There was discussion about how much pressure there was to give from the company. The comments weren’t anything I hadn’t heard before, but it grieved me all the same. Some classic myths were in there — comments about paying the salary of a big CEO, needing to get to 100% participation and the aggressive tactics. There were also comments about how they’d rather give locally, and they wanted more involvement. Some bitterness that their company put tons of pressure and stress on employees to give so that the company could take the credit and brownie points. Feelings that if they didn’t participate in the way management wanted, they were seen as “not a team player” and maybe that was a lost promotion. There was no recognition that United Ways are locally run, with local volunteers and local programs being supported. I had to wonder how long ago their experiences were. What they were describing isn’t the United Way I know. Their memories and experiences are valid though, and it serves us well to hear it again, so we can ensure that our locally run United Way doesn’t bring those same experiences to the table.

Erin Haag

It’s not always easy though. UWFC has been a staple in our community since the late 1920s, and many community members and even agencies are comfortable that they’re familiar with how UWFC works. Often, I hear that they served on the board or an investment committee, so they know what we do. Whenever I hear this, I gently push back and ask for a conversation. I’ve found that messaging sometimes isn’t as clear or relies on outdated information. A lot has changed in just the past three years, and things were changing even before my arrival. 

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I’m hoping to make sure that the message is coming from UWFC, and is inclusive, optional and provides opportunities. I’m hoping to build relationships with the employees themselves and encourage that participation by providing information and opportunities. The United Way workplace campaign is about more than raising money for worthy causes. It unites a workforce and provides the opportunity to give back through donating, volunteering and speaking out for causes that matter to them. The heart of an overall campaign is an active ambassador, one who believes in the power of United Way, and leads by example, sharing their “Why.” This includes leadership to entry level positions, to retirees to individual community members. 

How can you make this happen? There’s a variety of ways. Invite someone to come volunteer with you. Invite me into the workplace to set up a display in the breakroom. I’ve found these are more impactful than a speech where no one wants to speak up in front of others and make the meeting longer. Some companies embrace the spirit of volunteerism, and employees have the ability to volunteer during their workday without forgoing their pay. Or a simple sign-up sheet for a corporate team to volunteer on their own time — their choice, without pressure. That’s my mantra above all things. We talk often about giving clients the dignity and empowerment of choice. The choice to choose their food, choose their coat, choose their privacy. The same needs to be true of employee giving — the choice to give, the choice to volunteer, the choice to participate. Being “voluntold” is a surefire way to backfire — it might net us a higher campaign, but it hurts us in the long run. Currently in this market, corporations are scrambling to realize what’s important to workers, and things like this matter. We have several new leaders in our community, and we’re told that they moved here for the opportunities of community engagement. Things such as Blue Zones, the Albert Lea Healthcare Coalition, opportunities to give back through United Way and opportunities to volunteer — those were all driving factors in their decision to move here. It’s not just anecdotal though. According to the Deloitte Volunteerism Study, 89% of millennials believe that volunteerism equals a better working environment. In the age of when retention is key to the success of a company, that’s no small potatoes. 

Choose to give — choose your impact. Despite that comment thread, I believe that our United Way excels at this, and we’re working to get better every day to help be the trusted partner in social responsibility. We welcome the opportunities to discuss ways to bring those opportunities into the workplace, into your service club, into your family. Interested and want to hear more? Give us a call at 507-373-8670. I’ll buy you a cup of hot cocoa to go with this early snowfall and get you caught up on the changes United Way has made to stay meaningful and relevant to our community, and our dreams for the future and how you can get involved. 

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