Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Record Haul for Hope

(published in the Dec./Jan. issue of Effingham Magazine)

Give Paul Mongin ten minutes to tell his story and you will probably give him some money.  “I have been on both sides of the fence,” Mongin says of the United Way.  “I have been a volunteer, and I have also been a recipient of some of their services because of my son with special needs.” Mongin and Natalie Wiser, loaned out from Georgia Pacific to work on the fund raising campaign, are two of the catalysts that helped the Effingham County office of the United Way of the Coastal Empire raise $310,000 this year, demolishing last year’s record total by more than $15,000.

“We worked really hard,” says Bonnie Dixon, area director of the Effingham United Way office when asked if there was a particular reason why so much money was raised, especially when economic common sense should have dictated otherwise.  “We set a goal of $270,000,” Dixon says, “because that was $10,000 more than last year’s goal (though less than the $294,000 raised in 2009). Given the state of the economy, we thought that was realistic.”  Julie Hales, owner and publisher of Effingham Magazine and chair of this year’s United Way campaign, thought otherwise. “Once we got going, I told Bonnie that we would hit $300,000.  Once we started making our numbers, we just kept pushing.  This campaign has proven to me once again what a wonderful community we live in."

The Effingham money is part of the $8.1 million raised by the United Way of the Coastal Empire, which serves Effingham, Chatham, Bryan, and Liberty counties.  “We are grateful for the stellar companies and individuals that stood with us while facing economic challenges of their own to make sure that our friends and neighbors are equipped with the building blocks for a successful life,” said U.W.C.E. board chairman Dale Critz, Jr.  Paul Mongin would definitely count himself as one of those friends and neighbors, and he is also now one of United Way’s most fervent evangelists.

“It’s a privilege,” Mongin says of his time as a United Way loaned associate; Mongin and Wiser were allowed to leave their regular jobs with Georgia Pacific to work full-time for United Way during the three-month campaign.  “I’ve had people pull me off to the side and ask me if this was for real.”  Based on the help he got from United Way member agencies for his son, who has autism and will graduate from high school next year, that was an easy question for Mongin to answer.  “From being here and being able to see the work of some of the agencies up close and person, and especially seeing when people come here with needs - you see their vulnerability laid aside when they say ‘I have a need,’ it just reinforces my conviction that yes, this is for real.”

Despite the success stories of those, like Mongin, who have been helped by an agency that receives United Way funding, the question still lingers – how did they raise so much money this year?  People aren’t supposed to be frugal as the economy emerges from recession.  The money they do have is supposed to be saved for the Holidays.   It also isn’t the easiest thing in the world to sell people on giving to United Way.  “We’ve heard lots of excuses over the years,” Dixon says, as business owners, members of the clergy, and others sometimes refuse to allow her or others a chance to solicit donations.  “They’ll say they heard we refuse to give to the Boy Scouts or that we’ve funded this or that controversial program and it’s just not true.”  In fact, each United Way is autonomous, free to give money however its board sees fit, and both the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in Effingham County receive United Way of Coastal Empire funds.

Unlike many charities, all donations made to the U.W.C.E. go directly to member agencies thanks to the generosity 50 years ago of Herschel V. Jenkins.  The native of Guyton, former United Way board chairman and longtime Savannah Morning News publisher left an endowment when he died in 1960.  After Jenkins’s last surviving daughter died in 1997, the endowment was donated to United Way to help cover its overhead.  “How many charities do you know that have zero administrative costs,” asks Dixon, rhetorically.  The Jenkins endowment is among the reasons the U.W. C.E. has earned two consecutive four-star ratings for sound fiscal management from Charity Navigator, the highest rating available from the company that tracks the work of more than 5,500 charities across the country.

Wiser says it’s more about relationships than numbers, specifically relationships with the “gate-keepers” - those who must sign off on allowing United Way to give presentations to employees of businesses, members of churches, and others.   “If we can get our foot in the door,” Wiser says, “if we can get just ten minutes to let me talk or let Paul talk, that’s all we need.  I’m not going to just tell you about United Way.  I will spend maybe three or four sentences talking about United Way, and then I will tell stories.  I will tell you a heartbreak story that has a happy ending.  I will tell you something that happened to me while out on the campaign trail where someone got help because of United Way.”  That, Wiser says, is when people start giving.  “I’d say 70- to 75-percent of people who wouldn’t have looked twice at the United Way form, they might have just thrown it in the trash, end up giving after they hear those stories.”

The campaign chair says the messengers were as important as the stories they told.  “(Wiser and Mongin) are two incredibly giving and wonderful people,” said Hales. “Their hard work and determination is a huge reason for our success."   Loaned associates work for United Way for two campaigns with one of them rotating out each year.  Wiser will be back for next year’s campaign while Mongin will be replaced with another G.P. employee.

“It says a lot about Georgia Pacific’s commitment to United Way that they will let us use two of their employees,” Dixon says of one of United Way’s largest contributors in Effingham County.  “In fact,” Wiser adds, “two of the ten winners (for individual fund-raising) in the four-county area were from Georgia Pacific, and two others were from the (Effingham County) school system.  That means four of the ten individual winners were from Effingham County, which is unbelievable.”    The school system joined Georgia Power’s Plant McIntosh in leading off the fund-raising with the Pacesetter campaign.  Together, they raised almost one-third of Effingham’s final campaign total.

All of that money goes to the U.W. C.E. office in Savannah.  Next spring, a volunteer board will determine where the donations will be distributed based on applications filed by member agencies.     “There are four areas of need which United Way concentrates on,” says Dixon, “health and wellness, education and youth, basic needs, and economic independence.  If it doesn’t fall within one of those categories, we don’t fund it.”  Member agencies must file quarterly reports with United Way to ensure donations are spent as the agencies promised.

Effingham County will also get back much more than it gives.  “People might ask ‘well, you raised $39,000 over your goal, where is that extra money going’,” Dixon says.  “In truth, it takes a lot more than $309,000 to run all of the agencies in Effingham who benefit from United Way, so after the application process is done, those agencies will likely get much more than $309,000.” In addition to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, dozens of agencies receive funding, among them the Food OutReach Co-op of Effingham (F.O.R.C.E.), the Rape Crisis Center, the Alzheimer’s Association, and the Treutlen House at New Ebenezer, which helps abused and neglected children.  “We worked hard for that money,” Dixon adds, “but we get more than our fair share back.”

Hales says Dixon and her administrative coordinator, Lorraine Harris, deserve a great deal of credit along with everyone who gave.  "I can't thank the community enough for all the support shown in this year's campaign.  Bonnie runs a smooth ship at our service center. She is truly a remarkable individual and her staff is unbelievable."  The loaned associates feel blessed to have played a part.  “No matter what happens, no matter where I live,” Wiser says, “I will forever be bound to the Effingham United Way because I know that it works and that it helps people.”   

You may not always hear them, but rest assured that the people helped by a United Way agency also say thank you to everyone who gave for helping to give them a hand up.

(Note: If you or someone you know is in need, dial 2-1-1 from any phone, and a United Way operator will be available to assist you.  Operators are available 24 hours a day, even on holidays, and all calls are confidential.)

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