United Way enlists help from execs: Program provides extra muscle for annual fund-raising campaign

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So UWCI will pitch the program with renewed fervor as agency leaders make the rounds of local businesses this year.

They’ll point to networking opportunities and leadership skills, community awareness and self-confidence. And they’ll sing the praises of a revamped training program intended to be a big part of the answer.

New this year are sessions on effective selling methods, project management and leadership development, intended to strengthen the appeal to employers and employees alike.

“We really want to make sure businesses know there is a payback,” UWCI President Ellen Annala said. “The training and experience [workers] get is really a very good benefit.”

She shared a favorite anecdote to illustrate that point: One loaned exec had been slated to lose his job in a future round of cutbacks, but he returned to the office with such a renewed sense of energy that his employer reconsidered.

“This program gives people an opportunity to show what they can do in a different setting,” she said. “That can make a difference.”

Even so, the current corporate climate complicates matters.

“Everyone is leaner,” Annala said. “Think about all the downsizing, all the mergers. More than once I’ve heard, ‘If I had an extra person to loan you, that person’s job would be on the line.'”

Those economic realities are one reason the program has evolved over time. Now, even the leanest companies can lend a hand by “sponsoring” a temporary position with a $7,700 donation.

Last year, seven of UWCI’s 19 “loaned” employees were paid for by businesses that couldn’t spare one of their own.

“[The program] keeps our costs low,” Annala explained. “The resources we need to campaign [at] better than 1,200 companies far exceed what we have on a year-round basis.”

And the alternative isn’t appealing.

“The only other choice is to create paid positions, which would increase the costs of operation,” said the state association’s Frick. “That’s a real concern for everybody.”

Indeed, businesses that participate say they’re driven by a desire to contribute to society at large. The fact that the workers-and the company-also benefit is just a bonus.

“It is a core strategy of our company to give back to the community,” said Robert Palmer, a vice president at FedEx Express in Indianapolis. “It is a great opportunity.”

“These people have a passion to go forward and help the community,” concurred Steve Corwell, a UWCI board member and senior vice president of corporate affairs at longtime supporter Indianapolis Power & Light Co. “Having that individual participation is really important, I think. It elevates the program.”

Annala and others agree the peer-to-peer approach can be effective.

“It helps that they’re in the workplace, that they can help us understand the dynamics,” she said. “It’s a different perspective.”

And that is valuable in itself.

“That outside perspective gave us credibility,” said Carolyn Anker, an Eli Lilly and Co. employee who participated in the late 1990s. “To have someone from the business community go out and speak to other businesses-it adds something.”

The experience can change minds, said Mary Jane Sorbera, a one-time sponsored executive who now is director of development and marketing at Coburn Place Safe Haven, an Indianapolis not-for-profit.

Sorbera was new to town when she took the seasonal job at UWCI in 1998. She learned a lot as she worked on the campaign.

“United Way had always left a bad taste in my mouth,” she said, citing the contributions she had been required to make while working at an out-of-state telephone company. “When I got into it and saw everything it does … it was eye-opening, a great experience.”

In its heyday in the 1990s, central Indiana’s loaned executive program attracted more than 30 participants each year. Organizers want to return it to its former glory this year, setting a goal of 30 loaned or sponsored workers.

This year, about half of the seasonal employees will help companies with existing campaigns. The other half will work to drum up new business.

Training begins in mid-August, and the program runs through mid-November.

UWCI’s board hasn’t established a fundraising goal for 2005, but if recent experience holds true, it will need all the help it can get.

“It’s a simple matter,” asserted Potter, the program chairman. “The more foot soldiers we have out there in the community, the more effective we are.”

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