Lunch with Mimi: Under Wendy Vinhage, Centre County United Way Works on New Ways to Engage Donors and Volunteers
At 3 p.m. on Monday, Centre County United Way will launch its annual campaign with an event streamed on Facebook Live. The annual campaign — which last year raised $1.7 million to support 28 partner agencies — is Centre County United Way's largest fundraising initiative and this year is more important than ever. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, 27 percent of Centre County households had challenges affording housing, health care, and other essentials. Today, more are closer to a financial crisis and partner agencies are working hard to alleviate the crisis.
On Oct. 1, the annual Day of Caring will be held online because of the pandemic. Instead of volunteer service projects at sites, the event will encourage donations and support agencies that are helping community members in need.
Wendy Vinhage was a familiar face among local nonprofit organizations even before becoming the executive director of the Centre County United Way in July 2019. She succeeded Tammy Gentzel, who stepped down after nine years of leading the organization. Vinhage had previously worked for Skills of Central PA, Boy Scouts of America Juniata Valley Council, and Interfaith Human Services, a United Way partner agency.
As executive director of the Centre County United Way, she is responsible for the leadership, strategic development, and management of the organization, including fundraising, donor relations, leading the annual campaign, and volunteer management. Her role is to make a greater impact on the health, education, and financial stability in the community by supporting local nonprofit organizations and providing grant opportunities.
Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Vinhage via Zoom to discuss how she became involved in nonprofits, how the United Way has continued to support families in need through the pandemic, and what the organization’s future fundraising strategies are to provide these services to the community.
Mimi: Welcome. In these troubled times, the necessity of giving becomes even much more poignant. Lots of people in this community are in the business of philanthropy and caring. I’d like to spend some time talking about the broad picture of selective and collective giving for Centre Foundation and the Centre County United Way, and the possible conundrum that it creates for the people who are raising the money and the people who are giving them money.
On the premise that most people prefer giving to organizations that are most significant to them, how do you believe the current setup will continue to work? Tell me a little bit about where United Way's going.
Wendy: The Centre County United Way has a model where we raise money year-round to benefit particular areas in need. We identify important areas, and then we support programs that meet those needs and those areas. We've been talking back and forth a little bit about some next steps. We've done some things to branch out a little bit. For example, we have our women's leadership giving group. That is separate from the campaign in that we have women leaders who can choose where we want to make an impact in the lives of women and children.
We've also talked about the idea of, what if we had extra granting available that could meet a particular need in the community. Maybe there's a specific health issue or educational issue that we're seeing; we come up with a grant or some way to benefit a program or get partners working together to support that need.
Mimi: It's my understanding there is a grant that you have from the Hamer Foundation.
Wendy: We do have some, we're very blessed. A few years ago, Mr. Don Hamer's gift was given to support the community during a disaster. When Mr. Hamer set this up, I think he was thinking more of a natural disaster. We're facing something very different. I doubt he imagined a pandemic. But fortunately, we have the funding available to fulfill certain needs. As many people are being laid off, many may not be able to go back to work. We heard stories about people who were getting cancer treatments, and they weren't sure if they can continue that because they can't pay their other bills.
It is also wonderful because, with many programs out there, there's a maximum amount of money you can make for income [to receive federal assistance]. As we say, some people fall between the cracks; they make a little bit too much money, but they're really struggling. We hope that with this fund, we can help people who are struggling financially and get them over the hurdle so that we can have financial stability in the community.
Mimi: Do you have a plan where people can pay a certain amount each month to the United Way?
Wendy: Absolutely. People can choose if they want to do that; they can give as much or as little as they want. They can certainly provide a monthly gift. If they prefer that their donations go to a certain area of need, we can do that. Whether that's financial stability, making sure that people have enough food to eat, they can even donate it to a particular organization.
Mimi: Do you have many people doing that?
Wendy: We do have quite a few people who do make a monthly gift. We would certainly like to increase that number.
Mimi: It appears that some of the larger fundraisers in the country are going that route. Most notably, St. Jude Children’s Hospital.
Wendy: We're finding that younger donors find it easier. “Oh, just take $5 out of my credit card every month, and I don't have to think about it,” and that’s still making a difference.
Mimi: It would be my recommendation that you try to popularize that as part of a new way to build your growth. In the last three years, I'm guessing there has really been very little growth in the United Way results. Is that true?
Wendy: We certainly have things we need to work on. We realize that some of the things that we did were outdated, as some United Ways have also found out. We're working on innovative ways to engage donors. Monthly giving is one of the things that we are looking at. That is our focus, especially this year, this campaign year, and what better time to make a change when everything is changing? Right now, if we're going to do it, let's do it now.
Mimi: Well, there are all kinds of signals that we all have to do better. And it's up to all of us to help figure out how you can grow rather than go. The same old in this instance, in my humble opinion, isn't going to work. We have seen with the emergence of Centre Foundation, a new way to have incredible philanthropic performance in 36 hours. How can you jump on to that format at another time, at the same time? Is there a way that collaboration will make this community even more remarkable than it already is?
If you don't grow every year, you're falling back. And the United Way is an amazing organization. In the past, in the present, it's raised tons of money. Through this interview, I hope that you and the community will become engaged in the solution to your lack of growth because growth is important for all those groups you represent.
Wendy: That's absolutely important because what we find is that one in four Centre County residents in need uses a program or service that is financially supported by the United Way. And we have a lot of strong partnerships in the community that we want to continue to strengthen. We have Penn State, who considers us their charity of choice. We have a lot of businesses. We recently hired an individual to focus on those businesses. We’re planning on doing more of that relationship-building with our supporters. That's businesses, individuals, and we’re also looking at what innovative online activities we can do.
For instance, we had a Live United Facebook Live concert where we had 25 bands performing. We had volunteers from the Bellisario College of Communications who worked on this, and we raised $18,000 on our first try. We're very pleased. We thought maybe if we got a couple thousand out of this and raised some awareness because it was something that was kind of put together at the last minute, but when we raised over $18,000 in one night, that gave us hope that we can do more things like this. We got quite a few new donors that night.
By doing different things like this, we are getting younger and newer people interested in supporting the United Way. We also have to be shooting to make sure that we are always messaging or letting people know what we do. We don't always tell people about the good work that we're doing in the community, and I think we need to make sure that we are doing that.
Mimi: Well, I hope this column contributes to that. How did the idea evolve?
Wendy: The idea came from a group of volunteers on our communications committee. And they thought, what if we just put a concert together on a Friday night? And it kind of went from there. The idea was also that it's during the pandemic, people are home, what better way to put on an online event?
This also goes to getting volunteers who are passionate about the United Way and have the skills and capability to do something like that. We thought this is a great example of volunteers who came together and were able to put on this incredible event.
Mimi: I want this community to be an example for the world of how wonderful people make so many things possible. And you're the head of one of the most important pieces of that game that we're playing. And I would urge you to bring together all the benefiting organizations and get their ideas of how we could be better. You have three parts of the major philanthropic picture: the Centre Foundation, the United Way, and the individual groups doing their own fundraising. There has got to be some kind of a wrap-around collaboration, so we maximize the outcome.
Wendy: Going back a little bit to the discussion of grants available, that may be a really good opportunity to have more collaboration. Because you're right, and especially in today's society, collaboration is more important than ever. That's one of the ways to get funded; people are more likely to give a lot of backing, a lot of partnership and support behind an idea.
Mimi: Now, I'm going to shift to you. Were you born on a military base?
Wendy: Hill Air Force Base. Yep, I was an Air Force brat.
Mimi: What was that like?
Wendy: We mostly moved around the panhandle. I did get to spend a couple of years in Guam when I was in high school. That was kind of the highlight of my youth. But I did move around a lot. I probably went to nine or 10 different schools.
Mimi: And you moved here eight years ago?
Wendy: Oh, gosh, it’s going to be 10 years.
Mimi: How was the transition?
Wendy: I really liked moving here. I know everybody loves Florida, but I don't miss it that much. I don't miss the heat. So, I liked coming here. And I was really excited that this was a very welcoming community. There's a lot of things to do here.
Mimi: And you've had all of your jobs mostly in the nonprofit world.
Mimi: What drove you in that direction?
Wendy: I didn't really plan on going to nonprofit until I moved here. I had a desire to do something to help people. I have a brother with autism and an intellectual disability. So, that kind of moved me in that direction.
Mimi: I think it's interesting that both of your degrees are in the area of journalism and marketing, which should be a big help in your jobs.
Wendy: Yes, it turns out that it is. It helps when you're able to write and communicate with people and get your message out there.
Mimi: What do you see as your ultimate goal for the United Way?
Wendy: My goal is really that we can have enough collaboration and community to make sure that every Centre County resident has a good quality of life. Whether that's access to education, good health, they're able to be financially stable. That's the goal: that we're able to collaborate and get enough resources so that every person has a good quality of life.
Mimi: Well, that's what we all strive for really, isn't it? There are too many people who are hungry, including in Centre County.
Wendy: Yeah, I think it surprises some people the hunger that we have. The YMCA's anti-hunger program has been working very hard since the pandemic started, putting thousands of meals together weekly for struggling families. There are other issues in the community. I think people are sometimes surprised that we have an 11-percent illiteracy rate.
Mimi: What makes United Way relevant in your mind?
Wendy: Some of it is our name recognition. For years, we've been able to collaborate and identify the greatest needs in the community. So, while we do need to make some changes in how we market ourselves, the fact is that we've identified the important needs in education, financial stability, and health. We want people to know that when they give to the United Way, it is going to a program that is not being duplicated within our reach. More than 90 percent of every gift is going directly to these programs. And that we are being a leader in the community in making sure that we are providing that good quality of health for our neighbors.
Mimi: What is your vision in the next several years for the future of the Centre County United Way?
Wendy: Over the next few years, I'd like to appeal to a wider audience. I want to make sure that we are appealing to not just donors who have been with us for years and decades, but to new, younger, up-and-coming donors. My vision is really that we’re able to be successful in our collaboration so that we can make sure that every Centre County resident has access to every resource they need to have a great quality of life.
Mimi: Is there anything I didn’t ask that I should?
Wendy: I'll just close by saying that our mission stays the same. Even through difficult times, we are financially committed to supporting our partner agency programs and helping the community. We raised our money in our last campaign, and we are committed to supporting those programs for this fiscal year, even though we're facing a pandemic.
Mimi: Well, you're on your way. You have the get-up-and-go, I know that. We wish you the best.
Wendy: Thank you for the opportunity, Mimi.
To donate to the Centre County United Way, visit CCUnitedWay.org and click “Donate.”