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Six Years of Impact: Reflections of a ‘Big Deal’

Posted on Wednesday, 10 January 2024

A little over six years ago, I faced a personal crossroads; to join United Way, an organization I long admired, or stay leading a local direct service organization where I felt my work was not done. Knowing the significance of the decision, we held a family meeting to discuss it over burgers and fries at a local restaurant. My very matter of fact 11-year-old son Ben said: “United Way? That’s a big deal. Why wouldn’t you?”  

Six years later I am overcome by the “big deal” that our team of supporters have made possible. What I have always loved about United Way is the action taken by many to create something bigger and better than before. What draws me to United Way is the core belief that it is often not just one thing that is a barrier to progress, but many factors that compound all at once.   

A family does not wake up without food on a given day without something else going wrong beforehand. A child unable to read in 3rd grade faced many obstacles before walking into the classroom. A family fleeing violence in their home needs a range of support to begin anew. A person is unable to keep a job without access to safe housing, reliable childcare, transportation, and healthcare.  

Our challenges as a community are complex and require that our solutions be multiple, holistic, and consistent over the long term. There are no quick fixes. Yet, it is the power of collective and collaborative action that unlocks our greatest possibilities. That is the United Way.  

Many things have demonstrated this collective action over the last six years. Here are just a few: 

Volunteers at Day of Caring

  1. We marked 100 years serving our local community. Our United Way was one of the first in the nation, forming in 1918. As a longtime supporter told me at the time, “Organizations do not make it to 100 without constantly evolving to meet community needs.” This incredible milestone represents a century of donors, volunteers, and nonprofits doing just that.
  2. Leading during unprecedented challenges. 2020 was a year roiled by a global pandemic, racial injustice, and political division, and United Way went into overdrive with our community partners. We launched the Community Crisis Fund and raised $7 million, secured and distributed critical supplies for our nonprofit partners, coordinated volunteers for outreach, staffed COVID testing and vaccine clinics, worked daily to support our human service agencies on the frontlines, engaged over 100,000 individuals in a 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge, and launched an Equity Fund to support smaller under-resourced Black and Brown led organizations. 
  3. 6 local United Ways become 1. After decades of collaboration, in the summer of 2020 we became United Way of Greater Rochester and the Finger Lakes serving Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Wayne, and Wyoming counties. By coming together, we can leverage the power of a region covering over 5,000 square miles and 1.2 million residents while maintaining a hyper local focus with offices in Batavia and Canandaigua.  
  4. Mobilizing over 14,000 volunteers annually with Volunteer United. Launched over the first weekend of the pandemic, Volunteer United is a platform available for individuals, families, and teams of co-workers to find meaningful ways to support our vibrant local nonprofits. Our first 6-county Day of Caring in May of 2021 had over 6,000 volunteers fanning out across our region with thousands more volunteering throughout the year.
  5. Incubating powerful strategies and community tools at our 75 College Avenue headquarters. From TogetherNow’s MyWayfinder to Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative’s Unity Agenda, to over 200+ changemakers using our meeting spaces a week, the nonprofits and groups collaborating at our nonprofit center are presenting innovative approaches and new ways to address community challenges.  
  6. In six years, over $200 Million was raised, leveraged, and invested on behalf of our region. Our community gave generously, foundations collaborated, and the public sector partnered to invest in United Way and our nonprofit partners. Our region’s nonprofits play an essential role and count on our community to step up in big ways; and you did!  

A lot has been achieved together and there is still so much to do. What is clear is your United Way is evolving once again to meet the changing needs of our community, our nonprofit partners, and our supporters.  

Here are six things that fill me with excitement about our future:   

  1. Our United Way Team. Our United Way staff, Board of Directors, and Volunteer Leadership make up the heart of our work. These professionals are driven by purpose, heart and grit and come with fresh ideas and commitment to be ever better in serving our community.
  2. New Strategic Plan. Our mission: mobilize the goodwill and resources of our community so that everyone can thrive. In 2023 we began our new strategic plan, which supports our mission in new, innovative ways, highlights the strength of our team, emphasizes our role to connect, goes deep on complex issues, and champions our nonprofit sector.  
  3. Evolved and expanded grantmaking. For decades our United Way provided multi-year funding to a network of 190+ programs. As we turn to the future, we must provide more ways and different types of support: responsive grants; innovation seed grants; multi-year programmatic support; crisis response; and, more. In the coming year, we are ‘expanding the tent’ of ways for our community’s vital nonprofits to engage and receive support from United Way.   
  4. New ways for companies to engage with purpose. We are engaging employees and connecting organizations to community in innovative, meaningful new ways—from kit building and team volunteering to Leaders United, Leadership Development Programs, and the immersive ALICE Experience. Learn more about our corporate partnership opportunities.  
  5. New approaches to cross-sector collaboration at scale. Our core belief is we can achieve so much more together than any one organization or individual can alone. We support collective impact with Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI), Roc the Future Alliance, and TogetherNow. We co-lead the Monroe County Aging Alliance with Rochester Area Community Foundation and a coalition of 40 partners to build a livable community for all. We are leading ROC Family Teleconnects with University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester Regional Health, Jordan Health and Excellus to bring access to home visitation for all moms and babies who need it.  
  6. You. Individual actions add up to collective solutions. There is power in how you choose to harness your passion for good, and we are committed to making it easy and meaningful, connecting you to the causes and organizations that you love. There are many ways to give back and make a difference: donate, volunteer, take-action. Get started 

As we launch our 106th Annual Community Campaign this month, I am filled with gratitude for how far we have come. There’s a lot of work left to do. Join us for the 2024 Campaign Kick-off on January 24 – in Rochester, Batavia or Canandaigua – or tune in on YouTube live. Sign up here.   

Thank you for joining in with United Way to shape the community we love and call home.  

That is a very “big deal” to us.  

With gratitude,  

Jaime Saunders 
President & CEO 
United Way of Greater Rochester and the Finger Lakes