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In response to COVID-19, these two United Way leaders in Chester County are doing things differently

November 19, 2020 Category: ColumnFeaturedLongPeopleQ&A
Traditionally, the role of the United Way has been to connect donors to nonprofit organizations in their local communities — especially nonprofits which might be too small to effectively fundraise on their own.

Local United Way organizations raise money primarily through workplace campaigns, but that has been challenging in a year when many people are working from home, and numerous companies are having to lay off employees. At the same time, smaller nonprofits are in real trouble, especially those whose missions might not directly provide COVID-19 relief to the communities they serve.

United Way organizations in the Greater Philadelphia area have taken on expanded leadership roles in order to try and alleviate some of the challenges of the pandemic.

I recently spoke to Carrie Freeman, CEO of the United Way of Southern Chester County, and Christopher Saello, CEO of the United Way of Chester County, about how their organizations are responding to the COVID-19 health crisis — for both the nonprofits they fund and the communities those nonprofits serve.

Chris Saello (left), Timmy Nelson (right) board member at the West Chester Food Cupboard, and Matt Gorham (center, on ground) from the Matt Gorham Keller Williams Group collecting toilet paper to deliver throughout Chester County. (Courtesy photo)

Carrie Freeman: “When the pandemic hit, we were very lucky in Southern Chester County because we already had an established social sector network. Our United Way is a major partner in the Southern Chester County Opportunity Network (SCCON), a collective impact initiative made up of partners from across the region working to address poverty in a comprehensive way.

Back in March, we started weekly ZOOM meetings with all the SCCON partners so we could check in with each other and see how we could better collaborate to meet the growing needs of the community.”

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Christopher Saello: “I think early on Carrie and I both realized that the United Way was uniquely positioned to quickly mobilize the public and private sectors to meet the challenges of this crisis.

The United Way of Chester County launched the Chester County COVID-19 Response Fund early in the Spring, allowing us to deploy resources to community-based organizations offering crucial support to families and individuals in need immediately during the global pandemic. Carrie and I were on the leadership team for that effort, and we raised over $1 million in just 88 days.”

Krystine Sipple: “We are nearly nine months into the pandemic at this point. Are you seeing any lasting positive impacts on the community as a result of your initial efforts to help?”

Freeman: “Within two weeks of missing paychecks, people quickly went into crisis mode, especially from the standpoint of food insecurity. In order to get food to those in need, the UWSCC was able to facilitate some unique partnerships between nonprofits who didn’t usually interact – with either the United Way or with each other.

"In order to get food to those in need, the UWSCC was able to facilitate some unique partnerships between nonprofits who didn’t usually interact."
Carrie Freeman

Because of that, and because of the weekly SCCON meetings, I’m seeing a strengthening of the social network in our area. More nonprofit leaders are willing to reach out to each other for ideas and collaborations.”

Saello: “I absolutely echo that. So many nonprofits have learned that they can collaborate, even if they have very different missions. I have also seen a strengthening of the philanthropic network in Chester County. The Chester County Community Foundation really took the lead on that, but I’ve also seen it happen in the corporate community.”

Sipple: “Since the United Way raises so much money from both corporate giving and workplace campaigns, has that funding taken a hit because of the pandemic?”

Freeman: “It really hasn’t. Companies who have worked with us for years trusted us and asked how they could help. One major change for our individual donors is that we’ve always done face-to-face workplace campaigns, and that has gone virtual this year. So far we’ve seen a great response from employees.”

Saello: “When local companies heard about our COVID-19 Response Fund so many reached out to offer financial support. They have great trust in the United Way to effectively place funds where they are needed the most, and I think they knew we were the only ones who could coordinate a quick county-wide response. We also received some unsolicited corporate gifts because the companies were impressed with how the COVID Fund was handled.”

Sipple: “Looking to the future, do you think this experience will change the way your United Way organizations operate?”

Freeman: “I don’t think so. The United Way of Southern Chester County already has a unique way of doing things. We gather 60-70 people each year to participate on our allocation committees, and I think that model helped us when we needed to facilitate new community partnerships this year. We had already made so many community connections that it was easy to reach out and get the right people in the same room.”

Saello: “I do think our organization will change how it operates, in several ways. We plan to do a lot more trust-based philanthropy, and a lot more listening to our grantees. That will likely look like making more general operating funds available so that nonprofits can stabilize.

"We plan to do a lot more trust-based philanthropy, and a lot more listening to our grantees."
Christopher Saello

We will be making several smaller strategic investments in organizations throughout the year, rather than one big grant allocation. I think we can be more responsive to current needs if we look at shorter granting periods.”

Sipple: “What advice would you give to nonprofit leaders as they continue to weather this storm?”

Freeman: “I would tell nonprofit CEOs to take care of themselves. They have been going all out since March with not a break in sight. They need to figure out ways to take time off to recharge.”

Saello: “I have a message for nonprofit board members — take care of your CEOs. Those people chose to commit their lives to nonprofit careers. They often don’t know how to how to take a break and they are fried right now. And for the CEOs — don’t wait until your nonprofit is in a financial crisis to communicate with us. Even if we are not be able to help financially, we have networks that might be able to, and Carrie and I can make those connections for you.”


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