United Way extends pandemic-constricted workplace campaign

Liebert and Saunders at the 2019 United Way workplace campaign kickoff . Because of COVID, this year’s campaign looks much diff erent--only 60 percent of businesses are participating and revenue is down approximately $6 million compared to a year ago (Photo provided).
Liebert and Saunders at the 2019 United Way workplace campaign kickoff . Because of
COVID, this year’s campaign looks much diff erent–only 60 percent of businesses are
participating and revenue is down approximately $6 million compared to a year ago (Photo provided).

Now is the time of year when United Way of Greater Rochester Inc. typically would celebrate with the community the results of its annual workplace campaign that helps fund some 75 local nonprofits.

But this year is a little different, for obvious reasons.

“We’re 102 years old; this isn’t our first pandemic, but there really hasn’t been anything to this scale that we’ve ever experienced,” said United Way President and CEO Jaime Saunders. “The way United Way works is to inspire collective giving through companies, through workplaces. And we have more than 1,400 companies that host campaigns.”

The workplace campaign was launched at the beginning of the year, but within two months the entire community came to a standstill. Businesses shut down either temporarily or more permanently, nonprofits found themselves in the middle of a major crisis, people weren’t in the same financial position they had been in just weeks earlier.

And all of that played a major role in United Way’s campaign.


“By June we hope to have a close (to the campaign) and then we have a celebration because we fund the agencies as of Aug. 1,” Saunders said. “With COVID, many understandably went virtual, went remote. Sixty percent said we’re going to move forward or give us a minute and we’ll continue in June or we’ll just push it a little bit. Others pushed to the fall or said we can’t do it this year; we just had furloughs or layoffs and/or we don’t know what our future looks like.”

With just 60 percent of businesses participating in the workplace campaign this year, United Way’s campaign is down roughly $6 million from a year ago.

“We are down and we now are looking at a longer campaign, through the end of the year,” Saunders said. “We’re hoping that small businesses — those under 100 people who are two-thirds of our workplace partners — that there are more that are in a position who want to provide this channel for their employees to help and to give.

“We are very focused on fulfilling our commitments to our critical not-for-profit network,” she added. “Last year that was nearly $11.5 million in direct grants, but collectively we raised $22.6 million for the workplace campaign through the year. We’re at $16.5 million right now and still putting our shoulder behind it.”

Despite the decrease in both funds and funders, many area businesses have stepped up in huge ways, Saunders said. With 18 offices, Clark Patterson Lee allows each branch annually to choose its own charitable initiative, many of which include United Way. United Way also was the choice at CPL’s Rochester office, said CEO Todd Liebert.

“Our local team stepped up and CPL did a one-for-one match,” Liebert said. “We held our regular work campaign despite COVID; most of it was done virtually. The teams raised about $17,000 and CPL matched that amount.”

Courtney Ter-Velde, an interior designer at CPL, led the organization’s campaign this year and the team increased its overall donations by 20 percent, Liebert noted.

Although the agency had a slight downturn as a result of the pandemic, CPL also was able to save money in other areas such as travel and conferences.


“All of those expenses we have in the spring just weren’t there, so we figured we’d divert some of those savings to help our communities out,” Liebert said. “One of our key words is community, and we always look to return to our communities that we’re in. It’s part of our culture.”

The same can be said of M&T Bank, an institution that has been deeply connected to the United Way since arriving in Rochester some 30 years ago. Rochester region President Dan Burns is on the board of United Way, making the workplace campaign even more important to him.

“United Way is a big part of what we do and what we ask our employees to be involved with, whether it’s time, treasure or talent,” Burns said. “So when the pandemic hit we were already in the works of our own campaign.”

M&T uses the United Way campaign as a leadership tool, naming a campaign “CEO” that serves a two-year term. Allie Sacks was in the second year of her term as CEO and both she and Burns were eager to successfully engage staffers. As it turned out, the pandemic allowed Saunders to virtually “visit” more worksites to kick off the campaign and her visit with M&T was a big hit.

“I didn’t know who would show up,” Burns acknowledged. “Lo and behold, it was probably the most well-attended meeting we had during the pandemic. Or ever. People still care about their communities. Everybody was like, I’m employed and I’m engaged and I want to help my community.”

Last year, M&T employees donated nearly $200,000 in the United Way workplace campaign. The bank is on target to hit that amount this year, too, Burns noted.

“It says a lot about the employees of M&T, that I’m very proud of, because they recognize it’s not just about being a bank. It’s about being a good community citizen, especially in times like these, and supporting a great organization like United Way.”

This crisis is unlike any before it, including the Great Recession that began in 2008, Saunders said.

“We know the workplace is different and we know the community needs us more than ever,” she said. “We will be forever changed and there are still a lot of unknowns. But what is known is we need to be coming together in bold ways to make sure that we get to the other side of this in a way that supports the entire community and all of our neighbors.”

One of those bold initiatives came the second weekend in March, when the pandemic caused a massive shutdown in Rochester and across the state.

“That weekend we reached out to our partners at the Rochester Area Community Foundation to say we need to create this opportunity to give and we know there are going to be needs that’ll be necessary for COVID response and critical needs that will need support that we can’t even anticipate,” Saunders recalled. “Over that weekend at the United Way we not only launched the Crisis Fund with the Community Foundation, United Way launched Volunteer United, which has had 4,000 volunteers in the last three months. We launched mask makers; home sewers donate 15,000 masks to our front line nonprofit staff. And we launched a PPE community supply chain to our nonprofits.”

Right out of the gate, ESL Charitable Foundation donated $1 million as part of its crisis response, in addition to multiple other foundations who have since raised more than $4.7 million.

“It wasn’t, help ‘my’ institution. It wasn’t help ‘my’ business or ‘my’ nonprofit. It was, how do we ensure the homebound 60-year-old population and up have prescription drugs and food? How do we make sure that kids who used to get free and reduced meals at school have them now that schools are closed? How do we ensure that pediatric patients get to the hospital for their well visits or their routine medical care they can’t postpone,” Saunders said of the fund and its benefactors. “The silver lining and bright spot is how when we’re focused we can really accomplish anything.”

But she notes an 11 percent unemployment rate here right now, and a moratorium on rent and mortgage and utility bills that will come due at the end of this month.

“The bills are going to come due,” she said. “So we are bracing ourselves for what we believe will be a significant rise in evictions locally. There are various models predicting anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 in August.”

Those predictions tell the underlying story behind this year’s United Way workplace campaign and the Crisis Fund, Saunders said.

“Without additional public supports, our community is going to undergo significant challenges as we grapple with housing, continue to grapple with emergency food and childcare. We are seeing families access basic needs who have never had to before,” she explained. “Just as the demand is going to increase so significantly, our nonprofit sector is being hollowed out with a decrease in public resources, a decrease in philanthropy that is being experienced during unsettling times. So the importance of supporting the United Way campaign, the importance of supporting not-for-profits in our community I cannot emphasize enough.”

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