Live United: Validation of the movement in the right direction in the community – Albert Lea Tribune

Live United by Erin Haag

Recently, I spent a few days in Madison, Wisconsin for a four-day United Way regional conference. This conference has been on my radar since I started, and it has a very good reputation. It’s hard for me, definitely out of my comfort zone. I’m not particularly introverted, but this huge conference with over 300 United Way professionals from 12 states — I admit to having a few tears about it.

Erin Haag

Don’t get me wrong, there was excitement about it too. Over the past three years, I have connected with United Way professionals across the country, but rarely have I had the opportunity to meet them in person. The opportunity to network on a different level and really engage and hear about strategies to bring about real and lasting change? It was exciting for me too.

As difficult as it was, I knew that once there I would be fine, and I was. I was fine too. I didn’t sign up for all the fun sessions. I made sure to balance them with some of the financial sessions, the latest tax laws, and best practices in presenting budgets. But did I learn something shocking? Did I learn some really cool innovative ideas that will save the world? Or at least our little part of the world in the county of Freeborn? Not really.

Wow, wait. Not really? You left and spent four days and didn’t come back with a major idea? It sounds bad, but I promise you it wasn’t. Because a major idea would be to start from scratch, and that’s a long process. Slow. As. Molasses. My most important lesson from the conference was validation. Our team has been developing strategies in several areas over the past year — and I’ve found other United Ways developing these same strategies. How awesome is it to realize that the work your team worked on was a successful idea elsewhere? So instead of earth-shattering ideas, I was able to tweak the work we’re already doing and have the opportunity to tweak the approaches. One session I attended, I had research data and information spinning in my brain, I just wasn’t able to pull it all together to make a solid presentation to my target audience. Cue in a presentation with a former city manager turned United Way manager and it was like he took it all from my brain, sorted it and gave it back to me in a nice package.

I can almost hear my readers thinking, “What strategies are you talking about? Well, one of them is the Seniors United in Service Club development at the Senior Center. Since last November, each month, Nikolle, our Community Impact and Resource Coordinator, has offered a volunteer project that seniors can participate in. They are “kits” in a way. We bring the supplies, and the seniors work to put them together, and then we take them and distribute them. So far, we’ve created hygiene kits that have been shared with different schools, literacy kits for Read Across America that have been distributed to Head Start classrooms, homemade dog treats for the Freeborn County Humane Society and Children’s Library Seed Kits to Celebrate the Earth. Day.

It was so well received that we wanted to expand on that and take our show on the road. Does your company want to get involved in volunteering? We hope so, because studies show that companies with a strong culture of giving back are able to attract and retain employees. Nikolle has developed a list of kits for your service club, your team building event, your efforts to give back to the whole employee. Want to create mental health kits? Let us know your budget, we can come and settle in your rest room. Education, engagement and giving back all rolled into one. We take care of the supply list, ordering and distribution, ensuring that the necessary items are really needed in our community.

After all, this is where we hear people who want to give back in this way struggle the most. Lots of ideas, but they don’t know exactly what they really need. It’s a job of calling different places and figuring out what a listing would be, the specific brands, then arranging to drop them off, etc.

Here is an example. Many people dearly want to donate gloves to our Winter Gear Drive. So they buy gloves by the dozen, making their money grow by choosing the one-size-fits-all “magic glove.” What we’ve discovered though is that we really can’t use them. The social workers at the school begged us not to give them to the children. What we need for our cold Minnesota winter are waterproof gloves and mittens, designed for playing in the snow. (By the way, we still give out the gloves, we just make sure to give them waterproof gloves with them). Hygiene kits are another popular product, but I recently heard of a nonprofit that received so many hygiene kits that they no longer wanted them. Seems like several bands had the same idea at once. Nobody wants to say “no, we don’t need it”, because then they might seem ungrateful. Many nonprofits are terrified of alienating potential donors, volunteers they are afraid to say no to.

I was thrilled to learn that a United Way was working with American Family Insurance to create mental health kits. I attended a “wrapping event”, so I could view the items, see the event unfold, and replicate it. Nikolle was glad I brought her home a sanity kit, minus the smiley face stress ball my son absolutely had to have.

Would you like to be one of the first to sign up for this? Call me at 507-373-8670, and we’d love to go through the process. Until then, stay tuned for more ways to live together. There are many more events that we need to share!

Erin Haag is the Executive Director of United Way of Freeborn County.

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