Sept. 28, 2017, Topeka, KAN–United Way of Topeka marked a transition of leadership today at its annual meeting. CEO Jessica Lehnherr spoke to more than 250 community leaders, volunteers and nonprofit partners at the noon gathering in the Maner Conference Center. Topeka Capital-Journal Publisher and United Way board member Zach Ahrens served as emcee for the event.
The meeting also included a ceremonial transfer of the gavel from outgoing United Way Board Chair Larry Robbins to incoming chair Becky Holmquist. Both chairs spoke about the successes and lessons of United Way as it has evolved, and continues to evolve, on the path to community and collective impact.
Robbins took the opportunity to thank those who make the work of United Way possible.
As outgoing board chair, I want to say thank you to the CEOs who invite United Way into their buildings year after year and who amplify the support of their employees by matching those donations or giving a corporate gift.
Thank you to all the employees and individual donors who understand that no gift is too small and that the stable stream of funding provided by their payroll deduction or other sustaining pledges gives our Impact Partners more reliable funds and allows them to focus on what they do so well – help our neighbors live better lives.
Thank you to the volunteers, who, even when times are tight, find ways to build brighter futures.
Thank you to everyone who shares their United Way story with others and encourages them to become involved in the community.
Robbins also recognized longtime Topeka philanthropists Maynard and Sarah Oliverius for allowing United Way to name a new legacy giving society in their honor.
We are grateful that they have named United Way of Greater Topeka as a beneficiary of their estate and have set an example for others to follow. Membership in the Oliverius Society demonstrates that you value United Way’s work today and want to ensure its continued success in the future. So thank you, Maynard and Sarah, for your commitment to our community’s education, financial stability and health.
Robbins performed his final official duties as Board Chair, presenting an approved slate of new board members to the body for approval. Joining the board are:
- Shelli Crow-Johnson, Coffman, DeFries, & Nothern, P.A.
- Danielle Dempsey-Swopes, Washburn University
- Luke Domme, Frito-Lay/Local 218
- Marc Fried, Washburn University
- Will Lawrence, Fagen Emert & Davis
- Claire Leffingwell, Washburn Leadership Student (1-year term)
- Hayli Morrison, Bartlett & West
- Jared Rudy, Norsemen Brewing Company/Westar Energy
In her first remarks as Board President, Becky Holmquist reflected on the progress of United Way of Greater Topeka’s journey toward community impact .
The first preschoolers that you helped in 2012 are now in 4th grade. Those children were given opportunities their neighbors and older siblings were not, the opportunity to learn in a nurturing classroom the skills and habits needed to start kindergarten and be successful.
The first HOPE participants in 2012 were paired with mentors and many of them, for the first time, had someone come alongside and help them develop the skills necessary to develop and maintain a household budget.
Pine Ridge Prep, a partnership undertaken with Topeka Housing Authority, Topeka Public Schools, and United Way, began with 33 students whose families were reluctant to send their kids to preschool. Having grown from one classroom meeting half –day to three classrooms of full-day preschool and a summer program, these children continue to achieve some of the greatest gains in the state of Kansas. To date, more than 200 children have graduated from this program, a program that has received national recognition, causing national organizations like Campaign for Grade Level Reading to encourage communities across the nation to begin thinking about partnerships with housing authorities and school districts in order to improve the lives of children and families they serve.
Holmquist also acknowledged that the evolving nature of the community and of the work itself required some reflection and course correction.
And while we know a lot of things about impact work today, it becomes apparent that we had no idea what we didn’t know when we started this journey. We set out with the best intentions, but without a full understanding of the conditions around us that would refuse to stay static.
We knew data was important, and we found what we thought would be stable, reliable metrics. Until they weren’t. We set goals that seemed logical, ambitious, and measurable. Until they weren’t. We haven’t really called it that, but what United Way of Greater Topeka has been doing over the past decade is evolving into a new breed of nonprofit leader. A leader that strives to add value to the nonprofit community by facilitating and encouraging collaboration, by sharing resources and capacity, by focusing many partners on problems that would overwhelm any single agency. We have taken on the hard work of measuring impact and then using that information to move the community forward.
Holmquist thanked the many nonprofits who have become not just impact partners, but collaborative allies in education, financial stability and health.
Lehnherr followed Holmquist at the podium, touching on her transition to United Way over the past two months and highlighting one critical element in the organization’s ongoing evolution: data collection and analysis.
When you serve someone a meal, or give them a coat, you know right away that your contribution made a difference. But when you send a four-year-old to preschool, it’s much harder to know just how that experience will shape that small soul, or all the others around her, next year, two years, or even a decade later. So, at United Way we work hard to choose strategies and interventions that have proven successful, and we measure our own impact so that we might help the next child or neighborhood or community find a better path. We no longer take it on faith that what we do will work. We have to prove it—to our donors, our partners and our community.
Data collection and analysis is necessary, but it is also expensive. Funding data analysis probably doesn’t give you that warm and fuzzy “giving” feeling. But without it, nonprofits are flying blind and the impact is, at best, uncertain. Data analysis might sound like a luxury for nonprofits, but it is, in fact, a necessity. Working together to collect, analyze, and use good data is a value-added benefit of being a United Way Impact Partner.
Lehnherr also reinforced United Way’s role in the growing movement toward community collaboration through efforts like the Topeka Chamber’s Momentum 2022.
Collaboration with clear goals in mind is the new norm, and United Way is right there in the middle of it. We understand the hard work needed to achieve collaboration, not just working alongside one another and making referrals, but true collaboration based on a common agenda, mutually reinforcing work, shared measurement systems, and continuous communication.
At the end of her remarks, Lehnherr announced the current workplace campaign goal of $2.75 million. That level of commitment, she said, would support current levels of impact, making sure low-income children have a chance to start school ready to succeed, supporting them as they travel through grade school and build the reading and math foundation for high school and beyond. Meeting that goal would mean that teens and adults would continue to benefit from financial literacy education and coaching, allowing them to become financially stable and contributing members of society. And it would fuel continued collaboration toward healthier neighborhoods across Greater Topeka.
United Way also returned to a tradition of honoring volunteers with the announcement of a new annual award. The first recipient of the Marge Heeney Volunteer of Excellence Award was fittingly presented to Heeney’s family. Heeney, known for her hats and community activism, was a longtime advocate for United Way’s education impact goals.
ABOUT UNITED WAY
Connected individuals and families maximizing their full potential.
To achieve positive sustainable change through education, financial stability and health for everyone in our community.
United Way of Greater Topeka brings together donors, volunteers, companies and nonprofits in Shawnee, Jackson and Jefferson counties to create positive sustainable change in our community. Working with impact partners, United Way increases school readiness, supports on-grade achievement, promotes financial literacy and job readiness, and collaborates and advocates for a healthier community. United Way of Greater Topeka also invests in Basic Needs, the foundation that helps us reach our impact goals in education, financial stability and health.