Thursday, January 6, 2011

Powerful Impact People: Gary Johnson

Gary Johnson, Executive Director of the United Way in Milford, is celebrating his 33rd year with this non-profit and is a champion of the word “collaborative”.   Executive Director since January of 1986, he started with The United Way in March 1978 as the campaign director. Now his duties as administrator, fundraiser and multitasker are a full-time load. “With over 200 local volunteers throughout the year working on different projects and 36 members of the board, our volunteers carry a lot of weight”. While he started out in the field of Law, Gary gravitated to this work early on by being involved in fund raising. He also had the opportunity to see the community working together, collaboratively.  He was inspired and now he inspires others. 

Today he starts out reading the paper to see the current events happening in Milford.  Last night was the annual holiday fundraiser held at SBC restaurant for United Way, where he met up with 100 attendees and helped run the raffle and silent auction while folks brought in unwrapped toys. ”People can still bring toys to the office which is located at 20 Evergreen Ave in Milford” This year the United Way has a special holiday appeal for families that have emergency needs.  “We have just seen a dramatic increase for our services this year and we collaborate with the department of human services. They do the outreach for people in need in the community. Mainly for help with bills or rent when a parent has gotten laid off.” 

After email responses he sizes up the day, prepares for an early morning campaign cabinet meeting and gets reports from all 10 divisions that are a part of the national campaign called “Live United”

“Our heaviest fund raising is fall to December with events like the annual golf tournament but we still raise money well into the New Year.  Nationally each of the 1300  United Way offices are separately incorporated, with 16 locals here in Connecticut.  The fund raising goal this year is 1 million dollars.   The United Way in Milford plays a collaborative role with 21 other agencies in town by helping with funding and networking.  Working together to make a difference locally.

“This year we were the recipients of a $125,000 federal grant over 10 years to promote programs on substance abuse like alcohol and tobacco.  So we are working with many agencies in town on this new initiative to educate the community on substance abuse.”

A Member of Milford Rotary, Thursdays means networking opportunities and a chance to associate with fellow business people who are doing good things, like Harry Garafalo, owner of Shop Rite and also a board member of UW.   “Harry is just one of the most generous people and this is the fourth year for our July, “United Way month” at Shop Rite.  We set up a display certain times during the week at Shop Rite and we passed out literature and education on what United Way does.  Harry has his staff cooking and selling hotdogs and soda and we get all the proceeds. We raised over 10 thousand this year”.

It is always the stories of the people who benefit from each non-profit that make the biggest impressions and Gary tells me of one such family in town.  Both parents were laid off and have two teens in school.  On top of that the wife had surgery recently and  was at home recovering with no income, no heat (oil) and with the electric getting ready to be turned off. “The woman called us. We have a small emergency fund and it was apparent that this person was in desperate straights. We were able to get an oil delivery for her and also help pay toward the electric so no lights were shut off.”  This woman was so grateful that she has been speaking on behalf of the United Way.  “It’s a case where we were able to help and they were able to give back, by speaking. It just touches me.”   Not uncommon, after 32 years of working with the United Way.

We all know that the cost of living is high in Connecticut and that the recession has really affected everyone but unless you are personally affected, or know someone who is in trouble you might tend to lump United Way in with all others. “We are different.  We are local, not a national bucket that money is funneled into.  The money that is raised here stays here.” 

At the end of the day Gary goes home tired to a certain extent, but he says he is also energized by working with so many other agencies that do great work and by touching lives here in Milford.    “Most days I can go home and know that we have made a difference in someone’s life and that is very rewarding work”.

Collaborative is a good word for United Way and Gary Johnson.

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Keep it "simple":

"Well, it's complicated."
One challenge administrators face is that their answers are often a lot more complicated than the simplistic stories that are peddled by those that would mislead and deceive. This is true for many non-profits doing important work.
We're not going to have a lot of luck persuading masses of semi-interested people to seek out and embrace complicated answers, but we can take two steps to lead to better information exchange and responses.
1. Take complicated overall answers and make them simple steps instead. Teach complexity over time, simply.
2. Teach a few people, the committed, your volunteers, your best staff, to embrace the idea of complexity. That's what a great college education does. That's what makes someone a statesman instead of a demagogue. Embracing complexity is a scarce trait and worth acquiring. But until your donors/board/employees/volunteers do, I think the first strategy is essential.
You can't sell complicated to someone who came to you to “buy” simple

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