WAUKESHA COUNTY - Three years after United Way of Greater Milwaukee and United Way in Waukesha County merged to become one entity, the organization is making strides greater than the sum of its parts.
"Our mantra all along was that this would be a story of one plus one equals three, that together, we will have an even stronger impact in our communities. And that's exactly what's happened," said Landmark Credit Union President and CEO Jay Magulski, who serves on the now-joint board of directors.
Success this year
In this year's annual campaign, for example, United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County raised a record-breaking $60,355,186 – about $250,000 more than last year.
The organization also broke another record, as it recorded 25,252 volunteer hours during its annual Season of Caring.
Both of these numbers also exceeded the goals the organization had set for the year.
"This is a wonderful achievement; we set two ambitious goals to help meet the growing needs in our community, and top businesses as well as individual donors have generously responded," said Marcus Corp. President Greg Marcus, chairman of the United Way board of directors. "Thanks to the people in this community, United Way will continue to fight for the health, education and financial stability of every person in our four-county area."
When the two United Ways announced the merger in 2014, officials said the move came at the request of large corporate donors with business operations in both counties. For example, the Marcus Corp. has theaters in both Milwaukee and Waukesha counties.
According to Magulski, it's common for corporations to have locations in both counties, or for employees to live Waukesha but work in Milwaukee, or vice-versa. So, those corporations or employees would sometimes get different messages from each county's United Way organization.
"It wouldn't have been uncommon for some organizations with presence in both communities to potentially be having different messaging, then, from the two different United Ways," Magulski explained.
Now, though, since the organizations have combined, the United Way is able to distribute consistent messaging and consistent focuses on campaigns, resulting in pooling collective resources instead of dividing them.
"It's been incredible to bring best practices from both communities together to impact our service to the community," said Jayne Thoma, vice president of volunteer engagement for United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County.
One example of is the Helping Kids Succeed program in Waukesha County, which expanded in 2017. With input from the community, United Way was able to double down efforts in the "highest-need schools," schools where a majority of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Through the program, 86 percent of students who participated improved their grades, 86 percent improved their school attendance, 71 percent reduced their involvement in risky behavior and 83 percent of parents increased their engagement with their children and their children's schools.
Donations for the program also increased in 2016, making these efforts possible. In 2016, United Way raised more than $253,000, a 116-percent increase over the prior year.
When the idea of the merger was first introduced, Thoma said one of the biggest concers she heard was from Waukesha County people, who were worried their voices would be subdued by the larger Milwaukee County.
However, Waukesha County Business Alliance president and CEO Suzanne Kelley, a member of the board, says that this has not happened.
"The longer the merger has been in existence, concerns have really gone away," Kelley said. "People are seeing that the organization is really effective in being able to address different issues in different communities."
Kelley said the joint United Way has held numerous community conversations to ensure the community is still being heard from. Those have involved more than 50 leaders from throughout Waukesha County.
"It helps ensure that the county has a strong voice in United Way," she said.
The board of directors also has members from each of the counties, though many members do have ties to both communities.
Though United Way is looking to continue and strengthen the programs they currently have, officials say they are also looking toward new horizons.
In 2018, Thoma said they are looking forward to opening the new Volunteer Engagement Center, thanks to donations from Johnson Controls.
Thoma said they plan to start construction on the space, which is in their current Milwaukee office, in the new year.
"The center is really going to hopefully be a community hub, a place for the community to come together and work collaboratively on issues," Thoma said.
"It will definitely be a great asset as we kick of next year's campaign," she added.
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