A for-profit mentality Featured

9:53am EDT July 31, 2002
When Robert Kulinski was lured from his post as president of United Way of Roanoke Valley, Va., two years ago to lead the same organization in Akron, no one told him it would be an easy job.

At the time, United Way of Summit County was ranked last among United Ways in large metro areas in terms of dollars raised annually. The Akron community was fed up with the lackluster job the organization had been doing supporting local charities and had demanded the board initiate a change in leadership.

So in 2000, two new minds were brought in to run the organization: Kulinski, a former Catholic priest and veteran United Way leader, and James Horne, who had spent his career in private enterprise, most recently in business development for Sikorsky Aircraft in Statford, Conn. Kulinski now serves as the Akron organization's president, and Horne serves as executive vice president.

"We were brought in because the community had urged the United Way board that they expected more from the organization," Kulinski says.

The task would not be easy. While the United Way of America name has always carried influence and has been backed by the nation's most powerful corporate leaders (including major contributor and board member Bill Gates), United Way of Summit County had lost that prestige. In 2000, only three of its 30 board members were CEOs, and many community leaders simply didn't understand the organization's mission and were not involved on any level.

To compound matters, when Kulinski and Horne were hired, they were given the goal of raising $15 million annually by 2003. To put that number in perspective, fund-raising had been flat for 10 years, and had peaked at about $10.6 million in 1999.

"The expectations of our donors and our community are driven by the same expectations that are driving change in the for-profit sector," Kulinski says.

He says those community expectations include "an entrepreneurial spirit, an increased use of technology, fanatical customer service, and training and hiring the best staff you can get -- but understanding you can't keep them."

A new level of competitiveness is expected, he says, at the same time resources are decreasing, and the number of nonprofits exponentially increases.

"To be successful in this environment, United Ways have had to change and learn from places like university development offices, hospital development offices, to have less reliance on the workplace campaign and increasing reliance on individual large donors."

The two knew they had a huge job in front of them and that they wouldn't be able to tackle it alone. With these new, aggressive fund-raising goals, they had to start running the organization like a business, not a nonprofit. To do so, they needed to somehow tap into the business acumen of local corporate leadership.

One of the first things they did was to change the local bylaws to authorize a larger board of up to 48 people, Kulinski says. Through the attrition of some of the original 30, and the addition of 17 new positions, the board of directors roster now reads like a who's who list of Akron leaders.

"Now we have the CEO of each local hospital, the president of the local university, the publisher of the paper and the CEOs of most major corporations," Kulinski says. "They like what they see, and they've become connected with us and engaged now."

It's not just name power those people bring to the table. Board meetings now last two hours instead of one, giving members the time to really participate in the decision-making process.

"By the very nature of the people we've brought on board, they don't want to sit there and rubber stamp things," Kulinski says. "Because we process a lot of decisions and proposals by committee, by the time they get to the board, we engage in legitimate discussion and real decision-making by the board members."

"The board has been a champion for helping us think outside of the box," says Horne. "They insist that the United Way look at the bigger picture and look to collaborate with community organizations. Because of that, we've done a lot more co-marketing and co-branding, and that's really been successful for both."

Kulinski says that with this new high-powered board made of up for-profit thinkers, United Way of Summit County was able to change its way of doing business.

"Charities are about doing good, and for most of this charity's history, we thought that doing good was good enough. But now we have to do good things, but we have to be businesslike in a highly competitive marketplace."

Kulinski says the agency not only learned to use the board's wisdom but also started to learn from the best practices of its customers: Its larger donors.

"Our advantage is that were dealing intimately with corporate leadership all the time," he says. "And if you walk around with your eyes open and you're smart enough, you can pick up their teachings. We like to look at the best that FirstEnergy does, the best that Goodyear does, and bring it to our table.

"We can use the resources of these great external customers that we have to create a stronger and better organization and increase capacity."

One of the first things they learned was that the agency had to change its customer service practices, Horne says.

"What we found when we first came on board was that the staff tended to not understand the fact that they needed to serve the customer," he says. "United Way has, in the past, relied on relationships that volunteers had with organizations and individuals. We wanted to move beyond that and really put the staff on the front line of maintaining and managing those relationships with the customers.

"So I spent a lot of time reconnecting with our customers, I mean going out and visiting, understanding, developing stronger relationships and then offering creative opportunities for those customers to meet their needs."

Horne quickly realized that the one-size-fits-all concept wasn't working -- they needed to create individual fund-raising packages for larger donors.

"They (larger donors) found that very refreshing," Horne says. "For example, for FirstEnergy, we manage their entire fund-raising drive in all of their communities (which extend well beyond Ohio) at no charge to FirstEnergy. If they're successful as an organization, they're going to be successful in Summit County. That's a model we use."

Kulinski adds that United Way no longer expects every business to have the exact needs for the exact same cookie-cutter campaign in the fall.

"We'll run a campaign in Akron, we'll run it at midnight, we'll do anything it takes to meet the needs of that customer, because they want to make the biggest difference in the community, and that's our job, to help facilitate that," he says.

United Way's corporate partners also taught the agency how to measure results, and how to show customers, in quantitative terms, exactly where their contributions were going. Because the agency had started to do this prior to Sept. 11, 2001, it did not suffer the same post 9-11 setbacks that other charities have suffered, Kulinski says.

"Our campaign was supposed to kick off on Sept. 12, 2001, and was postponed, but we still achieved significant growth in last year's campaign. It's because of our ability to bring value to our customer. 9-11 really enhanced people's sensitivity to being generous. We were in the position to reap the benefit of that increased awareness."

He says 9-11 showed that generosity is out there; donors just need to know where there money is going.

"People responded so overwhelmingly to the events of Sept. 11 that it showed me that there's a great deal of philanthropic impulse, and a willingness to give sacrificially to make a difference," adds Horne.

"It used to be that United Ways would talk about how many kids we served after school. Now we're going a step beyond and stating how the kids are better because they're in that program. Now our agencies have to do surveys, and now we can go to the donor and say, 'Because of your investment in your community, 63 out of 65 kids stayed off drugs during high school this year.'"

So far, the changes the agency has implemented have helped push its campaign totals up 8.2 percent this past year. United Way of Summit County now boasts the highest increase in fund-raising of any large city United Way agency in the country. (San Diego results were not listed). In 2001, it raised $12.5 million for local charities, in addition to the $4 million raised for Sept. 11 charities.

Kulinski says the goal of raising $15 million by 2003 is realistic, as long as the agency keeps its business mentality.

"The thing we're trying to do is operationalize our strategic plan all the time, and we want everybody to see where they fit in achieving this great community objective of improving lives by mobilizing community assets," Kulinski says. "Whether it's somebody at our switchboard or our executive vice president or director of communications and marketing, everybody knows our role." How to reach: United Way of Summit County, (330) 762-7601