Making a Lasting Difference

Metro United Way’s 100 Year Milestone

Story by Mariah Kline

Photos by Steve Squall

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Metro United Way, the local arm of the national organization that transforms lives across the country and in our community. To commemorate the occasion and further their support of the citizens of Kentuckiana, they have set the goal of raising $1 billion through an ambitious community campaign.

At the helm of this monumental effort is Theresa Reno-Weber, Metro United Way’s president and CEO, and campaign chair Matt Thornton, the successful and philanthropic CEO of Thornton’s, Inc. Matt has been involved in some capacity with the organization for over 20 years but joined as the campaign chair this year in preparation for the 100 Year Gala, an elaborate celebration which was held on November 11 at Louisville Marriott Downtown. He and wife Fran share a passion for the work of the organization and expressed excitement to be an integral part of the ongoing $1 billion efforts  alongwith Theresa.

“[Metro United Way] reaches so many people and they offer a multitude of services,” explains Fran. “Their work really affects everyone in the community so it was easy for us to want to engage in a meaningful way.”

“Not only is this a notable birthday for the organization, but having a new CEO in Theresa just brings a fresh energy and a renewed vision to it all,” Matt says.

Theresa was named president and CEO of Metro United Way in January of this year, having previously served as the chief of performance and technology for Mayor Greg Fischer’s Office, where she led a staff of 200 Metro Government employees in human resources and information technology efforts. While learning her new role with this institution, she didn’t shy away from the challenge of making a big impact for their 100th anniversary.

“As I was working with the team on the campaign,” she explains, “I was advised from a lot of different people, ‘Don’t set a goal that’s too big or ambitious in your first year; just get your feet under you.’ But I couldn’t let the 100th year pass by without trying to elevate our profile and do something really big and groundbreaking.”

Upon researching, Theresa and her team discovered that they were only $36 million shy of having raised $1 billion since the organization’s inception in 1917. Thus, the idea to cross the $1 billion mark was born. She pitched the idea to Matt at their very first meeting and he immediately agreed that the goal, while formidable, was worth pursuing. By comparison, Metro United Way’s 2016 campaign raised $24.7 million.

The campaign to reach the goal has occurred effectively but rather quietly for the last several months, taking place through private donor commitments and by way of corporate partnerships. Now, the team is on the home stretch and poised to cross the finish line at the end of the year in hopeful victory. With fundraising efforts in full swing and the celebratory gala in the rear view, there is still plenty of time to be a part of this massive mission by individually contributing to Metro United Way. The easiest way to do so is by logging on to metrounitedway.org and clicking on the red “Donate” button.

The existing donor base of over 50,000 has generously committed to helping them carry out their objective. Their reach was also extended by establishing over 100 work-force campaigns, which allow employees to donate and have their funds matched by their company or employer. Over the last few months, Metro United Way leaders and their enormous volunteer base have contacted and collected donations from an extended roster of businesses around town, increasing the impact on the community and bringing further awareness to the exceptional and far-reaching work that they do.

While most everyone has a casual awareness of the United Way, many don’t know what the actual mission of the group is. Locally, Metro United Way works to ensure children succeed in school, neighborhoods are strengthened and every citizen has the chance to live a healthy life. They focus on early childhood development and kindergarten preparedness, out-of-school time and mentoring programs, improving high school graduation rates and much more. Their efforts assist people in Bullitt, Jefferson, Oldham and Shelby counties in Kentucky and Clark, Floyd and Harrison counties in Indiana, and they partner with nonprofits and agencies around the community to further their reach.

“We recognize that no one agency or nonprofit or government sector will be able to solve all of the issues and challenges that we see in our community today,” explains Theresa. “Whether it’s violence or homelessness or the opioid addiction crisis that we’re seeing, no one organization or person is going to have the answer to that. It has to be a collective effort. So for an organization like United Way to have 100 years of experience uniting the private sector with government, nonprofits and individuals to make change is a huge component of why I think folks want to support us.”

By uniting so many entitites to solve so many problems in our area, Metro United Way can utilize both their funds and their resources to make an immeasurable impact. And since each group they support has been properly researched, local philanthropists and businesses have a better understanding of where and how their donations are being used.

“What attracted my wife and I and what attracts a lot of donors is the ability to leverage your dollars,” says Matt. “They do such a wonderful job of obtaining grants and matching grants so you can double and sometimes triple the money that you’re giving to United Way and the impact it has. They have incredibly low administration costs for all the work they do, and knowing that every agency and every program they’re supporting has been fully vetted, that’s homework that a lot of donors don’t have to do.”

Metro United Way is also working to increase awareness of some of their lesser known programs from which a number of people can benefit. One example is the 2-1-1 Referral Service, which connects individuals who need assistance with nearly 800 services and resources around the community. By dialing the number 2-1-1 or texting your zip code to “898211,” anyone can receive information or help with a number of issues. Their specialists can guide people through dealing with domestic violence issues, finding quality childcare, preparing taxes, job training services and more. This service is completely free and available to connect people 24/7, 365 days a year.

Additionally, Metro United Way and their partners have invested in a program called Ages and Stages, providing questionnaires to new parents and young families about their child’s development. This helps parents understand where their child, whether six months or six years old, should be developmentally and how they can stay on top of their child’s physical and mental growth.

“If you take your child to the pediatrician often, they will check for these things,” says Theresa. “But for people who don’t have access to or don’t go to a pediatrician as frequently, this is a really quick and easy questionnaire that parents can use to check on whether or not their child is on track. We can then connect them with resources from nonprofits and partners in our community to help them address any issues.”

The significant impression that Metro United Way has left on local individuals and families is immeasurable, and in many ways, just beginning since their work will continue long after the $1 billion mark has been reached. Matt and Theresa are excited to explore how they can further shape the lives of others while reflecting on the astounding progress that has already been made.

“When you look at the outcomes we’ve been able to achieve in the areas we’ve invested in, it’s truly remarkable,” says Theresa. “We’ve helped people become financially stable and meet their basic needs. We’ve made sure children were ready for school, college and careers. It’s hard to fathom what the community would look like without Metro United Way having been here for the last 100 years.”