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United Way alters its fundraising strategy

THE UNITED WAY of Addison County recently moved from its previous office on Court Street in Middlebury to a newly opened space on the first level of the Wilson Street home of Middlebury Fitness. Among the amenities of the new space is the John Dale Memorial Conference Room.

The pandemic presented a new challenge for us — but we proved we were up for it. UWAC was built for this.
— Helena Van Voorst

MIDDLEBURY — The COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily changed the way companies and individuals interact and do business. But the United Way of Addison County (UWAC) officials hope the worldwide virus doesn’t change people’s longstanding generosity when it comes to helping those less fortunate.
Still, UWAC leaders aren’t taking any chances: They’re unfurling their fiscal year 2021 fund drive with an emphasis on making it as convenient as possible for people to financially support, and physically help, the Addison County nonprofits that deliver food, clothing, shelter, mental health counseling, protection from domestic abuse, and other vital services to Addison County residents in need.
Among this year’s strategies: Holding a “Month of Caring” through September, instead of the organization’s traditional “Days of Caring.” This means the UWAC is assigning individuals and families to specific tasks for local nonprofits this month, rather than holding group work sessions during the course of a weekend.
“The UWAC has been responding to local needs and most pressing problems for 52 years,” said Helena Van Voorst, United Way executive director. “The pandemic presented a new challenge for us — but we proved we were up for it. UWAC was built for this.”
Yes, the United Way — and local donors — have already stepped up during the coronavirus, as evidenced by a surge in philanthropy during the tail end of the FY 2020 campaign this past spring and a separate effort titled “Addison County Responds,” launched on March 17. Incredibly, 429 donors provided a $216,591 in just 105 days for that COVID-19 emergency relief fund. 
Money raised was used to sustain local nonprofits that found their services in much higher demand from residents who had been laid off or furloughed as a result of the pandemic. 
Some of the money was also set aside as emergency relief for individuals in crisis, some of it disbursed through the county’s housing solutions group that includes WomenSafe, the Charter House Coalition, John Graham Housing & Services, Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects, the Counseling Service of Addison County, and the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity. This helped keep people in their homes and/or move people out of hotels.
“Addison County is such an amazing place,” Van Voorst wrote in an email to the Independent. “We certainly saw increased giving because of the pandemic. Many of our donors gave twice or increased their gift in response to the changing and growing needs caused by the pandemic. We heard from many donors that they wanted to help as many people as possible and that they trusted UWAC to invest their gift where it was needed most.”
This spirit of giving during tough economic times allowed the UWAC to not only reach its FY 2020 goal of $635,00 goal, but also exceed it by $124,536.
Organizers of the FY 2021 United Way campaign, chaired by Jerrod Rushton, have set the same $635,000 goal as last year. Rushton has been on the UWAC board for the past five years and currently serves as its president. He promised the United Way will be creative in working to reach this year’s goal.
“The need in Addison County is greater than ever,” Rushton said. “While we do not intend to do additional appeals by phone or email, we do hope that our overall campaign efforts will reach as many community members as possible in hopes that those that can respond will do so without placing any undue pressure on those that may need a lending hand during this unprecedented time. Together we will get through this.”
If realized, the $635,000 will allow the United Way to maintain its current investments in community impact funding and reserve $50,000 for pandemic-related assistance, according to Van Voorst.
The pandemic has forced the United Way to evolve in order to help those who need help during the pandemic. In mid-March, the UWAC board voted not to accept new applications for support in the middle of the grant review process, a difficult decision made to help its 30 partner nonprofits stabilize and recover from the pandemic. 
The board also voted to loosen restrictions on its funding, thus allowing partner nonprofits to use the money however it was needed during the pandemic.
And now, volunteers are being asked to change the way they’ve participated in “Days of Caring.”
Sign up as an individual or a family, declare your preference for the work you’d like to do, and the UWAC will direct you to a nonprofit in need of your services at a time that’s mutually convenient during September. You’ll also get a Month of Caring T-shirt.
“We also have specific projects, to be completed in a socially distant manner, with area nonprofits,” Van Voorst noted.
For that list, more details on how to help, and for all info UWAC, log on to unitedwayaddisoncounty.org.
If there’s a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s taught the United Way and other philanthropic organizations to become more nimble and to prepare for future emergencies.
“While UWAC is raising money restricted for COVID-19 uses, the need to shore up our operations is greater than ever so when something of this scale happens again, we can respond from a position of strength,” Van Voorst said.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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