A pandemic is not an opportune time to raise money, even for the successful fundraising team that makes up the United Way of Hamblen County.
The challenge of leading a $1.4 million campaign in a county where Covid-19 has temporarily closed small businesses and reduced production at manufacturing facilities has been taken up a considerable notch by the increased need of its vulnerable population.
2020 Campaign Chair David Slack is ready to meet that challenge. His campaign slogan, “United Way Today More Than Ever,” is a reflection of the times in Hamblen County and a call for those who can give to respond.
The Hamblen/Jefferson County Executive for HomeTrust Bank in Morristown returned to his native East Tennessee in 2018 after a 30-year career in banking. He began volunteering with the United Way in the early ‘90s to areas where his work took him: Athens and Cleveland, Blue Ridge, Georgia, Wheeling, West Virginia and Owensboro, Kentucky
“I spent time getting to really know the types of agencies that United Way supports,” Slack said. “I would initially serve on the Budget & Allocations committee, which is what I did here.”
The F.I.R.E. division (finance, investment and real estate) was his first foray into United Way leadership in Hamblen County. Slack increased giving by 23 percent over the year prior, an accomplishment that got the attention of Executive Director Gary Matthews.
“Considering David was relatively new to the area, he was able to not only meet, but exceed a challenging goal,” Matthews said. “That type of commitment is what we need when it comes to leading a million dollar-plus campaign under extenuating circumstances.”
Slack gives the bulk of credit for the 2019 F.I.R.E. division’s success to the volunteers who stepped up to work with him.
“I was able to assemble an awesome team for the F.I.R.E. division,” Slack said. “The group consisted of around 12 people, some of whom had actually chaired a division before. All were experienced in the community and were strong United Way supporters. Their fundraising efforts were exceptional.”
Matthews approached Slack in December 2019 with the offer to lead this year’s effort to provide support for the 20 United Way agencies. Traditionally, the Hamblen County chair is chosen near the end of the previous campaign, from the ranks of volunteers who led its fundraising divisions.
“Each campaign is unique, and it takes working closely with individuals over a period of time to find the right fit,” Matthews said.
The conversation went well - “I was happy to do it,” Slack said – and plans began for what seemed would be a typical fundraising effort.
Nobody could have anticipated what was coming.
An early sign that United Way agencies would feel the impact was the food crisis that affected the community’s most vulnerable citizens as a result of the coronavirus.
At Central Services, due to safety regulations, volunteers were not able to work, and staff members went above and beyond their normal level of service to provide emergency food items to families who suddenly lost sources of income. At Senior Citizens Home Assistance Service, a program was implemented by staff to deliver grocery items, medicine and other necessities to the older community citizens who were forced to stay at home due to health conditions that made them more susceptible to the effects of the virus.
Then the cancellations began, one after another. Fundraisers crucial to the survival of agencies were either adjusted for Covid-19, resulting in fewer dollars raised, or abandoned all together. Some agencies were forced to close their doors temporarily, a circumstance that left them unable to generate any sustainable revenue during that time.
And the impact on United Way agencies continues.
“We honestly don’t know what to expect,” Matthews said. “We are certain, however, that the needs in our community are increasing daily. And our agencies are struggling to meet those needs.”
Slack is determined the challenge will be met, regardless of any adjustments that may be required in campaign strategy.
“We stay positive,” Slack said. “Today More Than Ever is a simple phrase that tells the real-time story of our community. It reminds us that the United Way is essential to the needs of our community.”
Despite the increased pressure of fundraising during COVID-19, Slack received just one “no,” when approaching community volunteers to help him, meaning there were 17 answers to the affirmative and 17 dedicated United Way leaders willing to jump in and meet the challenge with him.
“I am confident in the history and knowledge of these folks,” Slack said.
During day-long strategy meetings held in June – during which the division chairs mapped out their approach to Hamblen County industries, companies and individuals - Slack said his initial confidence was proven to be well founded.
“Most have served in leadership before, and we have a couple of new volunteers that we are appreciative of. Two have served as campaign chairs prior,” he said.
“The only obstacle I have encountered is the virus. And we will overcome that,” Slack said.
David and his wife, Jan, have three grown children and six grandchildren, with one more on the way, all of whom live within the region. Both David and Jan grew up in McMinn County.
“This is truly home,” he said. “The past two years have flown by. There are still a few roads that people mention that I don’t know, but I can get around.”
His commitment to the United Way is based on the understanding that, as the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated, those who are vulnerable need those who have the means to step up.
“I’ve been fortunate,” Slack said. “People have told me before that until you’ve been hungry, you don’t understand. Our agencies, in particular those that provide food during this time, are crucial.”
The United Way of Hamblen County will kick off its 2020 fundraising campaign in September.
UNITED WAY, Today More Than Ever!