Campaign launch underway—full speed ahead for new United Way president

Having just completed work on a five-year, $2.6 million grant for Washington State University in June, LoAnn Ayers started as president and chief executive officer of the United Way of Benton and Franklin Counties July 1, succeeding Beverly Weber upon her retirement.

[blockquote quote=”It’s all in an effort to help connect people to needed resources in our community and to ensure education, health, safety and self-sufficiency.” source=”LoAnn Ayers, president and chief executive officer of the United Way of Benton and Franklin Counties” align=”right” max_width=”300px”]

“I’ve been involved as a United Way donor forever and started on the board in 2006. I served as chair for two years, which shows how much the mission got its hooks into me. I was very honored to be considered for this position,” Ayers said. She had one week of overlap time working alongside Weber at the beginning of July. “It was great because she has lots of insider knowledge that is so helpful.”

Ayers’ extensive experience at Washington State University Tri-Cities prepared her for United Way’s mission: “That everyone has a good education, access to healthcare, lives and works in a safe environment, and is a self-sufficient, active member of our community.”

“I was fortunate to wear many hats and be in many positions as WSU grew. Each enabled me to expand my network and build my professional skills,” Ayers said. “It’s wonderful because at United Way, I’ll be working with students and staff who are out in industry. That’s the wonderful thing about working in a community this size; it’s all interconnected.”

“I worked for WSU in Richland since it became WSU in 1989,” Ayers said, her latest project working with students and industry in the area of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). She also helped raise funds for the WSU Foundation in past years, earned an MBA, and this year will complete her doctorate degree.

For the past year-and-a-half at WSU, she focused on helping the university to get grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other organizations.

Ayers now leads the local chapter of the world’s largest, privately-funded nonprofit that has served communities for more than 125 years. United Way’s mission: “to mobilize the caring power of communities around the world to advance the common good.” The Benton-Franklin affiliate is one of more than 1,800 across 40 countries and territories worldwide.

“We have a very generous community so I’m excited to work with those generous individuals and companies in fighting for the health and education of everyone in the Tri-Cities,” Ayers said. “Not everyone is equally blessed; we’re working to make life better for all.”

Thankfully, said Ayers, the local United Way organization has built and maintained its integrity for many years.

“I’m lucky that United Way has a spotless record in the Tri-Cities. It’s well-respected and trustworthy, which makes a huge difference,” Ayers said. “When I travel, I see that not everyone has the level of personal philanthropy or the level of trust that United Way has here.”

The local United Way staff of 14 part- and full-time employees strives to identify and build upon the community’s strengths and assets to help individuals contribute their time and talents; leads initiatives and positive community change efforts; supports direct-service programs; and helps people connect to needed resources in the community.

As such, United Way is involved with more than 50 organizations, along with partners in the for-profit and non-profit sectors.

“It’s all in an effort to help connect people to needed resources in our community and to ensure education, health, safety and self-sufficiency,” Ayers said. “We have many partners, like school districts and hospitals, we work closely with but don’t fund. We also work with many companies that are committed to improving our community.”

One example is Plumbers and Steamfitters Local Union 598.

“They are an excellent partner; we work together on kid-focused initiatives,” Ayers said. A new, community-wide initiative just launched and builds upon the state’s “Love. Talk. Play.” campaign that targets birth to three-year-olds having the best possible start to life.

United Way’s initiative, “Birth 2 Five,” is a collaboration of healthcare providers, health districts, school systems and others “to ensure all children age five are ready to learn and ready for life,” Ayers said.

“Across our community, more than 30 percent of five-year-olds come to school unprepared. Some struggle with sharing, others with motor skills or social challenges, and more. Too many of those kids stay behind and then eventually, don’t graduate,” Ayers said. “If they don’t graduate high school, we all end up paying for that the rest of our lives.”

The Birth 2 Five initiative’s goal is to help parents and others with the simple things they can do to propel five-year-olds to school readiness.

“It’s about mindfulness, eye contact, talking to children with adult language, reading with children, and more,” Ayers said. “It isn’t complex; it’s the simple things we can do every day to help prepare children for school.”

Many community resources already exist to help families and caregivers, but United Way is dedicated to increasing awareness and steering people in the direction of those resources, Ayers said.

“We want the awareness to cause wait-lists at these organizations. The value of United Way is drawing together all those partners,” she said.

Immediately after starting as CEO July 1, Ayers began working on three short-term goals. United Way will soon launch its annual campaign, which raises funds to support initiatives and programs throughout the Tri-Cities.

“My first goal is to have a healthy fundraising campaign, and continue to raise more money to get to more people in our community,” Ayers said. Last year’s $3.85 million goal was surpassed and the local organization brought in just over $4 million. (This year’s goal had not been set as of publication deadline.)

“We go against the national, decade-long trend of a decline in campaign donations,” Ayers said. “We’re in the top 1 percent of communities gaining ground in the nation.” She attributes the growth to a philanthropic-minded community, and intelligent and active volunteer board of director members.

“They are a significant aspect of the organization. Their wisdom and diverse perspectives make a big difference,” Ayers said of the current 47-member board. “What also continues to impress me is the amazing dedication of the staff. They go above and beyond every day. This is not a job, it’s a calling. That’s highly motivating and makes it a great place to work.”

The new CEO’s second goal is to prompt a greater awareness of United Way’s impact on the community.

“We do amazing stuff. We’re investing other people’s money so that it makes the most impact. Demonstrating the value of that investment is a goal,” Ayers said. “We have a clean audit and are financially stable, which is terrific.”

The third goal, which Ayers said could easily be a goal of any organization in existence based on its ever-changing rhythm, is “how to better use technology for greater efficiency and effectiveness.”

“We have to be very careful with our time and money because it’s other people’s investments,” Ayers said.

Ayers said her experience as United Way chair will help accomplish these goals.

“I have the advantage of inside and outside perspectives of United Way. I helped establish budgets, assisted with strategic planning and now have a higher level of understanding of day-to-day operations,” Ayers said. “We take our role as caretakers of community resources very seriously.”

Persons interested in learning more about United Way, volunteering or donating may visit www.unitedway-bfco.com, or call 509-783-4102.

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