In Blog

Lessons learned about community engagement

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BY Karen Johnson

My exposure to United Way had been through the lens of my company’s annual campaign and the NFL ads during football season. I had not practiced due diligence on learning about United Way. Each year I gave by checking a box and checking one more thing off of my to-do list.

When I walked through the doors to interview and ultimately work as a Community Engagement Fellow at United Way of the Greater Triangle, I silently scolded myself for aligning UWGT with organizations whose brands outshine their results.  Here in the Triangle among cutting edge technology companies, three prominent universities and a growing base of entrepreneurs, sits one of only four United Way organizations in the country that is changing its business model to adapt to the complex social issues and address these issues at a systems level for immediate impact and lasting change. I had no idea!

I was about to get schooled and that 15-week education challenged my perception of UWGT, the Triangle area, and collaboration.  Here is what I learned and continue to learn:

  1. The United Way of the Greater Triangle doesn’t go it alone – and neither should I. When the leaders at UWGT realized that a new strategic direction was needed to evolve and make a greater impact, they reached out to partner agencies, community leaders and businesses to help develop the strategy.  This was a community effort.

In my role I reach out to businesses to help them develop their annual campaign and year-round engagement with us. The term “help” means that I first listen, ask questions, listen again, research options and then make recommendations based on the company’s goals.  It’s rewarding to help a company reach its philanthropic goals in support of our community.

  1. The Triangle is a great place for me to live. I love ACC basketball, the arts and access to great southern food. Every night I have the security of a place to sleep. I have food to eat when I am hungry. This is my reality, but it is not the reality for so many children and families here in the Triangle. The statistics will wake you up–like how 1 in 5 children in our community don’t have enough to eat on any given day. They may set you on fire like they did me. They could even inspire you to act in ways that surprise you.

Before becoming a Community Engagement Fellow I gave presentations to corporate executives, engineers, designers and managers for years. My comfort level in public speaking was met with a sleepless night and a dread that rivaled nothing else. However, when I began to talk about the issues in the Triangle and more importantly what UWGT is doing about those issues I became energized. Honestly at times I didn’t know myself.  I became comfortable and happy – on stage!

  1. Collaboration is the key to making a difference. Last year we talked about our agencies forming collaboratives and working together to solve an issue with common goals and metrics. Now we have 22 collaboratives that are funded by the Community Impact Fund. It is a new way of working together and everyone is finding their way.

“Oh, you mean I have to do it too?”  It can be hard to work in group on a project or issue when you already have a vision of what the outcome will look like.  Thankfully I work with some really bright, creative and interesting Fellows who make working collaboratively fun and produce outcomes that are so much better than what I could do alone.

This is my second year as a Community Engagement Fellow and I am finding it equally as rewarding and fun as last year.  Our story at the United Way of the Greater Triangle is an easy story to tell and I love telling it because we are innovative, engaged and determined to make an impact in our community.