United Ways across Alabama get creative

United Ways across Alabama get creative
United Way of Selma & Dallas County holds a Pass the Pasta food drive. This year has been challenging for Alabama's United Ways with COVID-19 added to the usual obstacles, but the groups continue to meet crucial needs. (contributed)

It’s been a year like no other. While the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of countless charitable events and fundraisers, the economic damage from the virus has only increased the need for services provided by nonprofit organizations.

For United Way agencies across Alabama that typically launch their annual campaigns around this time of the year, the fall fund drives are also like nothing they’ve undertaken before.

“No one has a playbook that can direct you through a pandemic; we’re all working on a campaign in an alternative way,” said Greg King, an executive at IberiaBank in Birmingham in a post on the United Way of Central Alabama (UWCA) website. King is chairing this year’s UWCA campaign, which officially launches Sept. 10 with a virtual event.

Because of COVID-19 and social distancing, UWCA staff and campaign volunteers are using virtual platforms and technologies like never before. “We’ve come up with some creative ways to try to drive messaging when we can’t be there in person to do so,” King said.

“We’ve really had to pivot how we do things,” King added. “In a strange way it’s been fun – everyone has really had to tap into their creative side.”

United Way 2020 Campaign Video from united way of central alabama on Vimeo.

At United Way of Lee County, the campaign will kick off Sept. 18 with a “drive-by” breakfast. At the event, volunteers will pick up campaign materials and grab a breakfast sack of goodies. Volunteers also have been urged to bring non-perishable groceries to drop off for the local community food bank. This year’s theme: “United We Fight … United We Win.”

United Way of Etowah County held a similar drive-through event. Donations were accepted in exchange for a box lunch.

United Way of East Central Alabama (UWECA) launched its campaign Sept. 1. The organization is holding small group meetings with business leaders as it explores innovative ways to drive participation and giving.

“Whether it is responding to the pandemic or ensuring that families facing an unexpected crisis have support to regain stability and independence, United Way is an integral part of the well-being of our cities, towns and communities,” said Shannon Jenkins, UWECA president and CEO.

“This year, giving may be more crucial than ever as United Way and our community partners sustain programs and initiatives our residents depend on every day, while responding in new ways to ensure our residents have hope during these uncertain times,” Jenkins said.

Drew Langloh, president and CEO of Birmingham-based UWCA, said the pandemic hit all United Ways across the state hard as thousands of people found themselves suddenly out of work and needing help. The crisis especially hit many people in the retail, service and hospitality industries who had few resources to fall back on.

UWCA is the largest United Way agency in the state, supporting 71 nonprofit agencies across five counties, in addition to running its own programs.

Langloh said United Ways across Alabama moved quickly to set up crisis funds to help people directly as well as to support partner agencies providing immediate, emergency assistance such as distributing food, paying for shelter and prescription drugs. “Food, safety, shelter. If you don’t have that, you can’t think of anything else,” he said.

Now United Ways and partnering agencies are shifting toward providing a more sustainable, long-term response as the economic recession lingers, as well as addressing unique needs that have emerged. For example, the economic hit combined with the isolation forced on many people because of COVID-19 has led to a significant increase in the need for mental health services, including suicide-prevention hotlines and counseling. Another need is providing long-term day care services for health care workers and other essential employees, Langloh said.

Doc on the Spot from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

United Way of Selma & Dallas County has been integrally involved in supporting community needs during the pandemic – providing services that government agencies often can’t. For example, the organization restarted its “Doc On The Spot” free medical clinics while instituting strict procedures to protect the safety and health of employees, volunteers and patients. Other initiatives include working with partner agencies to maintain food assistance and support for child care and disability services, as well as distribution of face masks.

“United Way operations have never ceased,” said Jeff Cothran, the agency’s executive director. “The office is staffed every day to answer community calls and donor questions.

“United Way and our partners, we fill the gap that governments pass over,” Cothran added. “United Way and our agency partners have worked for years to meet the needs of our community. In this day and age of global pandemic, everybody needs help.”

He noted that donations to his agency stay “right here in our community helping home folks. Always has and always will.”

Langloh said UWCA’s annual campaign is focused on reminding supporters – many of whom have been dealing with their own, evolving situations during the pandemic – that “there are a lot of people out there hurting and that they need our help.”

Other United Ways in the state are deploying a variety of creative strategies as their annual campaigns fire up. Others have postponed campaigns until early next year as they focus on meeting immediate needs.

Wiregrass United Way will host a bus tour Sept. 30, with key volunteers traveling to each county the agency serves for a mini pep rally. The volunteers will be masked and participation on the tour buses is limited to maintain social distancing. The rallies are being held outdoors to keep proper distance and protect public health.

United Way of Southwest Alabama, meanwhile, launched its campaign Sept. 2 from the studios of FOX 10 in Mobile. Throughout the day, the station broadcast segments focusing on the agency and its mission. Beth Thomas, Alabama Power corporate communications manager, was featured in one of the segments as the agency’s volunteer of the year.

United Way of North Talladega County is kicking off its campaign with a virtual event on Sept. 10.

United Way of West Alabama will host its virtual kickoff on Sept. 15; the event will be broadcast live online and will include inspirational stories, preview the campaign video and announce this year’s campaign goal. The organization is encouraging local businesses to host office watch parties or individuals to register online to attend. The agency is also offering free “Live United” face masks for those who register.

“We will certainly miss seeing everyone in person at our annual luncheon this year, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be uplifting and fun,” said Shelley Jones, 2020 campaign chair. “We look forward to our kickoff event and are excited to get our community engaged for this year’s campaign.”

In the Montgomery area, the River Region United Way is launching its campaign Sept. 9 at Riverwalk Stadium, home of the minor league Montgomery Biscuits and where there’s ample room for social distancing.

“2020 has certainly been a year of both challenges and opportunities,” said Ron Simmons, River Region United Way president and CEO. “We all have been challenged by COVID-19.

“So many people need our help right here in our local area,” Simmons said. “Some of those who have been impacted by this pandemic, or simply by life’s challenges, may be your neighbor, a friend, family members, a coworker or, perhaps, you. But crisis also presents opportunities.

“This is an opportunity for us to solve some of the most critical problems in our communities, together,” Simmons said.

“United Way is built for this,” Langloh said. “It’s not the first time we have had to respond to a crisis, or sudden, pressing community needs. The difference this time is the scale is enormous.

“We can’t do it alone. This is a year when ordinary people have to do extraordinary things. We all need to lean in.”

Related Stories