United Way CEO Bobbie Dawson on adaptation, learning and community support 

“One of the biggest successes is our ability to be resilient and to innovate, and do things differently”

Article by Bill Hornbostel/supplied image

In a recent interview, Bobbie Dawson, CEO of United Way Northumberland, spoke about how she and the organization have weathered the challenges of a year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The biggest thing for Dawson was community support. “We’ve been blown away by this support from the community,” says Dawson. “It does go to show the generosity that exists in the community. I think people just band together in times of crisis, and this has been no different.”

“It’s been great just seeing the neighbour-to-neighbour stuff that’s happening between people, different collaboration with community partners that didn’t exist before,” continued Dawson. “Every single person that I’ve come across has stepped up to the plate to support their neighbour in whatever way they possibly can. That’s been very humbling to witness.”

“We’re not out of the woods yet; the pandemic has really hit businesses, unemployment is up, and people are starting to see the longer-term impacts,” Dawson says. “I think as we move into this next year, the [charity] sector specifically is going to see the impact of not being able to bring in the same revenue because of events and things like that. So we’re crossing fingers for continued support from our Federal government and with and continued support from donors and volunteers in the community.”

Dawson talks about how the pandemic has changed how the organization works. “We’re doing things a bit differently because you have to,” Dawson says. “We have an opportunity here, and it’s resulted in a number of different partnerships.”

One example has been in initiatives with Northumberland County, like Northumberland Eats. “It’s one of those really fantastic initiatives that came as a result of COVID-19. The initial pilot was run by the County, and United Way will be taking over April 1. But the concept is really providing hot meals to people who need them and stimulating local small businesses at the same time, which is good for everybody – especially now when so many of our small businesses are suffering as a result of the pandemic.”

While United Way has been able to continue and expand its work, like all other organizations it has had to work within the pandemic restrictions. “It’s been interesting; we’ve all been working virtually back and forth into the office here and there but trying to keep our physical distance as much as possible,” says Dawson. “But it’s been, it’s been tough to not be able to look people on the face.”

Dawson was still new to the role early last year. “I was in the role eight months, and then the pandemic hit,” she recalls. “I got out to see as many donors volunteers and community partners is possible in my first few months of working there. I’m glad that I made that a priority because I was able to meet people face-to-face. But the plan was to continue to go out into the community and be face-to-face with people, we haven’t been able to run any of our events this year.”

To Dawson, personal contact with volunteers and donors is crucial to the charity’s ability to operate. “As an organization, you thrive on the face-to-face and being able to connect with people and share stories of their generosity, the impact that they have when they donate to United Way.”

Dawson also speaks about things she has learned during the past year. “The lessons that I’ve learned this year have been huge,” says Dawson. “Stillness is actually something that I was not comfortable in, needing to stop and slow down and be quiet. And so much stuff happens when you’re able to do that, so much growth, so much learning. That’s been a silver lining of all of this is, you remember what’s important when you’re able to get off the treadmill and take a breather and re-evaluate.”

“I think it’s also, to some extent, just scrambling for control and certainty; we are missing that illusion of certainty that things will go the way that we expect them to,” continues Dawson.

“There’s been a lesson about appreciating time with family and friends in a way that I haven’t ever before,” Dawson adds. “Getting to hug someone, shake the hand of someone like of a donor or volunteer or just somebody in the communities, when I’m introduced to someone. It’s become the norm that we don’t shake hands anymore, and I miss that. I think that one of those connecting things that I miss. When we do ‘go back to normal,’ I think we’ll have a new appreciation for those things.”

“The stories that I hear from people in the community are very similar, just really wanting to get back in the same room as others, be able to look each other in the eye, be able to have those networking opportunities and really fulsome conversations that sometimes can’t be had over Zoom or Microsoft Teams or whatever digital platform you’re using for your work at this point,” says Dawson. “I’ve heard stories of generosity and kindness, of people just reaching out because it feels urgent, and it feels like the right thing to do. Even just to support strangers, people they don’t know.”

Dawson reflects on United Way’s successes over the last year. “One of the biggest successes is our ability to be resilient and to innovate, and do things differently, even in the face of some pretty tough challenges – or opportunities, depending on how you want to look at it,” she says.

“We’ve had a really strong online presence,” Dawson says. “Maggie Darling runs her communications and she’s been really pushing our online presence, so we’ve had a lot of interactions online from people that maybe we haven’t in the past. We’ve also had seen our online giving increase exponentially.”

“We had a radiothon – our first annual radiothon – and that worked out really well,” continues Dawson. “We raised $20,000 in one day; that was fantastic. We had people calling in from all over the region to donate.”

“We’ve really had to be innovative because as a fundraising and community-impact organization, our strategy is to be with people and to tell them the story of the work of our partners,” Dawson says. “We’ve had to get really, really creative, especially for people who maybe are not familiar with digital platforms, or maybe aren’t that tech-savvy or are not on social media; how do we reach those people? We’ve done a lot of direct-mail letters and phone calls.”

While United Way has risen to the challenges of the pandemic year, Dawson also talks about some of the toughest things to overcome. She says, “We’ve lost a few important people. We recently lost a board member, Ron Luciano. He passed away about a week ago, and that’s been tough, because he was a huge advocate of United Way and the work of United Way.”

Dawson talks a little about Luciano’s background and impact. “His story is phenomenal. He grew up accessing the Boys and Girls Club, it was a United Way-funded agency. He was also involved in a lot of the initiatives that that community partners run out of Toronto. He grew up to then be the director of Children’s Aid, he was also on the board of United Way Canada, so he’s been very involved in United Way for many, many years. He was the guy at the boardroom table that always said the tough stuff, he was brave and not afraid to speak his mind, and he will absolutely be very missed by all of us in the United Way and by this community; he’s just really done amazing work for the sector.”

Dawson also speaks about the impact the pandemic year has had on the charitable sector. “What I can say from the conversations that I have been having is that people are feeling not only the impact of not being able to bring in the revenue, they’re feeling the impact of having a larger caseload, or having people have an increased need or interest in programming.”

“Mental health supports, for example, are huge,” says Dawson. “Right now, more people than ever are in need of speaking with a clinician, and it comes down to, do they have the staffing? And can they do they have the capacity to serve those people? So, sometimes the answer is no.”

“I know that the federal government has provided social services relief funding, and they’re now into their third round, which is helpful,” continues Dawson. “Considerable advocacy from leaders across the country is happening in the background; we have our United Way Canada president at the important tables with Federal government officials. But the sector needs stabilizing, we need that stabilization support, and without it I do see it having a negative impact on programming.”

“Having said that, I’m a very optimistic person, and I believe in the spirit of our community members and the desire of everyone that I’ve met that works in this sector to, in a sense, get blood from a stone, provide programming or services or kindnesses outside of their mandate. It is something they do all the time. We know when we give dollars donor dollars to agencies, they stretch those dollars much further than then you can even imagine. And so, I do believe that we will get through this we will survive it, the sector will survive it. But there are going to be some bumps along the way. We’re here for people when they need us. That’s what United Way does, and we’re committed to making sure that we rebuild after COVID-19. We’ll get through it; it’s just a matter of doing it together.”

Dawson talks about the upcoming fundraising campaign celebration, which will be held on Thursday, April 8. “We are in a much different position this year than we thought we were going to be we projected a shortfall. We’re tracking well ahead, and that is phenomenal. It’s a testament to the commitment and dedication of every donor and volunteer that has given to our organization, and the celebration is about them. It’s really about the community and saying thank you.”

“We are a community run-organization, and we have a team of five people,” says Dawson. “Those team members are really doing the work that’s built by community members, so we have volunteer committees that run a lot of our investment decisions and fundraising initiatives and things like that. So, I would just say please come out and be part of it!”

Dawson talks about the guest speaker at the celebration, Dan Carter. “A phenomenal story, his life story; by no means is his story a common story.” Twenty-eight years ago, Carter had been illiterate, homeless, and struggling with alcohol and drug addiction; now, he is the mayor of Oshawa. “It can inspire people to really understand what is possible. So, I think it’s going to be a really great event and I look forward to seeing people there!”

This year, the campaign celebration will be a virtual event, with food provided by Arthur’s Pub in Cobourg (either pick-up or delivery). For more information on the event, visit mynuw.org/upcoming-events; for tickets, visit arthurspub.ca/order-online or call 905-372-9940.

For more information about United Way Northumberland or to make a donation, you may visit their Web site, mynuw.org, or call either 905-372-6955 or 1-800-833-0002. For the 211 service finding local social programs and services, call 211 or visit 211ontario.ca. You may also follow United Way Northumberland on Facebook (@northumberlandunitedway) and Twitter (@nlanduw).

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