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Patricia M. Berger: Service to United Way unfairly criticized

In a story carried on its front page last Sunday, Feb. 24 ["United Way donations drop in Grand Forks"], the Herald juxtaposed the following: (1) a report of a decline in contributions to Grand Forks United Way over a period of years; (2) narrative about my position that my recent termination as United Way CEO was due to criticism of me by Herald Publisher Korrie Wenzel (because of my two Facebook comments lamenting Forum Communications' closure of WDAZ-TV Channel 8); and (3) the abstract comment from a Twin Cities management consultant/Carlson School lecturer who said, "(n)onprofits need management and leadership just as much, and sometimes more, than their for-profit counterparts."

The Herald thus suggested that my termination had been due to the drop in contributions to United Way and a lack of leadership on my part. Nothing in my personnel file at United Way ever said such a thing. Because this suggestion in the Herald story is seriously untrue, I need to set the record straight.

Beginning more than four years ago, I recognized — and was deeply concerned about — the United Way fundraising campaign. Our best friends, indeed many of our most loyal supporters, were retiring. Workplaces which had run successful campaigns each year were closing. The departures of such large businesses as Hornbacher's, Macy's, Sears, and the Grand Forks Herald printing plant (traditionally full of strong supporters), among a number of others, seriously impacted United Way's fundraising. Also during this time, many of the newer businesses in the city have been reluctant to support workplace United Way campaigns.

In response to the decline in United Way contribution dollars, I took action — and I got some help.

I wrote a successful grant to the Otto Bremer Foundation to hire Perspectives, a consulting firm with close ties to United Way nationally, to come and work with us in navigating a changing fundraising environment.

 Beginning with a Board and staff retreat, Perspectives helped us to develop an "issue focused" approach to raising funds. We spent an entire year talking with major donors, community leaders, agency executives, and regular donors to determine what they thought were the major health and human service issues facing the community, and about those initiatives that they wanted to support financially. Through additional surveys three years ago, we choose to devote the majority of United Way's work to helping people in the community who were living in poverty.

Specifically, our grants would focus on programs that help people in poverty (emergency funding, food shelves, emergency housing and counseling) and funding programs that work with people with the objective of getting them out of poverty. We held a meeting with multiple agencies in the community to inform them of our plans, and we gave them a three-year time frame to get used to our new issue-focused approach.

For our donors and the public, we worked to educate them to the amount of poverty in our community and how United Way was planning on using their funds to combat it. In the first year of this poverty focus, we publicly discussed the unexpectedly large percentage of people who are living in poverty, a fact that many people at first did not believe.

Last year we held a Poverty Simulation Workshop before our Annual Luncheon. Community Leaders, City Council members and Board members spent time "living in poverty," while struggling to buy food, pay rent, get kids to school. At the luncheon, our guest speaker helped explain our poverty "numbers," and why they were a true reflection of what was happening in the Greater Grand Forks community — lower wages and high housing costs had (and has) a lot to do with it.

Comparing our United Way with others in the state, is not easy or straightforward. The population of the Fargo-Moorhead area is now more than twice our size, and the number of major businesses there is considerably greater. The United Way of Cass Clay also has 11 employees. The Grand Forks United Way has only 5 full time and one part time employee. The Bismarck and Minot United Ways both have benefited tremendously from Bakken oil and gas industry development over the last several years, and Bismarck, as our States Capitol, has a high percentage of state employees, many in higher wage classifications.

This major change in how we conducted our business was bound to have an effect on our fundraising. I expected it, and Perspectives also told us that the campaign could initially go down. It did. All along the way, I never heard from the United Way Board about any displeasure they had with me, or about the things we were doing to promote our Poverty Focus. We all were concerned with the fund raising, and developed new strategies, including participating in the Giving Hearts Day campaign for the first time this past Feb. 14.

At the November 2018 Board meeting, I announced my plans to retire at the end of June 2019. At that meeting, I talked about how excited I was for the future of our United Way.

The extent of poverty in our community is now a recognized fact, and we are increasingly seeing organizations from various sectors coming together to work with us on this issue. Mayor Mike Brown recently asked me and Becca Bahnmiller of the Community Foundation to jointly lead an initiative to reduce childhood poverty in our community. I was pleased at how well our United Way was now positioned to have a major impact on the critical issue of poverty.

For the Herald to criticize my leadership and professionalism last Sunday—without interviewing me for its story, and without having any knowledge of my work as United Way CEO over many years, has been particularly hurtful, and, in my view, quite wrong.

The United Way Board took the action that it did, after I had faithfully and competently served as CEO of the agency for more than 24 years — and after I had informed the Board last November that I would be retiring at the end of June of 2019.

The Board's action, relative to my position, began immediately after Herald Publisher Korrie Wenzel in a column scolded me for two (among hundreds) of Facebook comments on former WDAZ television anchor Terry Dullum's Facebook page on Nov. 30, 2018. Any after-the-fact, revisionist claim that the personnel action against me was performance-based is simply false.

By Patricia M. Berger

Patricia M. Berger is the former president and CEO of Grand Forks United Way.