With parents who did missionary work in Thailand and Vietnam when his was a young boy, Randy Possinger learned early in life about the spirit of serving others. That spirit continued after the family moved back to the United States when he was six years old and settled in North Carolina, where his parents were always involved in the community, especially their church.
So it was no small coincidence that Possinger decided to pursue a career dedicated to helping others.
“That was just a natural part of my life,” said Possinger, the executive director of the Greater Ottawa County United Way.
“The example they set was to look out for your neighbors and to help out your neighbors the best you could,” said Possinger, who sees the United Way as a unique organization that matches his desire to serve others with a mission that brings people to work for the common good of a community.
His work for the organization led the 33-year-old Possinger to Grand Haven seven years ago when he became executive director of the Tri-Cities Area United Fund. He became involved with the United Way in 1991 while attending college at Andrews University in Berrien Springs when he served an internship at a small United Way agency in Benton Harbor.
Possinger, who was born in Thailand and raised mostly in Hendersonville, N.C., where his father opened a medical practice, spent the initial year of his college days in England, where he studied at Wingate College outside of London.
Returning home after a year of studying abroad, Possinger enrolled at Andrews University, a Christian college run by the Seventh-Day Adventists Church. While at Andrews, he began interning at the Blossomland United Way in Benton Harbor.
He later joined the Red Bud Harbor United Way in nearby Buchanan and became head of the organization in 1993 as it merged with Blossomland to form the Southwest Michigan United Way, where he became director of fund distribution.
In 1995, Possinger sought and landed the top position with the Tri-Cities Area United Fund following the retirement of the organization’s long-time executive director, the late Bill Herbst. Possinger became executive director of the new Greater Ottawa County United Way in 1998.
The new organization’s formation stemmed from discussions that Possinger and his counterparts and board members at the four United Way agencies in Ottawa County began holding about how they could work together more closely and reduce redundancies.
Those talks led to the formation of the larger administrative organization that coordinates annual United Way campaigns that are run by separate volunteer campaign committees in the Grand Haven, Holland, Zeeland and Coopersville areas.
Bringing the four United Ways together was not a move driven by a need to cut costs, Possinger said. The primary goal was to create a more effective organization that makes greater use of its collective resources, he said.
“It allows us to not only provide the impact but to increase the impact on the communities,” he said.
As the organization moves forward, the goal now is to formulate strategies to gauge the effectiveness of the agency and the human-service programs it supports. The push for greater accountability and ways to better measure outcomes is both the “right thing to do” and, in part, the result of increasing requests from donors and benefactors, particularly corporate contributors, for information on how well their gift is working for the community.
“Certainly, corporations and individuals want to have, and rightfully so, the highest return for their investment,” Possinger said. “We need to know what we are doing well, and what we are not doing well.”
For now, the Greater Ottawa County United Way is in the midst of its allocation process following a 2001 fund-raising campaign that met its goal and netted pledges of $2.14 million.
Given the present times, Possinger was pleased with the results, despite the slight decrease in giving from the previous year.
The campaign began just days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., when national funds set up to aid the relief efforts and the families of attack victims were at the forefront of the nation’s giving.
The economic recession that has taken a harsh toll locally, with the mass layoffs in the office furniture industry, also affected giving. Still, about 65 percent of the contributions came from employee campaigns held at companies across the county.
“It was a campaign that had a lot of challenges, but a campaign that showed the true character of our community, and that’s one of generosity,” Possinger said.