Haight aims United Way at long-term results

June 1, 2009
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A trial-by-flood cemented Bob Haight’s belief in the power of community.

In 1993, Haight was president of River Bend United Way in Alton, Ill., when the Mississippi River flooded Alton and scores of other towns to record levels. The city needed help.

“We didn’t have running water for three weeks,” Haight recalled. “A lot of our businesses had to shut down. Manufacturing had to shut down. … And it took a good six months to a year for recovery.”

Without hesitation, Haight steered the United Way into disaster relief. He called a United Way in Florida to get tips from its experience with hurricanes.

At one point, evacuated citizens were jammed into a stifling high school gymnasium where no one seemed to be authorized to provide fans. Haight made his way to the closest big-box store and asked the manager for a donation. “It was that whole notion of making some decisions, not based on what’s in the manual, but really looking at the situation on the ground,” he said.

“There was a small town, probably not more than 500 or 600 people. We had 1,000 Jaycees show up one day, wanting to help. Well, because of the size of the group, it took away from the flood relief. So even just how you coordinate volunteer services … how do you coordinate gifts in-kind? We were getting truckloads of stuff, some of which we could use and some of which we couldn’t.”

Ten years and two jobs later, Haight arrived in Grand Rapids to lead the Heart of West Michigan United Way. He doesn’t expect the Grand River to inundate Grand Rapids to the extent that Alton suffered, but West Michigan faces its own potential disasters, such as tornadoes or snowstorms.

“I think our United Way performed really well in those circumstances, but it was one of those learning opportunities you never forget,” Haight said. “That’s why I felt it was so important for our 211 (telephone help line) staff to be trained. It’s not if it will happen — a natural disaster here in Grand Rapids or Kent County — it’s when and at what magnitude.”

Over the past six years under Haight’s direction, the Heart of West Michigan United Way has made some changes. While it still supports 116 programs at 51 nonprofit organizations working in a variety of social services fields, the United Way has undertaken a shift to position it as a provider of early childhood and literacy programs, and to develop year-round, outside-the-workplace relationships with donors.

“What we’re really trying to achieve is more community collaboration and systemic change with those focus dollars, understanding that we still have to have the foundation of a human services delivery system,” Haight said.

Haight points to research showing that brain development through age 3 occurs faster than at any other time and is crucial for laying the foundation for education and preparation of a quality work force. “The business community is beginning to say, ‘Let’s invest early, because we know it makes a difference over the long term.’”

Over the decades, United Way’s prowess with its fall fundraising campaign through regional companies has given it so strong an identity that people fail to comprehend “the total community impact that the organization has, in terms of how we leverage resources, how we partner with so many different organizations,” Haight said. “We add value beyond the annual campaign.”

Haight brought in a marketing expert and has enhanced the importance of the marketing function to support efforts to develop more personal relationships with donors.

About 75 percent of the United Way’s revenue comes from individuals, and the majority donate through their workplaces. Annual revenue is about $17 million, with $13 million of that coming through the fall campaign.

“Obviously, the workplace has changed considerably,” Haight said. “We’re trying to have more of a donor-centric model. Even though we may engage the donor at the workplace, we’re getting that direct relationship with the donor.”

That change is expected to allow United Way to maintain a connection with donors who change jobs as some sectors of the economy emerge while others fade, he added.

“Manufacturing is still a major part of our success, and it always will be,” he said. “But like any other business, we’re having to diversify our revenues. We’ve diversified in terms of grants. We’ve diversified in terms of leveraging some state and federal funding. … Having said that, the annual campaign is the single largest source, but by far not the only source.”

Haight was born in Painesville, Ohio, east of Cleveland, the son of a pipe-fitter and a homemaker, both now deceased. His mother grew up in a state-run children’s home and then in private foster care after the children’s home burned down.

“The kids were put out into different foster families. The kids were actually split up. Then as the older sisters would become married, they would bring the younger sisters into their family,” he said.

His mother’s experiences helped shape Haight’s eventual career choice. He earned a degree in business administration at Ashland College in 1980 and headed off to the local bank for his first job. Soon his boss assigned him to work with the hometown United Way. He loved it and quickly left banking to become its associate director.

“Just knowing a little bit of her history kind of drew me to this type of work,” Haight said of his mother. “She was always so grateful for the holiday baskets and those types of things that different organizations put together. That meant so much to her when she was in foster care at the children’s home. ... That helped instill this whole notion of … giving back to others.”

Haight obtained a master’s degree in social science administration from Case Western Reserve University. After his wife, Sue, was laid off from a teaching job, they were free to move, and Haight landed a post as the first executive director of the Lenawee United Way in Adrian. He spent three years there. “I was the director and we had a part-time bookkeeper, and we were it,” he recalled.

Then in 1985, Haight’s career took him south into Illinois, where he led progressively larger United Way organizations, including the one in Alton during what is known as the Great Flood of 1993. He went on to lead the Heart of Illinois United Way in Peoria, and then was named president of United Way of Illinois, a statewide support organization for 150 local United Way organizations. “In that role, I did more training, leadership development, and staffed all of our public policy work in Illinois,” he explained.

“It was a great experience to run a state organization. But you’re dealing so much with systems and processes and training and public policy that you get somewhat removed from the true, day-to-day work, and I wanted to get back in the real work that we do in communities. That’s my passion.”

Haight applied for the opening in Grand Rapids even though he didn’t know anyone here.

“The Heart of West Michigan United Way has always had a great reputation in the United Way system,” Haight said. “It’s the size of community where you have access to community leaders. You can really make thing happen.

“You have global business leaders, entrepreneurs and local business leaders who really believe in re-investing in the community, and they are active participants,” he continued. “I think what has made West Michigan so successful is the personal engagement, the personal involvement, of those business leaders. In this community, you can pick up the phone and actually get a meeting with a business leader or a CEO. Whether it’s business, education or government, you do have access to the key decision-makers. In Chicago, you’re probably working with a vice president or a manager.”

Still, there are local challenges. Money raised in the last campaign was down about 4 percent. With unemployment at nearly 13 percent and the recession still burning, the Heart of West Michigan United Way this year cut expenses by 10 percent and laid off six employees, Haight said, bringing the staff down to 49.

He said the board of directors, understanding that human services agencies face a greater demand for services in the poor economy, is likely to dip into the organization’s stabilization fund to maintain funding at last year’s levels.

Yet Haight is encouraged by a new initiative to introduce an after-school reading program in Grand Rapids. Called Youth Education Tomorrow, it utilizes church facilities and volunteers to reach children whose reading skills are below grade level. Haight said Grand Rapids pilot programs at three sites involving 52 children showed reading skills increased by nearly a full grade level after four months.

“We’re hoping that over the next couple of years, we’ll be able to take that to anywhere from seven to 15 different sites,” he said. “Our results have been as good, if not better, than in other cities that have been part of that national pilot. We needed to make sure it was affordable, sustainable and getting the results that we were working for. We’re very optimistic. At least, the early results look very good.”

Haight admitted to being a bit of a homebody, although he likes to golf on occasion. He pays homage to three mentors: Dr. John Yankey of Case Western Reserve University; Rodman St. Clair, a retired executive from Olin Corp.; and Mary Ann Morrison, of the Caterpillar Foundation.

“These leaders have taught me that you don’t plant rice if you want to grow trees. We need to think about systemic change in terms of long-term measurements.”

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