United Way of Topeka: Changes to nonprofit are paying off

Significant changes in the way United Way of Topeka allocated funds to area nonprofit agencies are paying off five years later, the organization’s new board chairwoman said Thursday.


Becky Holmquist, US Bank, officially took the helm of United Way’s board at the annual meeting. She is replacing Larry Robbins, USD 501, at the end of his two-year term.

“The story of impact in our community is finally being written. The first five years were a lot of pre-work for the developing narrative,” Holmquist said. “We’re starting to get measurements of our impact work. We’re starting to understand how it’s changed people and how it’s ultimately going to change our community.”

In 2012, United Way shifted from giving financial support to specific organizations and went instead to a grant system, targeting the organization’s dollars to make specific changes in the community. The focus is on education, financial stability and health. The first years were challenging, both for UW and for the nonprofits it funded.

But Holmquist told UW supporters that programs put in place, such as a Neighborhood Opportunity for Wellness grant that has been at work in Topeka’s public housing neighborhoods and support of Pine Ridge Preschool, have had noticeable impacts.

“The first preschoolers that you helped in 2012 are now in fourth grade,” Holmquist said. “Those children brought the challenges of their first few years of life that included poverty and crime and hunger and traumas that most of us don’t experience in a whole lifetime. All the partners working together pulled the potential from those kids, and they helped them to develop the skills and the habits that they need to start kindergarten and have success. Their teachers in grade school tell us that it worked.”

Test scores for those children are up, she added. At Pine Ridge Preschool, families in public housing were first cautious and even reluctant to send their children to the preschool. It launched with a few children in one room. Today, there are now three classrooms and children can go a full day to preschool. There’s also a summer program.

Holmquist said there have been changes through these first few learning years. One change is that they need to gather more data to show program effectiveness.

United Way CEO Jessica Lehnherr, who took over the position two months ago, said gathering donations for data initiatives may not generate the “warm, fuzzy feeling” that donors get from directly helping in programs. But it’s critical to the organization’s future.

“We have all learned from this evolution we’ve been on,” she said. “Community impact is hard; collective impact is even harder. When you serve someone a meal or give them a coat, you know right away that you’re making a difference. But when you send a 4-year-old to preschool, it’s harder to know how her experience might shape that small soul.”

The United Way goal for its annual giving campaign this year is $2.75 million.

UW leaders also announced the naming of its legacy giving society, the Oliverius Society, named for Maynard and Sarah Oliverius, who have named United Way as a beneficiary in their estate. Another new award has been named for Topeka’s beloved “Hat Lady,” Marge Heeney, who died in June.

The volunteer award will honor people who make extraordinary gifts of their time and energy to United Way, said Kimberly Wolff, senior director of volunteer engagement.

”Volunteers are the soul of United Way,” she said. “We are incredibly grateful for the passion, expertise and hard work that every volunteer brings. But in every organization, there’s someone who has gone above and beyond the call of duty and accomplished truly incredible things. If you’ve ever had the chance to meet Marge Heeney, she has certainly accomplished incredible things here in Shawnee County.”

Wolff gave the first Marge Heeney Award of Excellence to Heeney’s family.