Heart of Illinois United Way Executive Director Michael Stephan has a bachelor of business administration degree from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA.. He began his career with the United Way in 1986, working his way up through local agencies in Oklahoma City, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C.

Since Stephan became executive director in 2000, the Heart of Illinois United Way has seen a significant increase in fund raising—from $5.6 million to a record $6.3 million in 2001. Under his leadership, the Challenge Grant was created, bringing together dollars from Caterpillar Inc., CEFCU, and Methodist Medical Center of Illinois. He’s also overseen the beginning of a five-year strategic plan to move towards fund distribution based on measurable outcomes.

Keeping with the United Way’s commitment to nurturing youth and families, Stephan implemented the Youth United for Central Illinois committee at the Heart of Illinois United Way.

Stephan has been married for 13 years and has two children.

Tell us about your background, schools attended, work history, family, etc. 

I grew up in Columbia, Md., a diverse community near Baltimore and Washington, D.C. I was fortunate to grow up with excellent role models in my parents, who displayed a strong work ethic while maintaining the priorities of family, health, and faith. I graduated with a business management degree from James Madison University in Harrisburg, Va.

I met my wife while working for my first United Way in Oklahoma City, Okla. My friends joke that I had to move halfway across the country to find somebody to put up with me. We now have two children and enjoy the quality of life here in central Illinois.
My previous experiences with other United Ways from across the nation include director of Major Corporations for the United Way of the National Capital Area in Washington D.C., division director of Fundraising for the Valley of the Sun United Way in Phoenix, and associate campaign director for the United Way of Metro Oklahoma City.

Of course, working for any United Way offers opportunities to become involved in the community and national issues. Currently, I serve as a board member for ArtsPartners, Peoria Area Labor Management Group, and the United Way of Illinois State Association; serve as a member of the Finance Committee for the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce; assist the United Way of America Executive Director Brian Gallagher with a review of the Capital Area; and serve as Host City Chair for the 2003 United Way Great Rivers Conference, coming to Peoria next February.

How and when was the United Way started? Who or what was behind the movement to create our local United Way? And describe its history and services.

Most people don’t realize the many United Ways across the United States aren’t chapters of a national organization. Each United Way is autonomous and serves only its local community. The dollars raised aren’t forwarded to one national group located in our capital, but rather, they stay here, helping the citizens of our hometowns. Of course, there’s a benefit to being associated with the United Way name—each locally operated organization receives educational benefits and resources many smaller United Ways may not be able to afford. Of course, this diversity also means each United Way has its own story to tell.

In 2002, the Heart of Illinois United Way celebrates 80 years of serving the community through its annual campaign. Our first campaign took place in 1922 and raised $97,000 that was distributed among 18 charities. The leadership for this campaign came from local citizens concerned about finding new methods of raising the needed dollars for our communities and providing social planning and collaboration for our local social welfare agencies. Originally named the Peoria Community Fund Association, the group focused on the smallpox epidemic of 1929, relief needs of the Great Depression, and eventually the War Fund. It was in 1933 our United Way of today began to emerge. Once federal programs began to lift the relief burden from community funds across the nation, agencies began to reevaluate their programs in an effort to coordinate services and plan on a community level. This goal still remains today and is one of the primary focuses of the Heart of Illinois United Way’s strategic plan.

How has the Heart of Illinois United Way changed since its inception? How many agencies do you serve now? How has the number of employees and volunteers changed?

Over the years we’ve moved from agency funding to program funding to, most recently, outcome-based funding. This movement is made in an attempt to position us not only as an effective community-wide fundraiser, but also as a community problem solver. This funding process requires our agencies to show results for specific programs receiving United Way funds. In addition, this encourages collaboration between agencies that may be duplicating their efforts and allows for evaluation of what services need to be prioritized in our community.

Today, the Heart of Illinois United Way works with 44 member agencies and the more than 100 funded programs they offer. Our number of staff members actually decreased over the years, while our number of volunteers increased substantially—to more than 6,000. In essence, we’ve streamlined and become a much more efficient organization.

Tell us about how the Heart of Illinois United Way raises funds. How much does it distribute each year? What makes the United Way unique among other nonprofits?

Since our humble beginnings, the Heart of Illinois United Way has raised more than $160 million to help the people of central Illinois. From our first campaign in 1922 to the 2001 Campaign that raised $6.289 million, there have been many fundraising milestones in our 80-year history.

Our nonprofit organization works efficiently by keeping our fundraising and administration costs down. Our overall expenses, including these two functions, remain at a constant 10.7 percent of our total budget. Simply put, that means 89.3 cents of every dollar collected from the campaign goes directly back to services and programs in this community.

What makes the United Way unique among other nonprofits is the way we raise our dollars. We are the major campaign in the workplace, offering payroll deduction and one-time gifts. Each year we put together a dynamite volunteer Campaign Cabinet with a division chair for each of our area’s industries. Each chair recruits account volunteers who make calls on the hundreds of companies and organizations that currently—or could potentially—host internal United Way campaigns.

The other factor that makes us unique among other charitable organizations is our inclusiveness. Anyone who has reviewed our 44-member agencies and their United Way-funded programs knows the services we’re able to help provide in the community are phenomenal. We focus on nurturing children and youth, strengthening families, building self-reliance, and promoting health and rehabilitation.

Tell us about your United Way simulcast—when was it implemented and how has it helped your message be heard by the public?

The simulcast was an idea I had from my time with the United Way in Washington, D.C. When we met with the general managers of our local television stations, they enthusiastically supported this endeavor. Plus, it also helped that one of the local general managers had worked on the Washington D.C. simulcast. This special program isn’t a telethon but a compelling and informative program on our local United Way and the programs we support. Now in its third year, it’s become an integral part of our overall marketing plan. The 2002 simulcast aired September 9 on WEEK, WHOI, WMBD-TV, WMBD-AM, WYZZ, WAOE-UPN, and WTVP.

The annual United Way campaign total has risen dramatically since you became executive director. To what do you attribute the rise? How do the ambassadors play a part in the campaign success?

Central Illinois is blessed to have an incredibly generous, caring community. Over the past two years, we really focused our efforts on expanding our base of support and brought 130 new companies into our campaign. The main driving force behind this growth is coming from our dedicated volunteers and the creation of the Caterpillar/CEFCU/Methodist Medical Center of Illinois Challenge Grant. The Challenge Grant will match every new campaign dollar raised.

Of course, our Campaign Ambassadors also play a vital role in the success of the campaigns. In 2002, we have nine full-time Campaign Ambassadors employed by area companies and organizations, who are loaned to the Heart of Illinois United Way for approximately three months to assist with several aspects of the campaign such as presentations and training. Because we have such a small staff, these individuals are crucial to our success. These ambassadors, along with the volunteers on our Campaign Cabinet, serve as our ambassadors in the community.

You’ve had a 16-year career with various United Ways. What attracted you to the organization at the beginning of your career?

In college I was given an opportunity to volunteer for a regional Special Olympics event. Since I was one volunteer who liked to talk a lot, I had the privilege of being the Master of Ceremonies. At the end of the day’s events I was the one who put the medals around each winner’s neck. I’ll never forget the pride on each happy face as they received their awards. It was an emotionally rewarding event in my life, and from that moment on, I began re-examining my priorities. At that point I made a conscious decision that whatever career path I pursued, or whatever community I lived in, I would have to be doing something to help others. After graduation I had the opportunity to volunteer with the United Way in Washington, D.C., which later led me to pursuing a career in the field.

You have made several moves throughout your career. Did these experiences make you a better director? How does the Heart of Illinois United Way compare to other United Ways you’ve worked with?

Personally and professionally, I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work for several United Ways around the country. Peoria, Washington, D.C., Phoenix, and Oklahoma City are very different in many ways—their environment, culture, and community support. I believe with each of these experiences I’ve been able to bring new ideas to other communities. Each community has its positive attributes, and the Peoria area certainly has an abundant list of them as well. This community is very fortunate to have companies and organizations that are extremely generous and committed to the well being of their residents. The other communities I’ve worked in were much more transient, so there wasn’t the same sense of local pride found here in the Peoria area.

What effect did the tragedies of September 11 have on the United Way? Are you still feeling the effects locally?

The community spirit created by September 11 became very important to the 2001 Campaign. It was important for us to step forward and make sure the community services offered and needed here at home were maintained. While the economy and subsequent budgetary issues since the attacks are just beginning to affect our local agencies, there could have been even greater effects if our local residents hadn’t stepped forward as they did last year with their level of caring. Not only did we reach our 2001 goal, we exceeded it. That’s money that stayed here in our hometowns.

More than anything, we’ve noted an increase in how residents are aware of their community and appreciate what they have available to them. The outpouring of support nationwide has led to people depending on each other now more than ever. It’s through these united efforts that there’s been an obvious increase in patriotism and a greater sense of caring in the community.

How has the nonprofit industry changed over the years? How has the United Way changed? Have these changes been for the better or worse?

The changes in the nonprofit industry have most definitely been for the better over these past years. One of the major changes that stands out above the rest is the quality of the personnel now working at nonprofit organizations. They’ve increasingly become more qualified and educated, factors that in turn created higher quality programs and services for agency clients.

Of course, just as with any industry, competition for dollars and customers is increasing. New nonprofit organizations spring up on a regular basis, and that means it’s time for existing agencies to look towards collaboration and innovation. They need to be constantly looking at how they serve the community, how they conduct their fundraising, and working together to find creative solutions to providing services.

Nonprofit, human service agencies also changed in how they deal with clients. Today, they’re more structured and increasingly focus on means of intervention and prevention. This proactive approach deals with more than the immediate situation facing the client by also dealing with their socialization skills, behavior, and education.

As for the United Way, the quality of our staff also increased over the years. Like other nonprofits, it’s vital to have a talented staff and a business-run organization, especially one that cares for its community day in and day out.

What impact will the recent Illinois budget cuts have on the local human service industry? What programs will be most affected? Will United Way funds be more crucial than ever?

The fallout from the Illinois budget cuts has only reached the tip of the iceberg, with more effects to come. Many agencies have been able to simply maintain their services for the short run, often depending on reserves and endowments to get them through daily operations.

Of course, United Way funds will be more crucial than ever because they’re needed to make up for the state cuts. Often our funds are used to match state grants no longer available, and as I mentioned earlier, collaboration and innovation are becoming more vital by the minute.

What, if any, misperceptions do our community members hold regarding the United Way?

I mentioned our most common misconception when discussing our history—many view us as a chapter of a larger organization. When in actuality, being autonomous is a strength because each community is unique and has different program needs. By operating independently, but still striving for the same United Way ideals, we can offer the best service to our communities.

Also, I think people are surprised by how we utilize thousands of volunteers each year within all aspects of our organization including the campaign, marketing, finance, and fund distribution. This year we’re implementing a new campaign theme: “United. It’s how we get things done.” And it truly does represent just how much community members—from all backgrounds—are involved in the Heart of Illinois United Way’s decision-making processes.

How have you marketed your organization in the past? Have you seen any changes in these efforts because of the economic downturn?

When I first came to Peoria, I found local residents had a tremendous amount of respect for the Heart of Illinois United Way, but they weren’t completely aware of the entire role we play in the community. Personally, I view a donation as an investment—an investment in helping others. Like any investment, one should hear about their return on that investment. We need to make sure we continually inform our donors and do marketing on a year round basis, so people don’t just hear from us during campaign time. I believe the Heart of Illinois United Way is the critical link in the community, bringing together those who need help and those who want to help. And in turn, we become the best investment for one’s charitable dollar.

How does the United Way recruit and retain quality employees? Have you seen a change in these efforts since you’ve been with the organization?

A nonprofit organization needs to conduct itself as any other business. It needs to be run efficiently while recruiting and maintaining grade “A” personnel and utilizing other resources in the most effective and committed manner. Fortunately, I’ve been able to surround myself with a very competent and committed staff, with skills and strengths that come together to make a great team. With such a small staff, our board and personnel committee appreciate that we must be competitive if we’re going to continue to recruit and maintain stellar employees. This strong team and goal-driven environment amongst the staff also carries over to our United Way volunteers.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job? The most rewarding?

The most challenging is continually positioning Heart of Illinois United Way as not only the community fundraiser, but also as a community problem solver. At times, when I get wrapped up in the day-to-day business operations of the organization, I may briefly forget why I pursued this career in the first place. That’s when I take time to visit one of our agencies, meet with their clients, hear their success stories, and see first-hand the wonderful services they’re providing. What’s most rewarding is knowing we’re truly and positively impacting so many lives.

What changes do you foresee for the Heart of Illinois United Way in the future?

Of course, one of the most challenging changes is the move from agency- and program-based funding to outcome-based funding. Yet it’s important to constantly show tangible results and share the success stories created from the dollars raised by our United Way. Our year-round marketing efforts will continue to grow to meet this change and show the Heart of Illinois United Way is our community’s most accountable and results-driven charitable organization.

Nurturing children and youth, strengthening families, building self-reliance, and promoting health and rehabilitation will continue to be our purpose as we move ahead into the coming years and take the lead as the Peoria area’s community problem solver. IBI