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Business as Usual: United Way of Southwestern PA

Business as Usual
Education & Non-Profit

Today, Business as Usual welcomes Bobbi Watt Geer, President & CEO of the United Way of Southwestern PA, to detail its efforts helping people through the COVID-19 Pandemic, social unrest and a challenging economy. With the participation and support of more than 50,000 donors, advocates and volunteers each year, Geer will overview how the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania helps to improve lives and build brighter futures for individuals, families and communities across our entire region. People turn to United Way because no one is better at bringing entire communities together to create long-lasting change that improves lives for our family, friends and neighbors.





So good afternoon, everyone. This is Audrey Russo, President and CEO, the Pittsburgh Technology Council thrilled again to be here, I guess. Today, I almost thought today was Wednesday, but I guess it's not. Today, it's Tuesday. And I am very excited about our guest today, Bobby want gear. And before we set that up and bring her forward, what I'd like to do is just do the typical housekeeping is just to make sure that you know, we've muted your microphones. We've done that on purpose. And we hope that you don't hear any noise in the background to be considerate to our guests. And then we also have a chat, the chat is set up, and Jonathan's going to keep his eyes and ears tuned to the chat to just make sure that that if there are any questions that we have for Bobby, that they're addressed, and Jonathan kersting has joined us, as always, he's vice president of all things media, and marketing and doing some really incredible work in terms of podcasting and storytelling. I want to thank Huntington bank, they have been our friends for quite a while, but they've also been pretty passionate about supporting our experiments, which includes business as usual, on today's our hundred and 45th session of business as usual. So they have been with us through this entire pandemic. If you don't know anything about Huntington, you really should, because they really have stepped up to the plate to connect our members during the pandemic as one of the most active SBA lenders in the region. So they've been a friend to us. And stay tuned for even more things that we're going to be doing with them as well. So I'm going to jump right in and introduce Bobby Bobby Walker here. She is president and CEO of United Way of southwestern Pennsylvania. And I'm gonna bring it to the forefront. And we are going to just jump in and say, Hi, Bobby, hope you're doing well. given everything that's happened over the last seven months, I can only imagine what your world is light, particularly since that you're relatively new in your role at United Way of Southwest, greater Southwestern Pennsylvania. So on that note, welcome. And like, tell us a little bit about who is bobbing. Give us a little bit about who you are, the woman and the work that you've been doing right up to today. So

happy to be with you. Yeah, thanks for the invitation. Glad to be here today. And, you know, as you mentioned, Andre, I am only a little over a year into this role as the president and CEO of United Way of southwestern Pennsylvania. So I've been with the United Way system for almost 13 years. And one of the reasons why I am so drawn to the work at United Way is that it is at a systems level really looking at how can we help you build and sustain a region that helps people live their best lives, that they have the the services, and the support that they need when they need it to do so. And so when the pandemic reached this region, you know, it really it didn't change what United Way was built to do. But it certainly accelerated what we were doing at a dizzying pace. I think, you know, you know that we work with over 100 partners in the region to be able to deliver programs and services. And when we knew that COVID-19 was on our doorstep, we really worked to gear up our support services of our our great partners in the region, as well as 211, which is our 20 473 65 information referral helpline, which has been really at the epicenter of our response.

Well, so you are an IT. You've been around Pittsburgh for quite a while as it your whole life. You've been in Pittsburgh and you've done things I know, academically you've been at, you know, a student at our institutions. And I think you've actually been on the faculty at one of the institutions. Yeah, so I have born and raised in southwestern Pennsylvania and in Apollo in southern Armstrong County, and I'm a Westmoreland County resident now, but so I have never wandered too far from the region. I have. I've been to Pitt on two different tours. Also Robert Morris grad, and have done some teaching at Robert Morris at Pitt at St. Vincent out in Latrobe. So I've been 30 years my entire career in the nonprofit sector and it's it's really been a calling for me. Yeah, I can definitely tell Well, let's let's talk about United Way because United Way has been around for, for how long? Definitely have pivots in the future.

of United Way. And then let's talk about the kinds of things and we're gonna, we're gonna talk a little bit about 211 as well, because I want everyone to have a great appreciation for that work of two on one, I had a little bit of an outside view, in terms of 211, and some of the schools situation. So I know that it is the heartbeat, and creates the neural path for a lot of the activity in the region. So talk about, you know, United Way, and even some of the priorities and how old is the United Way. So United Way has been around in Pittsburgh for almost 100 years, but as a global network, 133 years. So we have been in one of the largest nonprofit organizations in the world for a very long time. Locally, we really focus in four key areas, we help children succeed in school, so that they can build a successful life, we work to help financially struggling families gain firmer footing, we help older adults live independently and safely in their homes as long as possible. And the fourth population that we serve as people with disabilities, helping connect them to employment, and living in community in ways that they choose, so that they have more choice in that. And those have been our four key focus areas for a couple of decades now. And so that's how we work either in partnership with individual nonprofit organizations or with Coalition's and that's really what the strength of the United Way network is about is serving as this connective tissue between nonprofit organizations, corporations, their employees, public agencies, and the like. So that we can creatively problem solve human service crises in our communities.

We'll talk about create them and talk about crises within five, five months or less COVID hits, and neither way becomes the most, you know, if one of the most important pieces of this human services ecosystem, so talk about what happened, like back in March, well, it actually have to rewind a bit to January. So we start reaching out to county leadership, local government and saying, Look, 211 is here and ready for when you need us. And it was a little funny, they said, Well, thank you for that. We appreciate your outreach, we don't think we're going to need you for anything, but That's very kind of you kind of pat you on the head.

So March 13, when we all sent everybody home, you know, for my offices and your offices. We go home, set up our home offices on Saturday morning, March 14, that about a day and we got a call from the county saying, You reached out, can you help? And what they needed help with was that all these calls started coming into the poison control line about where do I get tested? What are the symptoms of covid? Is it safe for me to ride the bus to work? Do I go to work? What do I do with my kids? All this flood of calls. So it's Saturday morning, and the county's asking us to take on these calls. By Sunday night, we had the team trained up. And when I say the team, I got everybody else. If you are on the donor relations staff, if you are on program staff, you got trained on how to be a 211 resource navigator. And by Sunday night, we were ready to take those calls. And since then we've had a 140% increase in the contacts to 211. And that's traditional phone calls, texts, chats, web self service, and we try to channel those calls and contacts and escalate those that are more complicated to highly trained resource navigators. And then some of us who were filling in would take the easier calls but working in concert with the health department. We've taken roughly 1000 contacts a day. And then as the public health crisis morphed into quickly, the economic crisis, we started taking a lot of those kinds of calls people were on employed, how do we get them connected to the services that they need? And predominantly, what we saw was that people were scrambling to get food, people were scrambling to get food. So working in partnership with our great food banks. People were scrambling to pay their rent and their utilities and we expect that to continue as we see moratoriums lifted here in the future and unemployment benefits those additional benefits running out. So 211 has continued since March 15, essentially, really handling a tremendous number of calls and contacts related to health related to economic issues in the community.

Well, here's what's so interesting.

Thing is, how did to structure even to one one as someone who used to work and in sort of technology helped us green A long time ago, what did you have an IVR? Did you have to create this IVR that is constantly being adapted, we do use an IVR. And you know, I say this with, I'm not a technology guru, but I understand this much, you know, that we are able to as contacts come in channel those according to need. So we have specialized resource navigators, for instance, folks who had special scripts around COVID response if people were asking questions about where, where to get tested, and all of this was vetted with the health department as well. And so we're able to direct those calls and contacts, we're able to escalate those that are more complicated. And we're actually doing a program now that we're working with school administrators, we're working for school administrators, and coaches, when they have questions about the health and well being of kids going back into school or sports. We're also working with the health department to answer some of those questions. And if those questions are more complicated, then we move them on to the experts at Children's Hospital to answer. So we have a lot of structure built into 211, that allows us to channel those calls and contacts to the right to the right door. Yes, and I actually was part of listening to one of those calls with school administrators, trying to figure out how you were going to be able to, you know, point people and experts and Doc's, etc, through Children's Hospital. So my hat's off to you. Because the the array of calls and the types of calls that come in have to span from just the most serious to the most complex, and I don't think people in our region really understand what it takes to actually operate that and to problem solve. And my hat's off to you for positioning that. So that's still a resource, but 140,000%, increasing, Bobby were all in business here. And we never see those kind of numbers, right. Even in even in in one of the most fastest growing tech companies like zoom, they've not seen that kind of increase, they may have seen 600%, but nothing like what you're talking about now. So how, how are you how's your team doing, and who, how many people are on your team, so people can understand this sort of the breadth of this now. So as you can imagine, we did not have enough staff on 211, to be able to over a weekend over the weekend that we first went remote, by the way. So when I say we went remote, even our resource navigators, who typically work out of a contact center, were also being sent home. So we trained up about half of our existing staff. So we have 85 people on United Way of southwestern Pennsylvania staff team. So we're a fairly small organization. And at any given time, about 20 of them work on 211. So we had to also train up about 30 additional staff to be able to handle some of those calls and contacts until we could hire and train more folks to work on 211. So that ebbs and flows over time. But right now, I think we have about 3035 people in total working on 211. They're pretty efficient. They're they're well trained, they have a database of 8000 resources in the region. So 211 is available across the state, but we actually cover 13 counties in southwestern Pennsylvania at our operation. So they're pretty efficient in handling those questions and concerns. And they know how to also when they don't have the answer, they track it down. And those folks also do follow up. So I listened to a call yesterday of a woman who was having difficulty getting food, she needed transportation, so we actually helped get that food delivered to her. She needed help with her utility bills, and she needed help with some medical bills as well. And that particular call ended up taking the resource navigator about 20 minutes to work through and get her connected to all those resources. But what we're seeing during the pandemic is that the escalation of of people having maybe one or two issues that they're trying to deal with now or four or five or six, and it's taking longer to be able to address those. So it's it's really pushing on us to continue to look for ways to innovate, and channel those those inquiries so that we can most efficiently get through them. And most importantly, get people help.

And so do you get just being a data geek than I am to you?

Get Data every day that reveals anecdotally and and quantitatively what kinds of calls and problem resolutions and etc, as we do, thank you for asking that question. And, you know, over these last six months or so we've been scrambling to meet the need and deal with the crushing wave of requests that come in. But over the last couple of months, what we've been doing is assembling that data. And we just put out the inaugural edition of what we're calling the pulse report. We're doing this in partnership with allies for children in the poise Foundation, but it's largely reflective of our 211 data, but other data resources in the community. And what we're looking at is a series of indicators on health and wellness, financial stability, food access, and housing, and child welfare, and also childcare. So youth engagement and child care. And our plan is to put out this pulse report every month, so that we can use this data to inform the work that we're doing the work that we're investing in, and then also for advocacy purposes, so that we can make sure that policymakers understand what we're seeing in the community. So a resounding yes to to answer your question. We are very, very interested in tracking and using the data that two on one and other sources provide us Audrey.

Yeah, I mean, I can't I can only imagine. I mean, it takes me to jump ahead for one second. What about the predictability? So what are you finding from this data? And what's the arc? Like, as we move? We move ahead. What do you find? What are you worried about? What do you think as we get into the winter and where the needs are and the way that unemployment? Yeah, so yeah, we are seeing some stabilization of some of the requests around food and housing support. Well, we we've seen them, you know, they weren't up tremendously for probably five or six of the months of the seven months into the pandemic. What's concerning and what we want to keep our eye on is is that utility moratoriums are being lifted, except under certain conditions.

Some of the rules have changed around eviction and moratoriums as well. We know there's a pretty significant backlog on eviction cases. And so if those moratoriums are lifted, we're going to see a pretty significant crush in need in terms of people needing to stay wanting to stay in their homes. We we work specifically with 10 agencies in our emergency basic needs network. So it's sort of the last stop in the system to try to help people not have the disaster of being evicted or having the utilities shut off. And in the last six months, we have helped about 500 people through this network.

And we expect that if those moratoriums are lifted, we're going to see that need increase by multiples, not just the the 500 we serve so far. So that's concerning. For sure.

So what's what's going on right now in public policy standpoint on the moratorium for rent? So there are there is a moratorium in place, through the end of the year and again, in the utility moratorium, if I'm understanding this correctly, is that you need to provide a lot of evidence that you meet the criteria. And so that's another role for 211 to help people understand what those criteria are to qualify for the moratoriums and how they can qualify for the rent and mortgage assistance that's available through the cares act. So 211 will help people understand that and direct them to those resources. But in the event that those change at the end of the year, we need to be careful, that need could significantly increase.

And so in terms of fundraising and in terms of United Way, and if people are interested in both financially getting engaged to support you, or even volunteering, how does that work? Can you describe the mechanics of that? Sure. So a number of people participate in the United Way workplace campaigns, it's kind of what we are known for, but there are a lot of individual donors who make contributions to United Way. We raise approximately $30 million annually. That's the last couple of years and invest that back into the community and we run upwards of 800 corporate campaigns.

Across our five county service region, so it's a pretty significant partnership for us. And it enables us to fund about 100 nonprofit partners. But we also make about a $14 million investment in agencies who aren't traditional partner agencies. They're designated by our donors. So we facilitate a lot of philanthropy in the region. And unlike foundations, that clock resets every year, so we're, we have a fundraising year, we raise those dollars and we invest them. But it's pretty important in the ways that we're able to, especially through our impact Fund, which is the general unrestricted fund, be able to give flexibility to our partner agencies at a time like this, we were first out of the gate saying to our partner agencies, you can unrestricted those dollars and use them as you see fit in the community. And we work I was talking before the show started, we work with our volunteer network to be able to select those those agencies and to have accountability with them. So there's a there's a deep level of trust and partnership, so that when something like this happens, we can work closely to meet the greatest needs. So there are a lot of ways to participate across our focus areas participate in a workplace campaign. And with regard to volunteering, we have a volunteer

page on our website that we've been keeping up to date volunteer opportunities across the region, that you can click right on them and sign right up. We have very stringent guidelines around promoting health and safety. But the fact of the matter is, we still need volunteers, and you can volunteer safely. And there are also virtual volunteering opportunities available for people. Okay, good. So we will put that information up on our site and make it available to people to great participate, that would be great. And then you also work with other organizations like in alignment. So is there a way that you work with the Pittsburgh Foundation, for example, that people can understand those kinds of partnerships? Sure, the Pittsburgh Foundation has been a great partner throughout the pandemic with us, and at all times, really. But you know, at the beginning of the pandemic United Way made the decision, we're not going to run a separate fundraising campaign to support the efforts of the pandemic, we'll partner with our foundation partners like the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Helmand foundation. And what that allowed us to do, because we have this closer connection to the nonprofit agencies, the human service agencies in the community, that allowed us to creatively problem solve, and left the the fundraising piece in this instance, to the foundations. And it's been a great partnership, because we've helped advise where some of the greatest needs are. And and we've had the ability then to respond to those. So we've worked closely with the foundations throughout this. We've worked closely with the health department, the Department of Human Services, aligning our efforts around how do we help families and kids who aren't in school right now. We're helping to develop the Virtual Learning hubs and in person learning hubs and supporting those financially. We supported child care agencies over the summer, so that they could staff up and get the peepee and have the cleaning regimens, they needed to be able to provide services safely for kids and families over the summer. So we really, we partner with all types of agencies to make sure that what the community needs we can get.

So what you know, what do you want to say to the tech community as we sort of wind down what you know, and what the tech community has been tremendously generous with time and money, we've seen them with focusing on the digital divide, making sure that there's access to technology and internet, etc. And also drives around food. You know, we've done a lot to try to help the food bank we have Lisa on early, but you know, and I and obviously we want people to contribute, if that makes sense for them in terms of their their focus. But what keeps you up at night, like so what can we do? Well, I can't imagine everything that you've just conveyed. I can't imagine just going okay, I'm going to sleep and I can't even you know, there's would be so many things on my mind in terms of what my impact should be and what my priorities are. So what can we do to be helpful. So, you know, I think this is going to be a long, this is going to be a marathon, it's not a sprint, that the recovery is going to take a while. And what I think is really, you know, a strong element of our community is our ability to partner together. None of

can do it individually. And what I would ask the tech community and United Way is kind of a legacy organization, we have a long history. And in some folks have a certain perception of what we are who we are. I would encourage take another look, it's really important that that we work together that we figure out who's the you who's the right agency, who's the right lead, and United Way does a lot of that work. It's kind of the power of the convener connector, leveraging of resources. And it's not just the money, it's the volunteers. It's the advocacy that's needed. It's the how do we figure out how to solve this particular problem. And it's all very creative and innovative work. And that's what you all are good at. And we need that in the discussion. And so that's what I would would leave you with and ask you to consider is, you know, how can you help us solve some of these problems and, and work towards strengthening our community?

Could can, and I think we all are interested in that, whether we're working in tech or not. So how does Bobby take care of herself through all of this?

Well, I, I have told a few people that I have walked more than 1000 miles since March, that I am a bit of a fitness not my staff team knows this about me as well that I think it's really important to be able to step away, it's been really stressful, very long working hours.

and wanting to take care of the team, but recognizing that you've got to step away and get a little exercise as well.

Wow, that's great. So you walk to California and back quite a few times. Over these seven months, right? I, I'm on my third pair of new shoes.

Okay, so come the winter, you need to be careful, but a little grippers on those on those sneakers, you're gonna walk that far. So I want to thank you for joining us today. Thank you, Bobby, we're gonna put the information out there. Thanks for your leadership. I also want to give a shout out that we have a 4000 registrant today that Stacey federoff. I don't know if she's on, but Jonathan, you probably send her a T shirt. We can send you a T shirt. Absolutely. Hopefully, Stacy is somewhere on here, which is sort of fun. And I appreciate your support and for being here. And then tomorrow, we actually are going to talk to Dr. Cohen, Dr. Jeff Cohen, and Rich lunak about a new initiative over at Hm, that is focusing on health care innovation. So we're gonna get an up front view on that. And Jonathan, what else is coming this week? Is there anything else? So I believe we have sighted agents stopping by on Thursday. I think BK the executive producer here just locked them down. So yeah, we're bringing guests on as I find them and get them who are at the leading edge. And they're actually starting a COVID trial right now. So it should be an interesting conversation on Thursday.

That's awesome. All right. Well, again, reach out to United Way You heard it from Bobby here, she's got a lot on her plate. And if you just see takeaways, just what they do in terms of 211 and how they're trying to make sure that as we get into winter, we're well prepared. And there's a lot of issues that we can surround them on in terms of supporting public policy and advocacy. So thank you, Bobby, welcome. I know you spent more than more time working virtually than you were in the office, but and I imagine we're going to have a long winter. But if we work together, we can probably achieve some greatness. So thank you. Thank you so much for your time. Thank you, Jonathan. Everyone, stay safe. And we will see you tomorrow.

Thank you.

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