On Sunday, June 4, 2023, UWM President and CEO Shawna Forsberg appeared on “Issues & Answers” with Ed Thompson. The public affairs program aired on KOIL 1290 AM at 5:30 a.m. and on FM stations The Keg 101.9, Power 106.9 and Sweet 98.5 at 9 a.m.
You can listen to the audio and read the transcript below:
This is I-N-A: Issues and Answers, addressing the issues important to you and our community. And now I-N-A: Issues and Answers.
Hello and welcome to another edition of I-N-A: Issues and Answers, a public affairs program of the Omaha Radio stations of NRG Media. My name is Ed Thompson. Glad to have you with us. Today on the show, we are talking about a century of celebration.
We’re celebrating 100 years of United Way of the Midlands, first getting started back in 1923 and hitting the century mark this year. And to join us in this celebration, we are joined by Shawna Forsberg, President & CEO of United Way of the Midlands. Shawna, welcome to the show. Glad to have you with us today.
It’s such a pleasure. Thank you.
And a hundred years is kind of a big deal. I know we were talking before the show got started that, you know, when you celebrate a hundred years, you kind of go a little over the top a little bit. And you know how the National League, when they turned a hundred years old, they wore the funny hats. But we don’t have any funny hats for United Way the Midlands.
Thankfully. Yeah, actually, our team came up with some really cool shirts. So proud of them. Yeah. We’ll take it.
Let’s talk a little bit about if we can, the history of United Way of the Midlands because this is a celebration of United Way of the Midlands, not United Way as a national organization. But United Way of the Midlands is a local organization here in Omaha.
You know, we really are; this is a community celebration. We’ve been fortunate to be serving the Omaha-Council-Bluffs metro, as you said, since 1923. And I think we are a very special community. People do care deeply about each other, and United Way has the good fortune to help, bring people together, those that want to help with those that need it.
And we’ve been doing it for a hundred years now.
Something that I’ve known, having grown up in the Midwest myself, is that Midwesterners tend to, you know, when it comes to folks in need, they don’t think about it; they just roll up their sleeves and get in there and help.
It’s just kind of a cultural thing for us. So it doesn’t surprise me at all to hear that folks have been a part of this organization for that 100 years and now hopefully going longer.
Yeah, I mean, we really view our goal as being that collaborator and really ensuring that we’re making the most of donations that come in and measuring those.
So our goal is to really work on behalf of the donor to drive impact in the community and help those that need it, but also be able to measure that and really understand that how we’re investing in the programs are really driving the change that’s needed locally.
So when you, uh, celebrate a milestone like 100 years, you kind of tend to, I mean, people tend to look back at how it got started, the history of the organization. So, go over a little bit of that history, if you could please, of how United Way of the Midlands got its start.
Yeah. You know, originally, it was called the Community Chest, and it was a model that allowed business owners and, you know, people that were really the leaders of the community to organize their efforts to help those that were struggling.
And so that’s really where it started in1923. And that’s really what we’re all about today, is working in a coordinated fashion, to help invest dollars to, raise dollars of course in the first place, to try to give back and help those that are struggling. And so, you know, we’ve been there.
Whether it’s been natural disasters, you know, such as the recent flooding in ‘19, whether it was during, you know, wars, United Way really has been on the forefront of helping people right here in the Omaha-Council Bluff metro.
Let’s talk a little bit about how the United Way of the Midlands works, because the United Way doesn’t work like many other charitable organizations where they’re pretty much focused on their thing. Right. United Way is a little bit different.
Our whole goal is to leverage community-wide perspective and understanding and understand where the biggest challenges are at. And we are fortunate to have 600 different organizations that invest through United Way and 40,000 donors.
And I think that is what makes us unique. We’re really that go between with companies and people and the agencies that are doing amazing work on the front lines to ensure that they’re getting the critical funding they need.
So, probably another way to put it would be like a clearing house of financial donations that people can be made and go to different entities.
Yeah. And what I, what we kind of feel is our secret sauce is what we call the Community Investment Review Team process. So we utilize content experts and community donors to look at and review grant applications that come into United Way, and then with that, we can really assure the donors that the programs that are really driving the greatest change in doing the best work are getting the critical funding.
It takes a village, as they say, and that’s really what our model is based on. We’ve got an amazing small, but mighty, staff and then a large contingent of volunteers and people that help us do our work.
Let’s talk about, um, the various organizations that United Way of the Midlands lends a hand to.
Yeah. You know, we fund over 100 programs in the community. And obviously, we can’t get to all of them. Yeah, it’s a lot of them. But I mean, if you think of maybe some that you haven’t heard of like Whispering Roots, which is doing some really great work in helping with food security efforts, to Lutheran Family Services and Heartland Family Services, you know, some of the bigger organizations that have been serving the community for a long time.
About 12 years ago, we actually, prior to that had been an organization that was based on a partner agency model, and we had 32 partner agencies and recognized that there were many new upstarts and new organizations that were doing good work. And so we went through a really intentional process of opening up our grant applications. So anybody that is delivering services in the Health and Human Services arena can now apply for funding. And I think that that’s a really important distinction because we really can assure our donors that absolutely the best organizations are getting the funding. And then we really measure and make sure that what the intent of that investment was, that’s actually happening.
And I was going to ask about, you know, maybe there is a nonprofit organization there, or a charitable organization is wondering how can they go through the process, what process do they need to go through to get looked at by the United Way of the Midlands.
Yeah, absolutely. We do a two-year investment cycle, and those grant applications will open up in January, and it’s a formal grant process. Those will be vetted and reviewed by the Community Investment Review Teams, and then those allocations will be announced in June of next year.
So we’re in the middle of our second year right now. But folks that are looking to, you know, have their organization considered definitely should reach out to us and get involved in that process. We really want the dollars to go to the most innovative and best programs in the community.
Okay, we’re speaking with Shawna Forsberg, President & CEO of United Way of the Midlands, celebrating 100 years of activity here in the Omaha Council-Bluffs area. And, I suppose we could, we could talk about some of the other ways that United Way of the Midlands is helping locally.
With a hundred years of history, there have to be a few events that really stand out in the group’s history that, uh, make you go, okay, we did some good work there.
You know, I think we also do direct service programs that a lot of people aren’t aware of.
So we run the 211 Call Center for the entire state of Nebraska and significant portions of Iowa. 211 is a health and human services referral line, and basically, if you’re struggling with anything outside of an emergency, obviously if it’s a fire or you have a health issue, call 9-1-1 by all means.
But if you need assistance, whether it be, you know, housing, or you’ve had a health issue in your family, or you just even need to know how to get your taxes prepared, literally anything that you could need help with, you can call 211. We’ve got texting, and we have websites, but what we do then is help direct people to resources that are available to them in the state.
To give you a little bit of context about how that has grown, prior to the pandemic, we’d get about 70,000 contacts annually, and we ended calendar year ‘22 at 364,000 contacts. And so that just tells you the service is really important, and it’s helping connect people to a variety of things that can really help fill a gap for them at that moment. But also, we try to provide multiple referrals. To help families get stabilized.
Through the years that United Way of the Midlands has been in actively – I mean, there are some of the historical things, you know, like during the Depression. I mean, I can’t imagine trying to get through the Depression as a charitable organization.
And just contemplate how the heck did they make it through that and still do what they were charged exactly to do. Um, what about the history that, you know, going forward with, like, with the Depression in ‘33 and ‘34? You know, just ahead of World War II, which was phenomenal, not only for America but the world.
Right. I think it was more than just a convenience model. It was a really essential model, right? Because if you’re on the front lines trying to do the work, and then you also have to do all the work to raise the money, you know, it just complicates things.
And, I worked in for-profit for a long time, and what you realize when you get into the non-profit side of the equation is that you do more with fewer people because you’re really trying to stretch the dollars and make sure they get to what your mission is. And so those volunteers are just critical and also really making sure that the vital funding gets into those organizations.
You know, you mentioned earlier about how the Midwest is about caring for each other, and I think we do that exceptionally well. People are very much willing to raise a hand, and what we try to do is make sure that when they share their treasure or their time, it’s really driving the change that’s needed.
Okay. There are some big things coming up, though, in the celebration for the hundredth anniversary, and this being the first weekend in June now, we’ve got some stuff coming up here the next couple of weeks and a couple of weekends in July that is really jam-packed. Yeah. Let’s talk about some of those events and get the details on that.
We really wanted to get out into the community, and so we’re fortunate. We’ve got four community celebrations. Two are in June. One’s June 17th at Hitchcock Park, and then June 24th at Fontenelle Park. And it’s just going to be, you know, a fun, family-friendly event.
We’ll have music; we’ll have food trucks. Actually, the first 250 people that arrive can get a free hotdog meal. We’ll have a lot of the agencies that we work with in a community village. So if you need resources, you can get signed up for that. It’s really about celebrating with the community the work that we’re doing and really trying to build awareness for these amazing programs that we get to work with.
And then we’re doing two more in July. July 15th, we have one in Council Bluffs at I’m sorry, the River’s Edge Pavilion. And then, on July 22nd, we’re delighted to be out with our friends at Werner Baseball Park. And all of these events are a hundred percent free. Lots of activities. If people want to learn a little bit more about it, they can go to www.UnitedWayMidlands.org/100YearEvents.
Let’s talk about where United Way the Midlands is headed. I mean, you’ve got a hundred years of history behind you now. Obviously, you’re looking up. A little farther down the road, and thinking – okay, a hundred years is nice. Right. How about another hundred?
I think we really, we invest in three different areas and with the ultimate goal of, if somebody’s struggling, we want to meet them where they’re at and make sure they have what’s necessary, their basic needs, but we also are trying to help families change trajectory…and so we invest in a lot of educational supports and workforce development supports.
We’re really being intentional about providing a circle of support for families and providing avenues for families to, you know, make sure that their children are getting the most out of their school years and that they have access and understanding to roles in the community, things that they can do to, to achieve financial independence.
One of the things we’re most excited about is in 2019, we were invited to backbone the Jobs for America’s Graduates program. And it’s a program that we work with middle school and high school students. We actually have teachers embedded in the school system, and the whole goal is to help build the essential skills so those kids can be successful when they go into post-secondary training or jobs, but also expose them to a wide range of things that they can do for a living.
And it’s just been immensely successful – we’re now in 24 programs. We started in three; we’ll be in 34 schools starting in the fall, and hope to be in as many as 72 a year from now. It’s a partnership through the Department of Labor and Commissioner Albin, and we’ve been really pleased to have tremendous support from Governor Pillen and also the Department of Health and Human Services Danette Smith.
This is a great public-private partnership. It’s allowed us to pool dollars from state and federal with private philanthropy and to really provide avenues for young people to hopefully stay and thrive in our beautiful state.
What about, uh, what do you see in the, in the near term, what are some of the more pressing community needs that United Way of the Midlands can directly involve itself with?
You know, coming through the pandemic and trying to figure out the other side of it, some of the most pressing issues our community is dealing with is a lack of affordable housing. There’s a lot of great work going on, with front porch and work through the mayor’s office, but we’re recognizing we’re about 80,000 units short of affordable housing units for families.
And, you know, once you pay too much for housing, it’s just a ripple effect. And so, what we’re trying to do is stabilize families through additional supports with housing and then also support those entities that are trying to increase affordable housing options.
Another big thing that we invest in and that is concerning is mental health. Coming through the pandemic and after the pandemic, unfortunately, the number of people that struggle with mental health issues has increased. So we actually added a program with our Women United group to try to help people identify when someone else is struggling. Region 6 does an amazing program called Mental Health First Aid. And it’s similar to if you were going to take CPR training. For example, where you’d go and if you had somebody around you that had a heart issue, you would know what to do. That’s what Mental Health First Aid training is. People are able to take a class and really understand if they have someone struggling around them, what to say and some of the things you can do to help that individual get the help they need.
And so because of our Women United group fundraising for this, the Mental Health First Aid training is free to people. And we’re trying to get thousands of people over the next three years certified so that they can help others that are struggling around mental health. So we’re seeing mental health as a big issue.
Obviously, inflationary pressures are making it difficult for families. In Omaha, when you talk about people really trying to care for each other, people also try to care for themselves. And unfortunately, one of the more startling statistics is that 70% of people that live in poverty in our community have at least one job in the household.
So they’re not able to make quite enough to make the whole family stable. Maybe they need to upskill, and get different skill sets, but people are trying very hard to care for their families. And so, we’re trying to provide different avenues for people to make more money and be able to stabilize their household.
Speaking with Shawna Forsberg, President and CEO of United Way of the Midlands, and there are a lot of ways that folks that are listening here this morning can be a contributor to United Way. Let’s talk about some of the ways that folks can help out.
You know, we’re very lucky. Many companies in town run United Way campaigns, and if people get the opportunity to invest through that, we would so welcome it. If you’d prefer to give direct or maybe your organization where you work doesn’t run a traditional campaign, we’d love to have you go to UnitedWayMidlands.org, and you can actually set up a repetitive gift even if you want to because, truly, we can’t do this work without the finances.
But we also love to have volunteers, and we have many volunteer opportunities throughout the year, organized ones, and we can also do customized ones. For example, one of my favorites coming up in August is called Shine Bright. We worked with the Omaha public school system, and during the pandemic, they recognized that many young kids, or not even just students, were struggling with hygiene issues and, you know, especially with families that were struggling.
So they’re having to make hard choices, and maybe they didn’t have enough shampoo, or they didn’t have some of the things that would make you feel put together. It’s kind of hard to learn when you come to the classroom and you don’t feel ready, right? And so we started two years ago.
This will be our third year creating Shine Bright Kits, and people can join us in the early part of August to put together these kits. I think what’s really cool about it is that it’s full-size items, and they’re customized by gender and also ethnicity. So you take into account people’s hair type, that type of thing.
And the first year we did them, it was humbling because when we handed them out to the kids, there were literally tears, right? So, we work with kindergarten, sixth-grade and ninth-grade students, and we work with the school systems to distribute them so they get them to the highest-need kids, but it helps them be ready to learn and feel put together when they’re in the classroom.
Those are the kinds of things we really try to design our volunteer activities around are that they’re very intentional and that we’re working in coordination with those that are working with the people that need the assistance to ensure the items that we’re donating or activities that we’re doing, are really driving the change that’s necessary.
And there are other ways to get involved too. I’m looking at your flyer. Other ways, talk to me about the Tocqueville Society.
Yeah. You know, Tocqueville’s special. It’s leadership donors. We’re very fortunate to have over 400 families that give on an annual basis of $10,000 or more.
And that goes an immense way. And also, we’re very fortunate in our community that Mr. Buffett matches our entire campaign based on the number of Tocqueville donors. So over the last three years, we’ve grown from 253 Tocqueville families to now we have 404. And, I just think that speaks volumes for not only the amazing people but our community coming together.
Uh, there are all kinds of other things coming up. Blue Collar Boxing is something that is really – my oldest son is involved in martial sports. Oh, wow. And, uh, yeah, he’s really made his old man proud when, when he, you know, gets involved. And, that’s a big thing that’s coming up in November. I know it’s a few months off. But still, folks here in Omaha kind of dig the martial arts.
I mean, it’s a big deal. Well, this is a cool collaboration with the Omaha Federation of Labor as well. We’ve done it now for the last few years. It’s always the night before Thanksgiving, which, this year, I believe, is November 22nd.
But basically, different unions battle it out in the ring. It’s not martial arts, it’s traditional boxing, But people train; it’s still martial arts. We usually have between 10 and 12 bouts, and it may be the Steam Fitters versus, you know, the Plumbers Union. And, it’s so fun. It’s a really neat night out and, you know, a lot of times, people are looking for something to do when they have family members in town for Thanksgiving. So it’s become kind of a tradition for a lot of families, and we try to keep tickets really reasonable.
You can come for $25 and have a whole night out, and it’s in Ralston.
Yeah. Yeah. Used to be called the Ralston Arena, is now called the uh, Liberty…
First. Liberty First. Thank you for helping me with that. I’m sorry. Well, it’s Liberty First. Thank you.
No worries. So that’s, that’s kind of a fun event that’s coming up.
I know that as we get closer to that event, that always thought causes some stir, and yes, there’s a lot of word of mouth about that. Clearly, a lot of people are very interested in that and very excited to see it. Talk to me a little bit about, for the folks that are listening, where they can go to make their donations.
Because, you know, folks, just kind of want to help out, you know, if they can.
They do. Yep. UnitedWayMidlands.org, or call us. We’d love to have people come if they have questions. Also, people can donate if they care about certain categories of work. So if they want all their money to go to basic need support, they can select that. Or if they want it to go to education, we really tried to align donor interests with investments. And then we’ll report back to folks, you know, how those dollars are used and the difference that it’s making in the community.
You can direct your donations, or you can just, uh, broadcast your donations.
So to speak, broadcast it, which I’m telling you that the programs that we get the pleasure of investing in are doing amazing work in the community.
And I think, you know, I get to talk with colleagues across the United Way network, across the country. You know, there are challenges and then things that we definitely need to work on and stay ahead of. But if any community, you know, can build a stronger community, it’s ours. And you know, a lot of my United Way colleagues are dealing a hundred percent with homeless prevention or homelessness.
We really have an opportunity here in Omaha to work together to make this a welcoming and warm place for everyone where everyone can thrive. And I feel confident with the leadership and how our community cares deeply for each other, that Omaha can even become a better place in the next 100 years.
Speaking with Shawn Forsberg, President and CEO of United Way of the Midlands, glad to have had you on the show today. I know you’ve got a busy year coming up for the remaining few months of 2023. And I can only imagine that 2024 will get even busier as a result of what you’ve done this year.
So, um, there you have it, folks! The place to go to if you need more information, UnitedWayMidlands.org/100YearEvents for more information about some of the things that are coming up this year for the remainder of the 100-year celebrations and for yourself to make donations or get involved in some way, shape, manner or form.
Shawna, again, thank you for joining us this morning.
Oh, it’s a pleasure. We so appreciate all you do for us. Thanks for helping us get the word out.
Glad to have had you on the show. My name is Ed Thompson. You have been listening to I-N-A, a public affairs program of the Omaha radio stations of NRG Media.
Glad to have had you join us this morning, and we look forward to talking to you next time. Thanks for joining us.
This has been I-N-A. Tune in next time to I-N-A: Issues and Answers, an NRG Media production.