Fundraising for the United Way More Challenging in Tough Economy

The last time we sat down with Ruth Birge, she was preparing to become the former publisher of the Hendersonville Times-News. She wasn’t sure exactly what she was going to do after helming the newspaper, but was pretty sure it would have something to do with sales, a profession in which she has some serious credentials.

We had no idea what a sales challenge she would end up accepting. Birge is now the Interim Executive Director of United Way of Henderson County (828-692-1636), a job in which the main task is getting people to part with varying amounts of money to support services and programs for which they probably will have no immediate use.

Birge is used to tough challenges, not the least of which was taking a staff of more than 100 employees at the Times-News and reducing it to 50…while making sure that the publication continued to publish.

Now, with a staff of five, plus volunteers, she will face the task of raising — in a shaky economy — a fundraising goal that has in the past approached $2 million. The actual goal will be announced on September 12 on the steps of the old historic Henderson County courthouse. She demurred at telling us in advance what the goal will be this year, but assured us that she and her colleagues are “working on it diligently every day.”

For Birge, accustomed to profit-based sales in the corporate world, the biggest challenge has been getting geared up for selling the non-profit message. “This is probably the most sophisticated form of selling in the world,” she says. “You’re asking people to give you money for something that will not benefit them directly…other than the overall good. Fortunately, we live in an area that really does take care of its people.”

Cutbacks and layoffs have changed the nature of United Way fundraising, she says. The emphasis has shifted from companies to residents, some of whom give as much as $1,000 annually, or even more.

So how does Birge and her tiny crew go about convincing people to give to United Way? She’s glad you asked. “The need,” she says, “has grown so dramatically over the last year that it is your responsibility to take care of your neighbor.”

Lead by example, she tells them, “and give with purpose…we need your help.”

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