Ellen K. Annala LIVES UNITED:
My 10 fondest memories from 23 years at United Way
With Ellen's retirement scheduled to begin March 31, we invited her to tell us about the most memorable experiences of her years of leadership at United Way. Don't confuse them for a list of greatest accomplishments. Instead, they are personal high points that came to mind as she enters the final weeks of her tenure, reflecting on more than two decades worth of moments.
1. Moving van cancelled! I was planning to move home to Arizona and asked United Way's then President, Dan MacDonald, to be a reference in my job search. Next thing I knew, Dan and board chair Andre Lacy hired me to implement the 1989 strategic plan to make United Way more accountable and strategic. The thought of making a greater community impact was more enticing to me than the desert!
2. Irsay, Peyton, the Super Bowl and Blue: Jim Irsay joined 1998 campaign chair Maribeth Smith for a winning season and has supported United Way ever since. I was as thrilled this year as I was the first time Jim presented me with a giant check representing $1 for every seat sold – first in the Hoosier Dome and now in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Bringing one of my nieces or nephews with me on the field created a life-long memory for them too.
In 2010, meeting Peyton Manning was one of our grand prize incentives for new and increasing campaign donors. I introduced Peyton to some of our contributors as Indy’s rock star. “No," he said. "You (the donors) are the rock stars!” Then he thanked and shook each person’s hand.
We also had a trip to the Super Bowl as a grand prize giving incentive. All three winners were from wonderfully supportive United Way companies, and didn’t even recall there was an incentive for giving more.
Finally, getting a big hug from Blue at our joint United Way/Colts season kick off was another standout memory for this Colts fan!
3. Kids need quality, the first steps: The day in 2011 when we recognized the first 24 child care ministries who achieved at least Level 1 in Paths to QUALITY is vivid. Ministers, center directors and a few care givers were our honorees. For some of the staff, the learning opportunities they received from us was the first training they ever had. I became emotional as I experienced their pride in transforming their work from basic care giving to care givers who understand their vital role in early learning.
4. A witness to good things for good people: Each year I get to award renewal grants to long-serving staff of human service organizations. With support from Lilly Endowment, we have helped 30-year employees of neighborhood centers, domestic violence shelters, and many others, explore their roots, take a road trip, swim with the dolphins, renew their marriages, escape with their grand children, learn a new skill (photography, music), and many more renewing experiences. It’s one of those “totally happy” ceremonies when good things happen to good people -- people we want to help avoid burnout so they will continue their service to a grateful community.
5. A 'Yikes!' toast: Only three of us (board chair Jerry Bepko, Vice president of resource development Jim Smith and I) knew about the $50 million grant proposal we titled “Yikes” before we submitted it to Lilly Endowment in my first year as president. The day Clay Robbins called me to say it was awarded, I called Jerry. He wanted to celebrate with us, but was already hosting a reception at his home that evening. He invited Jim and me to his home and we hid in his library while he and Jean visited with their guests, occasionally excusing themselves to bring us snacks before joining us for a champagne toast. (The fund uses investment earnings to pay a share of the fundraising and administrative costs of the campaign each year.)
6. An investment 'ah-ha': Even before I was on United Way's payroll, Dan had me coming to meetings to complete the agency facility maintenance and capital study report. Years later, the Agency Capital Fund was launched. Since then, the initial $60 million grant has more than doubled to $127.5 million to support more than 125 agency projects with a dozen more planned. Early in my career, I didn’t see the power of such investments in our urban neighborhoods. But after seeing the improvements first in the Southeast Community Center and then in Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center, I realized the impact that new facilities had on those neighborhoods in dire need. Later, I also came to appreciate the importance of quality physical environments for both employees and clients. Yes, even people in need and those who serve them deserve to be in a decent, quality facility.
7. ‘Sari, sari' night: Thanks to Rupal, Amit, and Ninad Thanawala, I dressed in a sari with all of our other staff and volunteers, celebrating the Oscars with our Emerging Leaders group when the theme was Bollywood. What a great celebration of Indian culture, United Way's education programs, givers under 40, oh yes, and the Oscar winners!
8. Launching First Wednesdays: I had learned what Atlanta did to grow their Tocqueville Society and make it more meaningful, so talked with campaign chair Bud Melton and board chair Katie Betley about trying it. Bud enlisted Tony Smith as the first Tocqueville chair, and we started First Wednesday luncheons with a loyal group of 8-10, mostly board members. We were a small enough group that we had lunch in the bar area of Agio. It took us a couple years to grow into the dining room. Regular attendees included Mickey Maurer (owner of the IBJ) and Barbara Henry (publisher of the Indianapolis Star). Even with a monthly speaker, one of the fun highlights that kept people coming back each month was listening to Mickey and Barbara spar.
9. Launching Emerging Leaders: After years of hearing that many young people didn’t see the value of collective impact or thought United Way (125 years old) was an outdated concept, I was worried about how we could more effectively engage young people. At the Jazz Kitchen we kicked off a new leadership giving society aimed at the under 40 crowd. I told staff I’d be happy if we had 50 attend. We had more than 120 attend, and nearly 80 signed up as members. Lots of the early members were sons, daughters, nieces and nephews of long-term donors. Today the group numbers more than 1,000 and collectively gives $1.7 million, in addition to their volunteer and social gatherings.
10. People: I’ve worked with the best people in Central Indiana -- people, who though armed with few resources, are daily creating miracles for children, seniors and families.
I've worked with donors who care so deeply about their community they want to have the greatest impact possible with their dollars -- some who increase their pledges in our toughest recessionary years because they know others are unable to.
I've worked with volunteers who know that it is more than dollars but also time that is needed to give a child or adult a helping hand to achieve their potential.
I've worked with funding partners who have a history of working together in Central Indiana -- better than any place in the country to make things happen, like the Community Economic Relief Fund that put an extra $11.6 million to work when the recession hit us the hardest.
I've worked with all the unsung heroes who don’t get public attention, but work endless hours to improve and make their neighborhoods safer.
I've worked with board members and leadership who are so committed to our work that they want to assure we are the most strategic, transparent and impactful organization in Central Indiana.
I've worked with United Way's staff who somehow balance family and work while constantly going the second and third mile because they are so committed to our mission of helping people learn more, earn more and lead safe and healthy lives.
All of my board chairs -- Mickey Maurer, Jerry Bepko, Katie Betley, Mike Alley, Maribeth Smith, John Neighbours, David Resnick, Vince Caponi, and Sam Odle -- were tremendous leaders who gave me and United Way sound counsel and many hours because of their love of United Way and their community.
--Ellen K. Annala, President and CEO