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Marketing key, says new United Way CEO

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Todd Cohen

GREENSBORO, N.C. — In the 10 years Keith Barsuhn served as its vice president for resource development, United Way of Central Ohio in Columbus increased its annual fundraising to $51 million from $33 million, posting an 11 percent increase in 2000, his final year there.

The key, he says, was keeping people informed about United Way and its impact, and engaged in its work.

“We have to become as market-driven as we can,” says Barsuhn, a 24-year United Way veteran who on July 1 will join United Way of Greater Greensboro as president and CEO, succeeding Neil Belenky.

Belenky says Barsuhn has “trained with several of the best United Way executives in the country,” and has worked in larger markets, which “tend to see the trends first,” and in least one market that faced tough economic times, providing a focus that will be “very important as our economy in Greensboro is going through a transition.”

Barsuhn says he hopes to build on the strong reputation United Way developed under Belenky, and will focus on connecting with high-net-worth donors, and on marketing and public relations.

To enlist more small and mid-sized businesses, for example, United Way in Columbus partnered for three years with Columbus Business First, a weekly business newspaper, and with Bank One.

The bank agreed to match contributions from small or mid-sized businesses running workplace campaigns or making corporate gifts for the first time, while the business weekly featured new companies joining the campaign.

Every year, Barsuhn says, United Way must “make sure people understand what the need is, and the role United Way plays, and make sure everybody gets on board.”

United Way also moved to earlier in the year its Tocqueville campaign targeting donors giving $10,000 or more.

That campaign ended in June and helped United Way create a sense of momentum going into its annual drive in the fall, Barsuhn says.

And nearly every day of the annual drive, he says, the Columbus Dispatch, the city’s daily newspaper, published a story about a United Way agency.

“People want to give to causes they know and care about,” Barsuhn says.

In 1994, the Columbus drive ranked first in the U.S. in per-capita fundraising among United Ways in major cities, a ranking it held through 2000.

At a time when the city was competing for its first professional sports franchise, United Way marketed its pursuit of the top ranking by saying it would brand Columbus as the “major league city of caring,” an effort Barsuhn says captured the city’s attention and “rallied people to the cause.”

Later, as executive vice president responsible for fundraising, marketing and community investment at United Way of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, Barsuhn helped boost unrestricted giving to $8.3 million, an increase of $1.5 million, in a drive that raised $51 million.

He also instituted women’s Tocqueville programs in Pittsburgh and Canton, and laid the groundwork for one in Columbus, where he also launched the first United
Way giving program in the U.S. for young leaders.

And in Canton, which he joined the day a merger of three United Ways took effect, he eventually instituted a “program-funding” strategy that focused on several priority needs and tied funding to the impact of agency programs.

The key, he says, was partnerships.

“We can’t do it alone,” he says. United Ways “need to be a little more patient and take time to work with other community stakeholders and work on what is best for the community and come away with a unified community plan.”

In Greensboro, he says, a big focus will be telling United Way’s story.

“We have to get the message out in more visible, meaningful and emotional ways,” he says. “We have to understand the donor, what they value, and deliver a message to show them how we line up with their values.”

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