Retiring United Way chief has seen change

Ron Drago
Ron Drago

Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — After graduating from college in 1967, Ron Drago served for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone in Africa.

The experience proved good training for his career at United Way.

Unlike the corporate world, working for nonprofits provides “those unanticipated opportunities and those unplanned encounters that allow you to take on much more responsibility than your age and actual experience would suggest you might have,” says Drago, who will retire in June after nearly 16 years as president and CEO of United Way of Forsyth County.

Unexpected change has been the rule at United Way since Drago began working 31 years ago for a local affiliate in Harrisburg, Pa.

In 1980, he says, local affiliates were akin to the “Wal-Mart of fundraising,” working to raise money from as many people in the community as possible for local health-and-human-services agencies.

Affiliates used that money to provide “deficit funding” for local agencies, making up the difference between the agencies’ cost of delivering programs and the funds those agencies could raise in the community, Drago says.

But in the past three decades, he says, local affiliates, with strong support from the United Way system, have transformed the way they do business.

While they still try to engage as many donors as they can at all levels of giving, affiliates now focus much of their fundraising on engaging donors who make larger gifts.

And while they still support effective programs their partner agencies operate, a growing number of affiliates make big, long-term investments to address a handful of urgent community needs.

Under Drago’s leadership, Forsyth’s United Way has excelled at fundraising overall and at engaging larger donors.

Fundraising has grown 49.4 percent over the past 15 years, compared to 8.3 percent for the United Way system, while Forsyth’s fundraising per-capita consistently ranks at or near the top among the largest United Way affiliates, currently ranking third.

At Forsyth’s United Way, which has raised $257 million under Drago’s leadership, 4,000 donors give $1,000 or more each year, representing only 10 percent to 15 percent of the affiliate’s donors but half the money it raises.

And half-a-dozen donors make six-figure gifts.

Reflecting United Way’s transformation is the Forsyth affiliate’s effort to reduce the high-school dropout rate of 30 percent.

United Way decided three years ago its top priority would be increasing the graduation rate to 90 percent by 2018, and committed itself to invest in the effort most of $1.4 million it sets aside each year to address four urgent community issues.

Working with the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, United Way has targeted its dropout-prevention dollars to Parkland Magnet High School, which at the time had a graduation rate of roughly 65 percent, the lowest in the county. It also is targeting those dollars to two middle schools that feed into Parkland, along with some of United Way’s 32 partner agencies.

While three years is too soon to see more than only modest progress, Drago says, the number of ninth-graders who are failing to advance to 10th grade at Parkland has declined to 70 from 136, or 48 percent.

“This has allowed us to bring those agencies into the high school and middle schools and get closer to these vulnerable kids, and integrate the agencies’ work with those of the schools,” Drago says.

The effort also has helped United Way engage donors who make larger gifts.

Three years ago, United Way launched a new initiative to encourage women to give $1,000 or more each year.

That initiative was spearheaded Susan Ivey, at the time president, chairman and CEO of Reynolds American, which pledged $1 million over five years to match giving by women who agreed to increase their annual gift to $1,000 over that period.

The effort has generated over $2.1 million in new funds from 850 women, who have adopted the two middle schools that feed into Parkland as the focus of their giving and volunteering.

“Their experience is based on the belief that to achieve true leadership giving with women, you have to reach their hearts and give them hands-on volunteer opportunities to be involved in addressing the need for which their dollars are being invested,” Drago says.

A big challenge for United Way, he says, is to continue to engage donors in strategic initiatives to fix critical problems, and to do a better job telling the story of the difference United Way makes in the community.

“Our campaign is a critical means to the end,” Drago says, “but our mission, the end, is really about community impact.”

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