Q & A with Michael Weiner

By Mike Billoni

‘We are doing everything we can to generate as much revenue as possible because the need is greater than ever before,’ says president and CEO of United Way of Buffalo & Erie County

Michael Weiner, president and CEO of the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, is facing the greatest challenge in his 11 years with the organization because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As an essential service, Weiner was fortunate not to have to furlough or lay off any of the 60 full-time staff who have been working remotely throughout the pandemic. UWBEC has an annual budget of $18 million and over $31 million with endowments and other assets. Because of the increased need of support from nonprofit agencies throughout the county, its annual fundraising campaign began earlier than ever before and will run through March 2021. Weiner said the new Join The Fight fund received a major boost when the National Fuel Gas Company Foundation announced it would match all gifts up to $100,000. To participate, visit www.uwbec.org/jointhefight and to learn more about the agency go to www.uwbec.org.

Q: How is the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County enduring the COVID-19 pandemic?

A: UWBEC has been serving the community for over 100 years. We began our work during World War I and we have followed every war since then. We have endured The Great Depression, the closing of the Bethlehem Steel plant, the Blizzard of ’77 and the recession of 2009. We have been a mainstay organization that has had to deal with all of those situations. It is safe to say, though, we have never, in our history, faced a situation as we are today. This is unchartered territory, and we are all working to figure it out together. It is truly unprecedented.

It has also been a time when our community has truly come together. This is a community that cares and during rough times it always comes together through collaboration and cooperation and the level of community support is second to none. COVID-19 has affected families in so many ways. Before the pandemic, the unemployment rate was at 3.5% and now it is over 14%. That has created so many more challenges for our community and its citizens. We are working to mitigate the immediate impact of COVID-19 and make sure there is basic food, housing and childcare for families in need through agencies we support.

Q: How has the pandemic changed the way the United Way does business?

A: It has dramatically changed our business model as we have gone to a digital-first approach. We have completed a new strategic plan that highlights the importance and value of being more digitally proficient as an organization. Almost all of our programs and special initiatives have been adopted to this new normal.

Q: How has the pandemic affected the annual United Way fund raising campaign?

A: In preparation for our annual campaign, we surveyed our top 300 corporate accounts and asked them a series of questions about how we can operate our traditional workplace campaign this year. We received some great input and because of the pandemic many companies were still working remotely, and others feared us coming in and meeting with employees. We are now promoting electronic pledge processing which eliminates the need to distribute paper pledge cards. Employees can still donate through payroll deduction or their cell phones through our website and we have also added a rollover option where they can check a box and donate what they pledged last year.

We rely on individual and corporate support as the pillars of our fundraising. We are proud of the more than 700 large and small organizations that participate and the more than 37,000 individuals who helped us raise $13.2 million last year. We are doing everything we can to generate as much revenue as possible because the need is greater than ever before.

Q: Who are you most concerned about as being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

A: One of the cohorts we are paying close attention to are ALICE Families—Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed Families or the working poor in our community. In a 2018 ALICE report, 27 percent of Erie County households (103,000 families) are one emergency away from a financial crisis. If you include families living under the federal poverty level, 40 percent of county households are struggling financially. They are challenged in meeting basic needs of food, shelter, health care, technology and childcare. We are also concerned about the inequity of ALICE Families among races—38 percent of black households and 36 percent of Hispanic households compared with 26 percent of white households. If you take into account the new unemployment numbers the result of the pandemic, the number of low-income households increases exponentially.

In addition, we are equally concerned with the viability and sustainability of the not-for-profit sector. They are facing insurmountable challenges and we will do whatever we can to help sustain the NFP sector moving forward including supporting new business models that are effective and efficient operationally.