Q&A | Peter Theisen from United Way of Whatcom County

Peter Theisen believes he has proof that even though the economic recession has forced many people to cut back on spending of all kinds, the residents of Whatcom County still care deeply about their neighbors in need.

Theisen is the president of United Way of Whatcom County, which pulled in more than $2 million to support local nonprofits during its 2011 fall workplace-giving campaign.

The amount is the most the organization has ever brought in from its donors.

As United Way begins distributing the funds to various Whatcom County nonprofit groups, Theisen explained the best ways he thinks people can lend support, and talked about how his staff has managed to bring in money even while continuing financial uncertainty slows American economic recovery.

BBJ: Considering the current economy, were you surprised at the amount of money you raised last year? 

Theisen: Given our very generous community, I wasn’t surprised, I was proud. To see local individuals and organizations stand up to pitch in and work together to make a difference truly shows the caliber of people that we have here in Whatcom County.

Our community recognized that there is no other organization in Whatcom County that affects as many people and has such a wide impact on education, income and health.

We offer the opportunity for anyone to pitch in and make a difference, and during this last campaign we were honored to see how far people are willing to go to help friends and neighbors and ensure a stronger community for all.

BBJ: What do you think are the best strategies for companies that would like to increase their donations to nonprofits and charities without being too pushy with their employees? 

Theisen: Provide clear information and make it fun.

We have seen that the strongest workplace campaigns are the campaigns that engage all staff members, provide the data needed to make an educated decision and add in a component that makes it fun, like a chili cook-off or jeans day.

Being too pushy doesn’t get the right point across and doesn’t create a true culture of philanthropy. We want to provide an opportunity for people to contribute to United Way because it is a proven effective method that creates positive change in our community.

Distribution of funds is overseen by a group of dedicated volunteers, a committee that any interested person in Whatcom County can serve on. Funds are allocated based on community needs, fiscal responsibility and clear outcomes and results focused on community goals.

Getting this information across to individuals and then giving them the opportunity to decide if they would like to participate is the best strategy.

Companies with high rates of employee participation usually also have high employee morale, low turnover and absenteeism.

BBJ: Your organization has recently focused on support for early childhood literacy. Why the emphasis? 

Theisen: Almost half our children are showing up to kindergarten with skills below grade level in the area of literacy. 

Pilot results from WaKIDS, a comprehensive kindergarten transition process, showed nearly half of entering kindergarteners for the 2010-2011 school year had skills below grade level in the area of language, communication and literacy.

When children start kindergarten prepared rather than behind, they endure less remediation, grade repetition and special education that saves our state significant money.

The United Way of Whatcom County realizes high-school dropouts are 12 years in the making and recent studies are linking lack of literacy with high-school dropout rates.

In 2010, the estimated Whatcom County dropout rate was approximately 22 percent (it was 30 percent for Washington state). If the national dropout rates were cut in half, it would generate nearly $45 billion in new tax revenue.

We see that this is a growing concern in our community and want to do what we can to ensure a good education that leads to productive community members.

We believe that early childhood literacy is a first step toward high school graduation and success later on in the workforce.

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