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Fond du Lac County Area United Way Executive Director Amber Kilawee and Ripon Area United Way Board President Jeff Puhlmann-Becker shake hands in downtown Ripon. The two organizations will merge June 1 and operate as the Fond du Lac County United Way. 

The Ripon Area United Way (RAUW) and the Fond du Lac County Area United Way announced publicly today (Wednesday) a merger that brings the two organizations together as the Fond du Lac County United Way.

RAUW Board President Jeff Puhlmann-Becker noted that RAUW initiated this and has been in conversation internally and then with the Wisconsin United Way, National United Way and Fond du Lac County Area United Way for more than two years in exploring how it could be more effective together.

RAUW started as the Ripon Community Fund in 1951 and has raised millions of dollars for local organizations in the community during its existence, with its fundraising goal for the past several years being around $80,000.

“The whole county is covered by one United Way, the Fond du Lac Area United Way, except Ripon,” Puhlmann-Becker said. “A number of years ago, I tried to research how Ripon ended up with its own United Way and I couldn’t really find enough information. The last people that had signed the documents when it was created, aren’t around anymore, or the people that I know of aren’t around anymore. And for some reason, we had our own United Way out here by ourselves and the entire county around us is one unified United Way.”

Puhlmann-Becker added that RAUW doesn’t have resources in terms of an office and doesn’t have a staff, but rather only volunteered time to try to implement “some pretty broad initiatives in our community.”

Volunteers also have become harder to come by since COVID, when people got used to being home and enjoying family time. Wisconsin has especially been hit hard since the pandemic, losing the third-most volunteers of any state.

Puhlmann-Becker, along with Fond du Lac County Area United Way Executive Director Amber Kilawee, noted that as a result it is more important for the two organizations to band together to maximize their impact and resources. He did say that “we’ve always been and continue to be fortunate that there are community partners that bring expertise.”

Another reason Puhlmann-Becker cited for the change is that the United Way model is considerably changing.

When United Way first started in 1887 by a Denver woman, a priest, two ministers and a rabbi in Denver, Colo., he said it was five people who were raising funds for organizations in the community to help them fulfill their missions. Now, organizations easily can raise their own money on their Facebook pages, through GoFundMe initiatives or other avenues.

“As organizations have been more effective and the tools are easier for them to use to fundraise themselves, United Way has really been exploring its role in the nonprofit world,” Puhlmann-Becker said. “One of the things we liked about the model where United Way is going is they’re really looking at United Way as being a facilitator to bring all of these groups together. When you have several groups that are meeting needs for children in the community, and they’re all working independently, United Way can be a central point for those groups to come together for common conversation, for coordinating their efforts. United Way can help write grants and resource opportunities that then could be distributed among those child-care facilities or child-care entities within a community.”

Since that doesn’t really exist, he noted that United Way has got a role to play in bringing all the diverse organizations together for conversation and coordinating their efforts.

Puhlmann-Becker noted that Fond du Lac County United Way is moving that direction at the same time as it is funding individual groups just like RAUW does.

“We’re excited about the opportunities this brings to us in our community in more resources through the Fond du Lac County United Way, but also a greater vision of what United Way looks like in a changing world,” Puhlmann-Becker said.

While excited about the merger and what it could mean for both the RAUW and Fond du Lac County Area United Way, Puhlmann-Becker knows that the move comes with a fear of the unknown. RAUW, which has a board of four people, tried to mitigate those concerns by working out an agreement with the Fond du Lac County Area United Way.

“Although we never know exactly what the future brings in any situation, the Ripon Area United Way board sought and received a commitment to fully fund grant requests from Ripon community organizations that were funded this year,” Puhlmann-Becker said. “Grant applications for the 2023-2024 grant cycle from existing groups in Ripon will be funded at the level they were funded in the 2022-2023 grant cycle. If any changes are made in the future, the Fond du Lac board has agreed to fund at least 66% the following year and 33% the year after that.”

He added that “we’ve mitigated any change, that it’s spread out over three years,” noting that for example, it is unlikely that the two child-care centers in Ripon that were funded this year will continue to be funded fully after next year as the Fond du Lac United Way can’t give money to every child-care center in the county.

Despite not being able to maybe provide the funds that RAUW had in the past, Puhlmann-Becker noted the Fond du Lac County United Way still can offer assistance to child-care centers through writing and managing big grants.

“There’s a lot of money available in grant writing for child care,” he said. “And United Way has the resources to write those grants and to administer those grants among the centers in the county. And that’s really what they’re looking at. Rather than directly funding one childcare center, they’ll bring those childcare centers together to collaborate and to find ways that they can work together and how United Way can support their work together.”

Puhlmann-Becker believes having those resources is a positive that comes out of the merger as Fond du Lac County Area United Way has 1½ staff people and an office, while RAUW has no office and no staff.

“They have many connections in the communities through people that work full time for United Way,” he said of Fond du Lac County Area United Way. “They have a reputation in grant writing in the state and beyond and a track record of managing those grants, especially during the pandemic. They do very well at workplace contributions, where employees may pledge to support United Way. … Those are the big positives that we’re getting out of this.”

He added that the two organizations — RAUW and Fond du Lac County Area United Way — can do more together.

“One little United Way has its advantages, but it also has disadvantages,” Puhlmann-Becker said. “… It’s a little United Way that makes it a disadvantage, but it’s a little United Way that makes it an advantage when you’re fundraising and we hope that people will see the advantages and continue to support United Way.”

According to Puhlmann-Becker, the decision to merge with Fond du Lac County Area United Way to become Fond du Lac County United Way had nothing to do with RAUW falling short of its fundraising goal this past campaign.

It raised just shy of 75% or $59,727 of its $80,000 annual campaign goal this year, which benefits 12-area organizations.

“When we didn’t hit the goal, that was one thing that I knew the questions were going to be: Did we do this because we didn’t meet our goal this year? And the answer is no,” Puhlmann-Becker said. “We actually, internally in Ripon, started this conversation even before the pandemic started. And we’ve been active in the conversation for the last two years in terms of the national United Way and the Wisconsin and Fond du Lac United Ways.”

He noted one strength of a “tiny United Way” was that RAUW was able to assure people that their dollars served people in the community. While that may change a bit with the merger with Fond du Lac County United Way, Puhlmann-Becker said the agreement to fully fund groups next year who got money this year as long as money can be raised in the Ripon community, and then at least 66% and 33% the following years, helps offset that concern.

Puhlmann-Becker also said that two board members from the RAUW — John Triller and himself — already have been elected to the Fond du Lac County United Way board, providing Ripon with a couple of voices at the table.

“Ripon sometimes feels like they’re forgotten about way over on the west end of the county,” he said. “But we want to make sure that we are represented and we are part of this county, even as far away as people may perceive that we are.”

One of the programs that RAUW was doing that the Fond du Lac County United Way won’t be able to continue is the Imagination Library, which puts books in the hands of children under 5 years old. Puhlmann-Becker noted RAUW spends $6,000 a year on the program and Fond du Lac County is about 11 times bigger, so it’s not feasible.

While the program will not continue under the Fond du Lac County United Way umbrella, RAUW has approached and had initial conversations with leadership of Ripon Rotary to take over and run the Imagination Library.

“The advantage we have with Rotary is there are two national partners for Imagination Library and they happen to be United Way and Rotary,” Puhlmann-Becker said, noting Imagination Library requires only that a nonprofit takes it over. “Rotary nationwide has already been committed to the Imagination Library for quite some time.”

Now that the merger between RAUW and the Fond du Lac County Area United Way has been made public, Puhlmann-Becker noted that leadership of Ripon Rotary will further discuss the idea of taking over Imagination Library.

While that still has to be finalized, Kilawee noted the Fond du Lac County Area United Way is looking forward to merging with RAUW and becoming one organization with the same goals.

“We’re excited for the chance to be able to work with … the wonderful and generous philanthropic people of the Ripon community,” she said. “One United Way serves our county in a more effective way. As resources are becoming thinner, I think we need to be really cautious that we’re sensitive to donor fatigue and being very sensitive to what the needs are. … We need to be really smart and effective with our dollars, with the resources we have.”

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