Carlisle History

A living history of Carlisle, PA

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Interview with Jeff Conway

Introduction   History of Welfare Systems   History of Non-Profit Organizations   Poverty and Non-Profits   Funding Challenges of Non-Profits   The “Bigger Picture”   Interview with Dale Cross-Employment Skills Center 

 

Interview with Jeff Conway, Executive Director of Carlisle United Way
November 8, 2007
Conducted by Carla Nally

NALLY: Today is November 8, 2007 and I, Carla Nally, am seated here with Mr. Jeff Conway, who is the Executive Director of Carlisle’s United Way.

First of all, Mr. Conway, could you please tell me a little bit about yourself? What brought you to Carlisle?

CONWAY: Well, I grew up in Michigan, in northern Michigan where there is a lot of snow. I was kind of pursuing a “non-profit” lifestyle. I worked for the Boy Scouts for five years and at the end of five years I was offered a transfer to three different places in the United States, and one of those locations was Carlisle. I picked Carlisle because my father-in-law had been coming here for the car shows, and he had a lot of good things to say about Carlisle… and not knowing anything else about the other two [locations], I came to Carlisle. I’m glad I ended up here. It is a great place to live.

I went from working for the Boy Scouts to working with MDA, the Muscular Dystrophy Association. I was there for thirteen years, three of which were down in Washington, DC., where I was a regional coordinator, so I had six offices in three states. I was on the road most of the time.

I grew tired of that… of the Washington lifestyle as opposed to the Carlisle lifestyle, so I moved back here, and this is the only job I applied for when I came back. For five years I was a campaign director and then in 2001 I was promoted to the Executive Director.

NALLY: What are some of your duties as Executive Director?

CONWAY: I think my most important duty is supervising the staff. I have a great staff, and they each take care of their own area of expertise. My job is to see that they are all on the same page and that we go towards one goal, not towards five goals as everyone would want to do their job. I set the vision for the organization and try to get them to fall—I don’t want to say fall in the line—but to build what they are responsible for along those lines. I have a little bit of a campaign responsibility, I have a community investment responsibility, I’m a part-time janitor, I’m a part-time IT person. In a very small office, which we are, we have five full-time people, so you get to do everything, and that’s just the way it is. This isn’t a “thirty-person” organization. While my main job is executive director and am responsible for all of the staff… but right before you came here, I was emptying out the garbage cans because it was my week to do it!

NALLY: So you mentioned that in addition to your specific job as the executive director, there is a broader aspect of your job, which would be making sure the vision of the organization gets carried out. How would you describe the vision of United Way with regard to Carlisle, Pennsylvania?

CONWAY: Every United Way is unique. We are a national organization, we have a national headquarters but we don’t have to follow their rules and their guidelines. They have no control over us. Each organization is separate into itself. We have a board of directors with twenty-eight members that is responsible for this organization, in setting its goals and so forth. We can do pretty much anything we want to do as a Carlisle United Way.

My vision for the United Way, and I think it’s the board’s vision, is that we are more than a fundraiser. That is the most important thing I can say. For a long time we were strictly a fundraiser. We raised money in the annual campaigns, we distributed that to our agencies, and we built everything around those two activities. Now we go beyond that, looking at Carlisle and the surrounding area and seeing where the greatest needs are, and either trying to step in ourselves and put money towards solving those needs, or maybe just by building a coalition of people who will address those needs. We may not have to put any money in it, but we will take the leadership in addressing those kinds of problems.

I’ll give you two examples of how we did that. The first one was “Carlisle Cares,” which is an organization that’s been around now for… I guess it’s starting its third year. That came about because of a homeless coalition that we formed, and we knew that there weren’t enough opportunities here for homeless people to spend a warm, sheltered night. There was James Wilson, which had a home… you had to move into that place and you lived there, in essence… and the Salvation Army, which could only take care of five men. Beyond that, for the truly homeless, there just wasn’t any place to go and spend the night. We helped start “Cares,” which is now in its third year. It has an executive director, it goes from church to church ten months a year –one month at each church- and in the basement, the men sleep. That’s all that they do. They are homeless people, but they come in at nine o’clock at night, check in, go through a process, and sleep on mats. They get up the next morning and have to leave, but at least they have someplace warm to sleep at night. Now it’s averaging about twenty people a night. So that’s an example of how we put a little bit of money into buying the mats, right off the bat. But beyond that, all we’ve really done is lend expertise. We have a person that is on our staff who attends our board meetings and does what she can, but we really got that organization started. We brought the people together to form it, and it’s on its own. It’s wonderful and it is working the way it’s supposed to work. So that is a clear example of seeing a need, finding a way to address it; not having to make any long term commitments on our part, or any monetary commitment, and getting it going.

On the other hand, we are in our third year of providing heating assistance to people.This one does take money. We realized —probably too late — but we realized that a lot of people can’t afford to pay their heating bills. Even with LIHEAP, which is a state-run assistance program, there are a lot of people who just make over the poverty level, so they don’t qualify for the LIHEAP funding. They really can’t afford it anyway, they are just broke enough, they live check by check… and with the price of oil today, and in the last couple of years, it is just unbelievable. So we have set aside 10,000 dollars to pay for those people who can’t afford their heating. We have another $10,000 from the [Carlisle Area]Health and Wellness foundation, so we have $20,000. While we provide the money, we look to the Red Cross and Todd Baird Lindsey Foundation to administrate this program. Todd Baird Lindsey isn’t a member agency at all, but they are the right people to address people who are fifty-five and over because that is who they work with. We don’t get involved in the paperwork. All we do is either refer them to the Red Cross or Todd Baird Lindsey, but we are going to pay the bills from the United Way. That’s an example of how we actually have to put money towards a program and really give a lot of leadership to it. But it is the right thing to do. We are helping people out who wouldn’t get help otherwise… and we really have cold winters… and we’ve already gotten applications for it. November 5 was the first day of LIHEAP, which is the day we start our program, and already we’ve gotten applications for it. When the $20,000 is gone, it’s gone.

Those are just two examples of going beyond just raising money for other agencies. We are building a coalition now of community leaders… [preparing] for emergencies, and we will address some things in that field as we get going. We are moving more towards that. Our agencies are always going to be important to us, we will always fund our agencies… maybe not to the extent they’d like, but we will always have some funding available for them. But we are moving more and more towards “one-time” issues, or things we can take care of in one or two years, or things that aren’t being addressed at all… and nobody else is going to address them.

NALLY: Well, from these two examples that you just mentioned, it sounds pretty evident that poverty and homelessness are big issues in Carlisle. Are these two the biggest needs, or are there other issues—

CONWAY: —Well, I think there are a lot of other issues. I just think that those are two really glaring issues that we have to take care of. I think there are going to be a lot of issues around seniors, as our population ages. We are going to have a boom in the seniors that are going to be requesting services. There isn’t going to be money available for them. I think that the heating coalition and the heating assistance are going to become greater.

Poverty is always going to be here. It’s kind of a “catch-22;” the more services you offer, the more people will move into this area because of the good services. We hear that a lot, and I know that it’s true. A couple came in Monday morning, and they were looking for a home. They were homeless and needed some place to stay, and they had come here because they had heard that we had some places for them to stay. Our county services are here, too… we know that people from other counties, and other states even, are coming up Highway 81 and getting off here… but what are you going to do? You still have to provide the service. You can’t say, “Only people that have been residents for five years and are homeless are going to be helped (laughs), and if you’ve been here for less than five years and you’re homeless you’re out of luck! (laughs)

You have to take care of them.

NALLY: You mentioned something along the lines that poverty was always going to be here, based on the fact that there are so many social service agencies that are providing help for those in need. In your opinion, how will that impede development of Carlisle? Will Carlisle always be stuck with a poverty problem, or do you see a solution?

CONWAY: I see us moving-I think that that is general, [seen] across the country- although Carlisle is protected a little bit because we have low unemployment. So that’s a good thing. I don’t think we are going to have an overwhelming amount of poverty, but I see it developing more into the “have” and the “have-nots.” There is really becoming less of a middle class, more of a lower class, and an upper class. I see that continuing in Carlisle, as elsewhere… it is going to continue.

I wouldn’t want to say that all of our focus is on the lower class, certainly the majority of it is… and those people that are struggling to make it, often through no fault of their own, or they can’t help themselves… the mentally retarded, and the physically retarded… there is nothing they can do about their situation. They can’t change that, so we are going to do what we can to help them… make their lives a little bit easier.

NALLY: United Way is a national organization. How would you describe the differences between this national organization and the other social service organizations here that are local? Are there differences in how they are run, or in who is providing more services to the community?

CONWAY: That’s a good question. I think –and it’s just a perception I have- overall, national organizations, whether it be us, or the Boy Scouts, or the Girl Scouts, or whatever national organization… they obviously have more behind them and more experience, more resources to apply to a problem than a local organization does. With that said, many of the local organizations which we have do an excellent job with what they have. Hope Station, that’s not a part of a national organization… they do a great job with what they have, but they are always struggling for money. They know that they are under a ten-year contract for their money, and then it’s going to run out… how are they going to continue themselves?

The individual projects that the local organizations get involved with are always hurt by the fact that they don’t have the great funds behind them that a national organization may have. An exception to that is Project Share. Project Share is a local organization. On the other hand, they do tap into some national food banks and so forth… But for the most part, those that are national in scope have better training, better staffing, better ground to run on than those [organizations] that are just starting out, or are strictly local.

NALLY: In your opinion, is the United Way necessary in Carlisle more so because it is doing more than, perhaps, the local organizations? Or do you think you are here to help those local organizations?

CONWAY: I think both. I think we are definitely needed because all of the organizations—there are 27 local organizations—rely on us for funding. They truly rely on us, not just for bonus money. For some of them we are a quarter, or a half of their budget. They are very dependent upon us as a fundraiser. We have that responsibility and also, the looking around, and being aware of what is going on in the community, we often act as a resource for other organizations. In other words, one of our member agencies may come to us and say, “ Oh, I’d like to start up with this particular service…” but they don’t know who to contact and need to get so-and-so involved, “Would you [United Way] act as a broker to get this to happen?” So, we sit at a lot of tables and we facilitate a lot of groups where we just get people together, and don’t do anything more than that.

On the Last Friday of this month, we have a group that has been meeting for five years now, it meets every other month, and in fact we are probably going to go towards [having] monthly meetings… It is all of the service providers in the immediate area, including the county administers, school districts, state offices, non-profits—a wide variety of folks—we bring them into our board room and just sit for two hours, and they talk about the problems they are having with a particular client, or a new service they are providing. It is the best way they can communicate with each other, and we build great relationships between those groups that never would have sat down and talked to each other! We used to be so concerned about protecting their turf and, “Oh gosh, what happens if so-and so starts… we’re going to go out of business…” They don’t see it that way now. They see it as, “that’s great, they are providing a service, let’s work together and we can build a good thing…” We feel there is definitely a role for the United Way.

NALLY: Fundraising keeps coming up… is that hard to do in a small community like Carlisle? What are some of the factors that go into deciding how to get funding?

CONWAY: I don’t think fundraising is hard. We have a very generous community. We have a wealthy community; more so than a lot of our neighbors, because we have a lot of retirees, we have a very low unemployment rate… it really comes down to a matter of skill, than a matter of getting the money. Some organizations just don’t know how to raise money. It’s not that they can’t raise money, they just don’t know how to go about it. I find that raising money in Carlisle to be very—I don’t want to say it is easy—but it’s not hard. You can do it.

NALLY: What are some of these fundraising activities currently going on?

CONWAY: You name it.

NALLY: Everything? (laughs)

CONWAY: Everything… every kind of event you can think of… “a-thons,” special events such as galas, and balls, parties of some sort or another… We do—I’m saying “we” as a collective we—a lot of letter-writing campaigning to different people, an annual request… I think those are the three biggest. And of course, the United Way does the “workplace giving,” which is unique to us. We go into companies and ask their employees to give, and no one else has tried to do that. No one else is set up to do that.

I don’t think that fundraising is holding people back. Either agencies are lazy and don’t want to do any fundraising, or they don’t know how to do fundraising.

NALLY: I don’t know… Fundraising could be hard because people want to know what their money is going into… and they would like to see results.

CONWAY: Yes. Yes, it depends on what kind of fundraising you do. If you do a special event, it really doesn’t matter if you’re asking for ten dollars for the Heart Association or Safe Harbor, ten dollars out of everybody’s pocket is not hard to get. If you’re asking for a thousand dollars, you know, you want a contribution of a thousand dollars, and then you have to have a valid organization. You have to explain exactly what you said: where the money is going, and they want to see some results. Small donations, I think you can get those anywhere, you can sell anything… it is just a matter of “Who’s asking who.” It’s the person that is doing the asking… when you get into the larger gifts you have more responsibility.

NALLY: Do you see these results? Is the United Way a positive asset of the community?

CONWAY: Would I say? Yes.

I think every organization, including the United Way, has its people who don’t understand, or they disagree, with what we do. An example of that is how we support the Boy Scouts. And Dickinson College is a fine example. We have professors at Dickinson College and the School of Law who don’t believe we should support the Boy Scouts because they don’t allow openly gay members within their organization. So if you’re an openly gay boy and you join the boy scouts, and you announce that you are openly gay, you will not be allowed to be a boy scout. That gets into discrimination… We have chosen to support them because the Supreme Court supports them. The Supreme Court has said they are a private membership organization, they can determine who their members are. Period. And we support the Supreme Court. We’re not going to set rules that go against the Supreme Court’s ruling. If the Supreme Court were to say “That’s discrimination,” we’d be the first group to drop them.

Because we do support the Boy Scouts, that causes problems for some members… like “The United Way is supporting a group not allowing gays, therefore, I am not going to support the United Way.” They don’t look at the better good that we do.

NALLY: That’s horrible.

CONWAY: It is. And if they want to not give their money to the Boy Scouts, they can choose to do that… we’ll give it to the other twenty-six agencies. But they want to send us a message that, “I’m not going to support you because of that…” and we just have to live with that.

Overall, I would say that the community strongly feels good support about the United Way and feels that we are doing a right thing. It’s a very small minority that feels that way. And I respect their feelings. I have my personal feelings about that … I used to work for the Boy Scouts, so I have very strong feelings about that. I believe that they’re wrong, that they ought to allow openly gay students. Just because a boy is gay doesn’t mean he isn’t going to be a good Boy Scout!

NALLY: Yes… that gets into so many other issues…

CONWAY: Whole other issues… exactly. But I’m not going to win that fight, and I think that scouting does a lot for the kids it does allow into its organization. So, as an organization [United Way] we support it. As an individual I can oppose that. Just the way my life is (laughs)

NALLY: Well, there are twenty seven non-profit organizations here in Carlisle, how do you describe your relationship with those other organizations?

 

I mean, they depend on you financially, but do you get a lot of referrals for projects, potential clients… potential fundraiser… givers?

CONWAY: (laughs)

NALLY: I didn’t know how to word it!

CONWAY: (laughs) Well, with every relationship there is a “love-hate” relationship. We have a little bit of that. Overall, I would say we have a strong relationship with our agencies. They are going through the process of appealing for funds right now, where they have to come in and visit with us… when that is done, some will be very disappointed that they didn’t get as much as they wanted, and there will be others that will be overjoyed because they will have gotten what they wanted. It’s always a “cat-mouse” game. Overall, I would say we have very good relationships with our agencies.

If they weren’t good relationships, we would get rid of them… and we have over the past… First of all, we’d try to work it out, but if that didn’t work, we’d have to part.

NALLY: Well, now I’d like to move forward and talk a little bit about downtown Carlisle. Do you see any problems with the downtown Carlisle area in terms of development?

CONWAY: Sure. We’ve got too many open store fronts. I had being sitting on the DCA committees that are looking at the DCD. I’m not convinced that a DCD tax will result in the results they want. I’m unable, at this point, to make up my mind about that…I guess I’m going to have to before I vote. I had been looked to by that group that’s looking at the DCD, as a representative of the non-profits; and trying to convince the non-profits to voluntarily pay the tax because a number of non-profits are going to fall in the taxing district. They would like us all to voluntarily pay some sort of a tax… I don’t know whether I can support that or not.

NALLY: Wouldn’t that money be going into the programs that would be helping the community…

CONWAY: Yes. Yes. It is a conflict.

I think that we are on the right track. I won’t tell you anything new. The problems I see are traffic… the truck traffic has become more of a nuisance; the people who run red lights are really becoming annoying to me and scary, for that matter; people who don’t stop at the crosswalks to let people cross both at the campus and in the downtown.

But I see some progress. I see some stores opening up both on Hanover and High [streets] that are good fits for the community. I’m not sure that I agree with the Downtown Carlisle Association that North Hanover Street should be an arts district, and that West High Street, should be strictly retail. I’m really not sure about the arts district.

NALLY: Really? Why is that?

CONWAY: Well, I just don’t think that we can support it. It’s a nice idea, but I don’t know if we can support it. I’m not sure what I want there… haven’t thought about it… and I’m not really sure that I would shop downtown… The mix of stores and the things that they have are not of interest to me. I eat downtown, but so far, I haven’t found anything downtown that interests me. That’s just me personally.

NALLY: Do you think that bringing in bigger chain stores would make you and other members of the community happier and more likely to come to the downtown area? I’m sure that if people had interest in the downtown area, that would spark some development, and you would see some progress.

CONWAY: No, I don’t see chains only because I don’t think we have the buildings to support them. I don’t think we have large enough buildings anymore, left downtown that are unoccupied.That’s just me…. I’m just not a shopper. I don’t care. If you talk to Kate, or to Holly [other staff] they may want boutiques… but I just don’t care for those things. If I’m going to go someplace I’ll go to Target and pick up some –

NALLY: Target! Really?

CONWAY: Well, I live right out there.

NALLY: (laughs)

CONWAY: I shop for convenience. That doesn’t mean that something is going to move in that I’m going to really like.

NALLY: Maybe people are relying on convenience too much… you can shop via Internet and it will get delivered to your door instead of physically going out and work a little bit to get what you want.

CONWAY: That’s right. I think that we’re at a tough spot right now where there aren’t enough stores to draw people to it, and then if we get enough stores, there might be people willing to go through those stores one on one… but a lot of storekeepers are going to have to have faith that it is a worthwhile investment. Bringing in one or two [stores] isn’t going to cut it and they aren’t going to survive. They’re going to have to build the whole thing fairly rapidly, so there is enough business that people start to come downtown.

NALLY: You mentioned Target… and there is also the Wal-mart here. Do you think these big-box retailers are drawing business out of the downtown?

CONWAY: Oh, I am sure of it. But I think that the plan of the DCA is that those big-box retailers draw one kind of customer, and that they are really looking for boutiques and small shops where the Targets and the Walmarts are not going to sell the same kind of merchandise…. Small craft items, homemade items, unique items… the kinds of things a certain population will shop for.

There will always be the people that just go to Wal-mart. Period. I know those people, and some people will always go to Target… because they will always go to Target. And then there’s a third group that will shop in the boutiques because they can.

NALLY: Earlier on in this conversation you mentioned the growing distinction between two classes. There is the wealthier upper-class and a growing lower class. With this current trend of bringing in unique boutiques that will appeal to a certain part of the population, won’t that make the poverty problem and differences between the social classes more severe?

CONWAY: I don’t think so. I don’t mean to generalize but… generally speaking, Wal-mart folks are not going to go to boutique shops. And boutique shop folks are probably going to go into Wal-mart really quickly, get what they need, and then leave. They are two different kinds of people, two different classes of people. If anything now, we’ve got the lower class covered real well in terms of shopping. What we don’t have are the boutiques… the upper class is going over to the West Shore and over to Harrisburg to do all their shopping and I’m hoping things will turn around and that the money will stay here in Carlisle.

NALLY: That’s very interesting, that instead of catering to the large lower class, you have cater to the upper class to keep the money in the community.

CONWAY: Absolutely. And I think that Pat Craig and the stores on Pomfret Street have shown that you can build a certain synergy around an idea and around a class of stores, where people will go and just shop the block. People will go into each store. While they may not have started to go out to a yarn store, you know, that might not be their thing…

NALLY: (laughs)

CONWAY: … They’re going to stop in there and they might buy some yarn because of it. There is a nice synergy that exists on that street. I can see that same thing happening on Hanover Street and on High Street.

NALLY: Well now… is there anything else that you would like to add, either about downtown’s development or regarding the United Way?

CONWAY: (takes a deep breath) No. (laughs)

NALLY: (laughs)Hopes, dreams, aspirations for the future?

CONWAY: For the United Way, or the town? Well, I’ll give them for both of them.

 

For the United Way I hope we can continue on the path that we’ve chosen and that we don’t go back to being just a fundraiser…. That we find more and more things that we can help with and build coalitions around. That’s my hope, that the United Way will be looked upon by community members as the organization that solves problems in the community. And it uses its partners to solve those problems. We don’t necessarily do it ourselves, but we are the leaders for problem solving.

 

And for Carlisle, I hope that the Carlisle Revitalization would help. I think it will come, I really do. There are so many people working on it and the College has been wonderful in their support of it. That could just be the College… and Bill Durden could say, “I’m only concerned about these four blocks… and that’s it, I don’t care about downtown,” but he has taken just the opposite attitude. It’s really a blessing for us. If we don’t take advantage of how willing Dickinson is to get involved in the downtown, shame on us. I think there is going to be something happening in the next ten years, and it’s going to be pretty remarkable. It will be a neat place.

NALLY: Well, Mr. Conway, thank you so much for having me here.

CONWAY: Thank you. It was a good discussion.

NALLY: Yes, we covered a lot of ground!

CONWAY: I hope I came through on your recorder!