Rick Searer speaking at the 2014 Loyal Contributor Party
Rick Searer speaking at the 2014 Loyal Contributor Party

On July 17, United Way of Dane County held it’s annual Loyal Contributor Party. Long-time volunteer, friend and donor Rick Searer shared his thoughts on why he and his wife, Cathi, have given so generously of their time and talent to the community. Below, he shared his words with the community.

The request from Kristi Shepard on behalf of United Way was direct and simple…would I be willing to tell the story of why Cathi and I have been Loyal Contributors and Foundation donors and why we remain supporters of United Way of Dane County. The answer was, of course, yes but I must acknowledge that the process of formulating these brief comments have been more thought provoking then I would have imagined…thought provoking because it forced me to crystallize why we have indeed remained strong supporters of United Way of Dane County.

As background, Cathi and I first moved to Madison in 1983 and have lived here since then with a few short Chicago north side interludes due to my career with Kraft.

We have been contributors since 1983, have been Tocqueville Society members since 1997, and I have been engaged with United Way in a variety of roles over time—a board member for 10 years with a stint as Chairman, a member of the marketing committee, the strategic planning committee, and now the strategic collaboration capacity building team.

But why?

My logic begins with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. who stated that “Life’s persistent and most urgent question is what are you doing for others?”

We are blessed to live in this wonderful community…but it is a community in which there is indeed a constellation of pressing social needs which affect many of our fellow residents.

Our Agenda for Change is clear and it is aspirational: Education—Students succeed academically and graduate from high school, regardless of race. Children are cared for and have fun as they become prepared for school. Safety—There is a decrease in family homelessness. There is a reduction in violence toward individuals and families. Health—People’s health issues are identified and treated early. Seniors and people with disabilities are able to stay in their homes. United Way engages our community, mobilizes volunteers and strengthens local nonprofits to achieve measureable results and change local lives.

While Cathi and I want to have an impact—that impact can be magnified through our engagement with United Way.

In reflecting on this organization, I am drawn to the book Great by Choice written by Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great. Yes, he is writing about business, but his logic applies to all organizations and I strongly believe that United Way of Dane County is great by choice—in its impact on the lives of our fellow residents.

In the book, Collins demonstrated that great organizations share three attributes; fanatical discipline, empirical creativity, and productive paranoia.

Fanatical discipline—the United Way knows its purpose, understands its community, actively engages a broad spectrum of that community, and holds itself and its agency partners accountable for results. The model works.

Empirical creativity—let’s talk Agenda for Change…a true innovation in how to deliver life changing social service results. It actually began in a sense in 1996 with the Schools of Hope initiative in which United Way was a key partner. This was in effect, the test market…and a successful one. This model was fully developed and introduced in 2003. While the Agenda for Change continues to be evolved to enhance its success, the essence of it remains—all based on vision, engagement, and accountability. This is a great and innovative approach to social service delivery to change people’s lives for the better.

The third element is productive paranoia—a much more positive concept than it sounds. It entails thinking through what can go wrong and then ensuring it does not happen.

I fundamentally believe that United Way of Dane County is a great organization and it magnifies and amplifies the constructive impact any of us can have individually on our community. The mission resonates with me…to unite and focus the community to create measurable results in changing people’s lives and strengthening the community.

While the organization lists ten values I can summarize them as three—vision, engagement and accountability. Vision to identify what issues need to be addressed; engagement to gather all the community’s considerable resources to develop strategies and plans that work; accountability to ensure results.

Make no mistake, this model is aspirational and it works. That is why Cathi and I are such strong supporters of United Way of Dane County. And what is the reward for me, for Cathi, for you?

I close by answering that question with a quote from Maya Angelou. “I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.”