MISSION & HISTORY
United Way of Mercer County is the name for an old idea, an idea for uniting giving, sharing, planning, and building that has spanned seven decades and is now entering its eighth decade of service to the community in both wartime and peacetime; periods of economic strife, and periods of unprecedented growth. Born in 1924, the Shenango Valley Community Chest was victorious in setting up the businesslike management of 17 voluntary social agencies. The infant fund experienced early hardships before its first successful campaign in 1927 when $102,749 was raised to support the expanding list of 19 agencies.
With the end of the war, campaign objectives dropped briefly, then moved upward again. New agencies were organized and sought Chest Participation. Ten newcomers were admitted in the 1944-55 decade. Valley residents increasingly sought the services of agencies as populations increased and inflation of earlier years continued to erode the dollar’s value. In 1954, local community leaders agreed to combine the Chest with the American Red Cross of Mercer County and expanded operations to include national agencies. This organization took the name of United Fund of the Shenango Valley Area to signify this broadened participation.
A new area of growth began in 1967. With the campaign seeking needed funds for 39 social service agencies, the community responded with unparalleled support. Thirteen consecutive campaigns over-subscribed their goals.The depression marked a real test for the Fund. For years member agencies had met the short term relief needs of those temporarily unemployed. But now, unemployment and relief needs were no longer short-term; no longer on a limited scale. Yet, even in the midst of the depression, the original Community Fund spirit remained intact as agencies were on a constant alert to preempt tragedy and disaster and to tide people over just a little while longer despite reduced operating budgets. The impact of World War II resulted in increased appropriations to the American Red Cross and a new and vital agency, the United Service Organization (USO). A National War Fund was organized to combine war relief appeal wherever feasible. The valley again geared itself to sacrifice as campaigns regularly began to top their quotas.
The United Fund and its network of agencies continued to expand their scope of activities, and new programs and services were launched to meet the changing needs of the 1960s. By the end of the decade, the United Fund was widely recognized as more than a fundraising organization. A Planning Division was created to determine future needs for agency programs and services and information, and education efforts were expanded. This period signified the growth of the organization from a fund to a movement which was highlighted in 1974 with a name change to the United Way of the Shenango Valley Area. The new name was short-lived, as early in the next year the United Ways of Shenango Valley and the areas of the Borough of Mercer merged to become the United Way of Mercer County.
The 1980s and into the late 1990s was a period of change for the United Way of Mercer County. During this period, the decline in manufacturing companies was being offset by an increased employment demand in service related industries. The traditional large employee group payroll deduction programs continued to be a major contributor to the annual campaign drives, but more volunteer time was needed to cultivate new businesses with smaller employment levels. The United Way of Mercer County was able to maintain an adequate level of funding to its member agencies through this period. This effort was a result of expanding its donor base and accessing reserves for agency appropriations during years of increased need.
The efficiency of the United Way system was evident during the mid 1990s through the efforts of the Allocation Committee. A simple budget form was developed for agencies receiving funding from all three United Ways in Mercer County. This budget form allowed common funded agencies the luxury of completing one form instead of three different budget analyses. Also, joint budget panel meetings were held with Northern Mercer County United Way to allow agency personnel to conduct one presentation for funding.
In 1997, the Volunteer Service Division was created to link agency requests for volunteers with individuals in the county who are willing to share their expertise. This program utilized AmeriCorps Vista workers to further expand the service to encompass all of Mercer County.
In 2005, United Way of America CEO Brian Gallagher announced that individual United Ways would have a choice to remain basic fundraising organizations or transition into Community Impact United Ways that identify and address issues before they become widespread community problems. The timetable suggestion for this transition is ten years. United Way of Mercer County is taking the challenge – but not taking it lightly.
Seventy years is a major milestone for any organization, institution, or way of life. The concept of united giving has developed and become a reality in our area during these years. But the accomplishments of the past – and the hopes of the future – would not be possible were it not for the thousands upon thousands of volunteer workers who have given so generously of time, energy, and spirit in the seven preceding decades. The United Way of Mercer County exists as a monument to their dedication.
In 2009, discussions to increase efficiencies and improve the agency delivery of services began. The Northern Mercer County United Way merged with United Way of Mercer County in June. Volunteers from each organization created a seamless transition for both campaign and allocation purposes. This spirit of collaboration and determination led United Way volunteers to set a strategic course for learning more about the people who rely on United Way funded programs.
This shifted the focus from simply being a fundraising organization, to one that identifies emerging needs and engages the public to embrace and be a part of the change. Beginning with our school officials, financial professionals and healthcare experts, the United Way Planning Committee began a 3-plus year community assessment to increase outreach to non-affiliate agencies in order to provide change and collaboration.
Since then, the United Way Board of Directors announced in 2015 a “Lifting Families Out of Poverty” initiative for the organization and partner agency network. United Way agency program allocation expenditures focus on services that create self-sufficiency outcomes while maintaining a compassionate dignified relationship with clients. Additional services for housing options, transportation access and health initiatives become part of the overall United Way philosophy of helping clients overcome small barriers before they become major obstacles. Area financial professionals form a sub-committee to volunteer and teach FDIC financial literacy classes issues for agency clients and employees of area businesses.
Through a spirit of cooperation and collaboration with all sectors of the economy, United Way of Mercer County continues to serve as a catalyst for change. The dedication of volunteers who continually seek the best possible path for community well-being will remain observant and receptive to new opportunities in the foreseeable future.