In November, when the employee campaign ended, the giant thermometer sign that tracks campus donations from Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, to United Way of Erie County was all red – a $54,000 success.
A review of the campaign, and an analysis of employee giving since 1992, points to an even greater level of sustained community impact: Penn State Behrend has now provided more than $1 million in support to United Way.
“For a local university, you’re in a completely different league,” said Laurie Root, senior vice president of United Way. “It’s consistent, too. It’s a real source of pride to be able to maintain that level of support over so many years.”
The college has been one of United Way’s top 15 contributing organizations in every one of the last 12 years, Root said. Ranked among organizations with fewer than 1,000 employees, the college is consistently in the top 10, she said.
The money raised by United Way supports local after-school youth programs, community health clinics, food pantries, financial literacy services and YMCA child care, among other programs. One of every three people in Erie County benefits from those services.
The broad approach to community improvement appeals to Penn State Behrend employees, said Jessica Wolfe, assistant director of constituent relations in the college’s office of Development and Alumni Relations. Wolfe has co-chaired Behrend’s United Way campaigns since 2007.
“If you look at the list of programs and initiatives that are supported through United Way, you’ll see something that appeals to you,” she said. “There is almost always an agency in there that provides a specific service that you or someone you know has used.”
More than a third of the college’s faculty and staff contribute to the annual campaign, typically through payroll deductions. Many also sponsor children through the Imagination Library, which provides free books every month to youths under the age of 5.
Employees can designate the programs they want their contribution to support – the Salvation Army, for example, or the Sisters of St. Joseph Neighborhood Network, or the Susan Hirt Hagen Center for Community Outreach, Research and Evaluation (CORE), an outreach effort of the college’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences.
In 2014, Wolfe made a separate appeal to college retirees. “A number of them were really active when they worked here,” she said, “and they still want to give.”
Retirees sent her $600 that year. In 2016, they contributed $1,120.
Students also contribute. Resident assistants set fundraising goals for each residence hall or apartment cluster. They raise money by delivering candy-grams or taking out residents’ garbage, among other activities.
“The competitive aspect of it helps,” said Jill Fox, assistant director of resident life. “It drives students to be a little more creative.”
During the 2016 campaign, students donated for a chance to throw pies at faculty members. At Halloween, they threw pumpkin guts at the resident assistants.
“They’re having fun, but they’re also giving back,” Fox said. “It’s pennies, dimes and quarters, sometimes, but it does add up. Every contribution helps.”