Journal Gazette: 5 Questions For Matthew Purkey

Apr 27, 2020


1. You started work here just before the COVID-19 crisis began. What is your initial impression of the Fort Wayne community’s response? Are local donors stepping up?

I am in awe of the collaborative spirit of Allen County. Coming in as an outsider, I would have understood if it would have taken time for the community to trust me. I was prepared for that to occur. But that was not the case. …

I joke when I say that every leader should have to go through an immediate emergency when taking over a new organization. But there is truth in that statement. COVID-19 has allowed United Way of Allen County to do things that we have never done before. … We had to look into the organizational mirror and make the immediate changes that were needed.

Not only have local foundations, the business community and nonprofits stepped up, but also individual givers. We have been joyfully overwhelmed by the response of the community. The goal of United Way’s Emergency Relief Fund established last month was to streamline the process for nonprofits applying and receiving funds in these uncertain times, and we believe we have accomplished that mission.


2. What seems to be the most urgent need here?

United Way is in the business of measurably changing lives. But we cannot change what we do not measure. Through this process we have been able to better utilize data in our decision-making process. United Way cannot create its own priorities; instead, we must listen to what the community is telling us is priority. In an effort to combine community voice and relevant data, we are using up-to-date Indiana 211 information for our community, and also the results of the community survey created by Parkview Mirro Center for Research and Innovation.

These data sets are telling us that the top five urgent needs are food, housing, utility assistance, health care, and income support and assistance. The advisory committee of the Emergency Relief Fund then takes those priorities and strategically funds organizations that are making a measurable difference in those areas.


3. Charitable giving has been increasingly fragmented, with nonprofits cultivating their own donor bases. Is the United Way model better suited for the current challenge?

United Way is designed to answer when the community calls. In the current environment, we were called to be a convener of funders to align according to the immediate need. We did just that. …

I would not say that charitable giving is fragmented. I would say we currently provide different investment opportunities according to the donor’s interest. … With so many amazing nonprofits in town, it is our (the funders’) responsibility to ensure different giving avenues exist. As long as we are all working from the same map.


4. The Lilly Endowment is giving Indiana United Way organizations $33.5 million to help Hoosiers during the COVID-19 crisis. How does your organization plan to use your share of that grant?

Locally, we received a very generous gift of $2.25 million from the Lilly Endowment in partnership with Indiana United Ways. We were approved in the first wave of funding because of our board of directors’ swift action of creating the Emergency Relief Fund. This is added to what has been raised locally for a total of $2.8 million.

These funds … are allocated according to community need. We are focusing on immediate, intermediate and long-term needs. Thus far, 15 organizations have received funds for a total of $200,000 for mostly food and shelter. We anticipate the need shifting to rent and utility assistance shortly. …

Along with allocations to local nonprofits during this uncertain time, we are also a financial investor and managing agent in a nine-county, regional homeless quarantine center. This is a collaboration with The Lutheran Foundation, YWCA, The Rescue Mission, Brightpoint, Just Neighbors, CTN, etc. This is a private/public partnership with the Indiana Division of Mental Health and Addiction.


5. United Way’s last ALICE survey showed more than a third of Allen County residents struggling… . But that was based on data from 2016, which now seems like a thousand years ago. How much do you think this health crisis and economic downturn will change those numbers?

This pandemic has impacted us all, but it has not impacted us all the same. In spite of stimulus attempts, predatory lending is currently spiking. And even though someone cannot be evicted, that does not mean rent is forgiven. All we are doing is condensing the same total due into fewer (and higher) payments. If you struggled to keep the lights on prior to the crisis, chances are you are not going to be in a better financial position after. In other words, we are not preventing further financial and health issues, we are normalizing them.

United Way’s success can no longer be gauged by the amount of money we raise, but instead by the amount of lives we measurably change. If our revenue increases but our most pressing community issues continue to worsen, we have in fact failed. We can no longer afford to be considered just a fundraiser, but instead a community problem-solver. Our promise is that through this crisis, and after, we will continue to fight for the lives of everyone in Allen County. It will take us all, but united we will overcome.

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