Did you know that there’s an organization that supports our entire Wiregrass community to succeed? In this episode of Homegrown, I’m going to interview Walter Hill, CEO of the Wiregrass United Way. We’ll learn about Walter’s background and fundraising efforts and let you know how you can help.
Walter Hill is the CEO of the Wiregrass United Way, a local organization that offers support to the community in a variety of ways. Walter was born on the coast of Mississippi as the youngest of seven from a big family. He had never heard of Dothan, Alabama until he graduated from Spring Hill College in Mobile.
If Walter’s mother was still living, she would tell us that he has been fundraising for his whole life. He never dreamed he would have a career in fundraising until about a month before graduating college. While he had been on a few interviews, he had not been offered any jobs. When he saw a posting for the Wiregrass United Way, he decided to apply.
He got the job and started a week after graduating from college—and has been raising money for the community ever since.
For years, Walter was asked by his family and very close friends when he was going to switch careers and start making some money. He told them he is making money—for Fight Cancer, March of Dimes, and now for Wiregrass United Way.
Walter believes you have to find what you're passionate about. While he did take a break between working for charitable organizations to do some other things, he was not successful at it and didn’t love it. Working for an organization that gives back is his career, not just a job.
Born from a very middle-class family—which was sometimes lower middle-class—Walter’s dad was a mailman and his mother was a stay-at-home mom. While they never went without the necessities, Walter saw his parents giving all the time. That kindness and gratitude were instilled in his heart by his parents’ example.
The Wiregrass United Way raises money and brings the community together. It includes six counties: Barbour, Coffee, Dale, Geneva, Henry, and Houston. While Walter lives in a small subdivision in Dothan—which is his neighborhood—he considers the entire Wiregrass area his community.
With the kind heart that the Wiregrass people have, COVID did not completely shut down operations and ruin all fundraising. Walter remembers when COVID happened; the day that the governor closed the state of Alabama was late on a Friday afternoon.
They had 50 volunteers at the office that day for four different meetings, allocating the funds they had raised from the previous campaign earlier that March. Walter doesn’t know how they would have had those meetings, as they didn’t have Zoom at the time. He feels that God's timing was perfect.
Going through COVID was not without its challenges. With the state shutdown, they thought they would have to cancel their kickoff. However, Walter and the team started brainstorming on how to salvage the event. Since they were going to package meals for the food bank, they decided to do a drive-thru event for the kickoff instead.
They partnered with WCB for this event, while they interviewed 19 different people live from Foster Street. It was the hottest day of 2019—so hot that they filled up two vans with food that day. The Wiregrass community responded once again, which Walter says rejuvenated the whole team. It set the tone then for what was going to be the hardest—and most rewarding—campaign of Walter’s career.
The team pushed hard, and in one day in the Wiregrass, six counties in southeast Alabama raised $318,000. Walter donned a giant T-Rex costume to announce how much they had raised, and he still remembers it as the most single unbelievable day of his career.
The Wiregrass United Way could not accomplish anything they do alone. They have followers on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter along with a large email database. This allows them to reach everybody, which also aligns with their goal: to give every person in six counties the opportunity to support Wiregrass United Way once a year. And if they do, Walter says, they are going to be successful.
Asking for help also extends to organizations that they partner with. When new organizations are added, they go through a process. Nonprofits throughout the six counties can apply, but there are no votes on the board of trustees to make the decision. As Walter says, the only thing they vote on is where to go to lunch for somebody's birthday.
Rather, the volunteer committee goes and meets with those organizations. They narrow it down and review their paperwork to make the decision. Walter says that there are awesome organizations and really great groups in the Wiregrass, but they simply can't fund them all. If they did, they’d be handing out dollar bills instead of thousands of dollars to make an impact.
Over the years, the Wiregrass United Way has added some organizations to its already full roster. To be approved for funding, these organizations have to answer some really hard questions. For example, what is their goal besides just helping people? What is their mission, and how do they accomplish that?
Other questions relate to their operations. What are the direct programs and services that are offered? What are they going to do with the funds? If they’re brought on as a United Way agency, what are they going to bring to the table? What's their board going to offer? What's their staff going to do? This last question is important, as the Wiregrass United Way’s agencies help them raise money.
These agencies go out and speak all the time to champion the cause, and they're always doing things on the behalf of United Way. Walter explains that it’s a team effort from their donors, the media, the staff, the board, the volunteers, and the agencies, bringing the community together to work side by side.
If the committee decides that the organization is a good fit, they’ll bring it to the board for approval. Every time it's gotten to that process, Walter says, it’s always approved by the board of trustees. This is usually because five members of the board will have been working on the process for several months, and they're bringing it as a unanimous recommendation.
With such a stringent vetting process, people can rest assured that there is a structured plan in place. They can be confident that whatever donations are given, those funds will go to the right places. Additionally, one of the best-kept secrets about Wiregrass United Way—which they try to publicize as much as possible—is the program services report.
This report is done every year by four committees that visit all 37 agencies. They review their budget, their 990, and their audit to find out how many people they helped in each program. This ensures that all of the money is being accounted for and is truly helping the Wiregrass community.
Those that are beginning a nonprofit or currently have one may want to reach out to the United Way for help. The easiest way to get started is to email Walter at email@example.com. He’ll then email back and keep them informed as to when there are open spots—as they only onboard new organizations every three to four years.
When the time comes, they’ll have to submit everything—from their board of directors list and mission statement to their most recent audit and 990 report. The board will then decide if they will be added to the list of agencies that the Wiregrass United Way partners with.
So many organizations are currently being supported by the Wiregrass United Way. Walter notes that the community is only as strong as the weakest link. This means that we, as a community, should want it to be the strongest it can be. To do so, every individual and family needs to be the best they can be.
For example, somebody who has a house fire might need the Red Cross to respond in the middle of the night. When something bad has happened in a person’s life or they’re not on the right path, they may need the Salvation Army. Someone may need some help getting a GED or acquiring job skills. They may even need help to learn how to apply for a job online—which is very critical because that's what most companies are doing.
There are also people in the community who have special needs. Walter had a special needs sister, who was the second oldest of the seven children. She went to a place like Vivian B. Adams in Ozark and Vaughn-Blumberg in Dothan until she died at the age of 13. When Walter goes to those places, he often gets emotional thinking about Janice—even though he only knew her from pictures and stories.
This is why we need places in our communities for people with special needs to go. Additionally, just in the last couple of years, the United Way now has a Boys and Girls Club in all six counties that they cover.
Walter has shared a lot of great information about the organization of Wiregrass United Way—including who they are, why they do, and a long list of organizations that they are able to support. When it comes to individual people that may be watching or reading, how should they get help for an issue they may be having? Who should they contact?
According to Walter, this is the easiest question I’ve asked him in the interview. Anybody in any type of need can contact Health and Human Services for anything other than emergencies. For example, if a person needs help in a domestic violence situation, tutoring, food, clothing, shelter, long-term health, a GED, assistance for special needs, or more, there are programs that offer a solution.
With 37 agencies that partner with the Wiregrass United Way, there are so many programs and services that can provide an answer to any specific issue. What Walter loves about the Wiregrass is that there are so many people that are ready and willing to help. They are going to do everything they can to help as much as they can.
So reach out for help if you need anything at all—even if you think that there's nobody that will help you. You can also dial 2-1-1, which is a tremendous resource in accessing community services.
Because we have so many caring and loving individuals in our area, there are plenty who want to help. If somebody wants to volunteer and show their support for Wiregrass United Way or any other organization, there are a variety of ways they can contact Walter and his team.
First, they can stop by Wiregrass United Way in person. Alternatively, they can email the team, connect with them through their website, or follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. There's a lot of work to do, so they are always looking for volunteers. There is always a way to help.
I really appreciate Walter sharing his time with us and providing such great information about Wiregrass United Way. I’m grateful for everything he and his team do for our community, supporting the people that live in the six Wiregrass counties.
If you have any questions about Walter Hill or the tremendous work that the Wiregrass United Way is doing throughout our community, feel free to reach out to them to learn more. Don’t forget to subscribe to my channel so you never miss an episode of Homegrown, my show all about enjoying and living in the Dothan community.
Stay tuned for more videos about the Wiregrass, and I’ll see you next time!