United Way kicks off 100-year anniversary

As United Way of Johnson and Washington Counties joins the century club, what is next for the storied nonprofit?


Charles Peckman

Trisha Smith (left,) and Katie Knight of United Way of Johnson and Washington Counties pose for a portrait outside of their Coralville office on Friday, March 29, 2019. The Johnson and Washington County United Way office, which is turning 100 this year, is planning a series of events aimed at garnering donations and spreading awareness for what the organization does.

Charles Peckman, News Reporter

One hundred years ago, Johnson County was a much different place. In lieu of Teslas and 3D Marvel movies, townsfolk used Ford Model T’s to drive to silent pictures. On top of that, the Western Electric dial telephone had just been introduced.

Throughout those 100 years, one organization in the Johnson County area, United Way, has flourished. As the organization, which is based in Johnson and Washington Counties and is part of a worldwide network of branches, celebrates its 100th year throughout this year, organizers say they are “looking forward and looking back” on a storied tenure in Iowa.

Katie Knight, the president and CEO of the area United Way, said she realizes that her group is smaller than some United Way branches that have celebrated 100 years, but she noted that “Johnson County has been forward-thinking for all of these years, and I think the anniversary shows that.”

When determining a schedule of events for the coming months, Knight said her office works with the city managers of North Liberty, Coralville, and Iowa City — keeping in mind themes that tie the communities together, she said.

Despite the excitement of planning a 100-year celebration, Knight said, an ancillary goal is to spread awareness of what United Way actually does.

“We have very loyal contributors, wonderful people who give all the time, but we’re working with five different generations now,” she said. “There are a lot of younger generations who don’t know anything about United Way and why it would be important — so in a way, we’re using these events to show that and give people new experiences.”

Aside from spreading awareness about United Way and its partner organizations, Knight said, the celebration is a chance to look forward — not only in terms of “our fast-paced society” but the future of philanthropy.

“Everyone knows things are changing so quickly, so United Way has to start changing that quickly to keep up with our different daughter [organizations] and the different needs of the community, which are growing as well,” she said.

Looking from the outside in, Trisha Smith, the group’s director of development for marketing and communications, said it may seem as though United Way does everything itself, but it works with 32 partner organizations in the Johnson County and Washington County area alone.

“We want to highlight the work of so many [people] in our partner organizations, whether it’s committees, task forces, boards, and so on,” Smith said. “But of course, we also want to have a little fun.”

The events, Smith said, kick off with a pancake breakfast and culminate with an “un-Gala,” an informal event that tells United Way’s story throughout the decades. Mark Nolte, the group’s board chair, said 2019 will be a busy yet rewarding year.

“It’s pretty amazing that this community was so progressive 100 years ago,” he said. “It says a lot about who we are as people and our legacy of helping each other and giving back … we don’t want our most vulnerable to fall through the cracks.”