Asking Joanie Johnson to select her favorite cause is like asking a mother to pick her favorite child-can't be done.
Johnson, community relations manager at Community First Credit Union in Appleton, Wis., believes all causes the credit union supports deserve the money and time they receive. She should know. Johnson, winner of the Credit Union Times Outstanding Community Service Award, is the spark plug igniting volunteer spirit at the credit union.
"We'd like to help everyone, but we only have so many resources," she said. "We look at how many people will be impacted. We like to help children in need, but we don't really have a single focus. We do a lot on behalf of health and human services agencies, and the arts. A lot of companies are backing away from donating to arts, and we think we need to fill those spots also."
Since joining Community First in 2006, Johnson has worked to connect the credit union with the localities it serves. She not only personally serves on boards and committees of various organizations such as the Red Cross, she has become the key contact between Community First and nonprofits seeking help.
Her energy and enthusiasm filter down. In 2009, nearly 60% of the credit union's 350 employees provided more than 7,000 volunteer hours to a wide range of efforts, from Special Olympics to United Way.
"It's a busy job, but I love it," Johnson said. "It's so rewarding when I can call somebody and say we're going to support their efforts. It does take work to get sponsorships, especially in this economy."
Speaking of the economy, despite the recession Community First actually increased its contributions budget by more than $50,000 last year. Johnson credits President/CEO Catherine Tierney, and said Tierney strongly believes in giving back to the community. In the face of tough times, Johnson was frankly amazed employee pledges to United Way in 2009 increased nearly 30%, or $10,000, over 2008.
"The generosity of our employees just blew me away," she declared.
Several special events were held, including a series of Flat Roger stories-a take-off on the Flat Stanley children's book. A Community First employee named Roger was featured. Johnson created various "journeys" for Roger and sent them to the entire staff throughout the United Way Campaign. Special events like that helped raise $7,500.
She was equally impressed by results of the Stock the Shelves program, backed by the local newspaper, The Appleton Post-Crescent. The campaign raises money and collects nonperishable items on behalf of 19 food pantries throughout the area. Johnson coordinated a joint effort involving 17 local credit unions. She also issued a fundraising challenge to Community First branches, asking them to in turn invite members to donate.
One Community First member kicked in $1,000 while completing a transaction at a drive-up window. CFCU led the credit union fundraising with more than $15,000 and 1,300 food items collected. In all, the campaign raised nearly $280,000, more in one year than in the previous 13 years combined.
"We kind of spearheaded getting all the other credit unions involved," Johnson explained. "The credit union philosophy involves helping people, and they kind of took that and ran."
A "Spread the Love Through Your Community" radio campaign introduced people to 14 different organizations. Community First dedicated 25% of its paid advertising schedule to the promotional spots and developed partnerships with radio stations to provide matching air time. The campaign reached 336,000 people an average of five times each week.
Johnson also leads and coordinates Community First's partnership with Special Olympics-Fox Valley. A polar plunge in February raises money through sponsorships and pledges gathered by groups committed to jump or run into the frigid waters of Lake Winnebago. Last year, Johnson personally raised $500 through a "Too Chicken to Plunge" drive for people willing to pledge but not to brave the icy waters.
In at least one case, volunteer efforts have directly benefited a Community First member. As part of the Rebuilding Together nonprofit organization, 36 CFCU employees worked to improve the home of a widowed member living on Social Security. The volunteers replaced living room carpet and windows, painted the interior and exterior and tackled landscaping.
Johnson said one reason Community First supports such a broad range of organizations is the fact the credit union itself has a diverse employee base. Any employee willing to volunteer is very likely to find a cause especially meaningful to them.
For Johnson herself, the Celebrity Waiter Dinner is close to her heart. It benefits the Volunteer Center of East Central Wisconsin, which she helped start.
"It's a great event," she said. "We ask different companies to purchase a table, and they provide a waiter. The waiter picks a theme, and their guests dress up in that theme. It's the most fun event you'll ever attend."
Each volunteer waiter recruits eight people to sit at a table. The waiter then performs tasks for tips. There is also a silent auction and a live auction to raise money for the volunteer center.
Johnson personally serves on the local Red Cross board and was a member of its heroes committee, which recruited people to raise at least $1,000 for the Red Cross. She is a member of Neenah Rotary and chaired the sponsorship committee for a major annual event, Seafood Fest. She also recruited volunteers for a Rotary golf outing fundraiser.
Johnson advises other credit unions interested in becoming more involved in their communities to see if there is a volunteer center in the area. Such centers throughout the country help businesses start employee volunteer programs.
"Start small, and it'll grow," she predicted.