“I knew friends at school, families at church, folks at my first job as a teen sacking groceries at a local grocery store — they were all dealing with the challenges of poverty,” Grabau says. “In fact, my school bus in the sixth grade dropped off a friend who lived in a home slightly larger than the size of a tool shed and had dirt floors. I knew many of my classmates were getting most of their food for the day during school lunch. Food stamps at the grocery store were the only means for many to buy food. Fellow parishioners at my church received weekly assistance with basic needs.”
Grabau, the new executive director of Heart of Missouri United Way, developed an empathy with his neighbors. “I understood that these folks wanted better and they certainly defied the stereotypes,” he says. “Many of them were just one step away from moving beyond poverty, one step away from becoming further entrenched.”
Those personal observations in his hometown led Grabau to a career in the nonprofit sector, “to be a front-line volunteer in helping folks like those I grew up with,” he says. “I wanted to be a part of that solution to give them one step up.”
The 41-year-old took over at the local United Way in June, leaving the University of Missouri after nine years as senior director of development. An MU graduate, Grabau earned a master’s degree in nonprofit management/public services from DePaul University. He moved his family back to Columbia from Chicago in 2006.
“Columbia was the only city we considered,” he says.
When the United Way position opened after Tim Rich stepped down in March, Grabau applied for what he calls “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” It was a perfect pairing, he says, “of my nonprofit education and experience with more than 16 years of fundraising experience.”
Married to his college sweetheart, Ashli, who he met on a blind date his freshman year at MU, Grabau has two children, 10-year-old Elsi and 6-year-old Bennett. A long-distance runner, he says he does his best thinking on an early morning run. “If I am not running, I am my sharpest and most reflective at this time sitting outside, listening to nature,” he adds. A live music aficionado, Grabau recently started collecting vinyl records of his favorite musicians. He enjoys reading biographies and books on policy and current affairs, and subscribes to multiple newspapers. “The real papers are delivered to my home, not online,” he notes. “I enjoy the daily New York Times crossword but rarely have the time to complete it.”
Grabau’s favorite place in Columbia is the Katy Trail “for running by myself, with friends, or biking with the family, followed by Sparky’s Ice Cream with the kids, or Logboat Brewing Co. with my wife.”
Grabau finds joy in meeting with the community and United Way’s partner agencies. “Every person I’ve met with wants the United Way to succeed,” he says. “Not only in securing resources but also to be a part of the solution. Our community is so generous and kind. When a conversation can tap into those wonderful human traits, it’s always a pleasure.”
He made it a priority to visit every agency partner within the first few weeks of starting his new job. He shares some of his new insights and inspiration from those visits.
What does poverty in mid-Missouri look like in 2015?
This is what we know: 1 in 5 lives in poverty in Boone County — compared to 15 percent in the rest of the state — with major obstacles in education, income security, access to health care and challenges with affordable living. In this group, more than 43 percent are living below 185 percent of the poverty level (the cutoff mark for federal aid eligibility). There are 11,000 in this group working full time; 20 percent lack a consistent source of primary health care and 53.5 percent are spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent.
The future is even more at risk — Boone County rates as the lowest county in Missouri for income mobility of children in poor families. In other words, the ability for today’s youth to “do better than their parents,” let alone achieving the same levels, is very much at risk.
What solutions do you see? Where do you start?
Of course, there’s no easy direct solution due to the individual complexity of poverty combined with the deep challenges and causes of generational and systemic poverty. However, developing a holistic understanding of the problem and how the challenges are intertwined is a start. This understanding requires all of us — not only the United Way but the entire community — to understand the personal stories and challenges of the poor.
To “know” them requires us as a community to be with them. When we understand the “why” on a level deeper than just statistics, we can develop a greater sense of humility and respect for those in poverty. Imagine trying to devise an idea or a solution based on something that you’ve only read about and never witnessed. Direct involvement breaks down the barriers and the polarization that exists in our community. This helps us connect the dots, so we can see how the United Way and our community partners can all work together to be a part of a solution.
After this experience in humility, we can tackle the next step — identifying unique solutions. The United Way approach is a collaborative solution focused on four key areas: education, income, health and basic needs. Specific targets and goals enable us to address generational and systemic poverty with a focus on measurable review and evaluation to make sure we are moving the needle toward change. By deliberately funding specific programs operated by agencies focused on these goals, we can begin to see a lasting impact.
How does Heart of Missouri United Way impact the lives of mid-Missouri’s neediest residents?
The Heart of Missouri United Way is a force multiplier. We leverage financial contributions and volunteer efforts by investing in our agency partners who collaborate to provide effective and efficient services to those in need of help. Last year, we allocated more than $2 million to 31 agencies operating specific programs that address key target areas in education, health, income and basic safety-net needs. We collaborate by seeking opportunities with the business community, the city of Columbia, and Boone, Cooper and Howard counties. We bring the community together around a common call to action. And we are partners, not only with the agencies that receive financial and capacity support but also with community stakeholders who seek to make a difference and be a part of something greater.
In 2012, Heart of Missouri United Way reordered its funding priorities with the “community impact” business model. Many longstanding local agencies found themselves outside of the community impact parameters. How does this narrower focus on at-risk youth programs help Columbia become a better place?
Although it is true that a few agencies are no longer funded due to the change to the community impact model, the changes are not necessarily permanent. The focus of funding with our current agency partners is not “narrow”; it’s important to recognize that the impact of our agency partners that receive United Way support benefits not only youth, but also adults, families, parents and grandparents. For example, programs that provide soft and hard employment skills can enable someone to maintain quality employment and earn a paycheck that affects their whole family. A family that can receive access to physical, mental and dental health care affects the well-being of all. Making sure that a family has basic needs, such as food and clothing, provides a starting point that benefits children, yes, but also the parent, guardian, grandparent, etc.
Bottom line is that poverty is neither bound by age nor a defined category, so although the funding we provide to our agencies may focus on specific targets, the benefits are felt by our whole community.
Why should the business community support the United Way?
The business community has been a tremendous partner by bringing expertise, passion and resources through volunteering, giving and advocating for the United Way. Business support under those three areas provides a cohesive and collective “all hands on deck” partnership necessary to address poverty.
Through volunteering, the business community reinforces the importance of being an active part of the solution. The United Way and our agency partners could not do our job without volunteers. The business community’s financial support is essential as a way to help set the standard of philanthropy. And when advocating for support, the United Way has a sounding board that allows us to share our message with community stakeholders.
Investment in our community makes Columbia a better place to live and provides a higher quality of life, which contributes to a healthy environment essential for business to thrive. Today’s youth are tomorrow’s potential employees. And many in our business community have employees right now who might utilize many of the services provided by our agency partners or they might have extended family that do so.
Donations have dipped in recent years, with a subsequent reduction in funding levels for organizations. Are the fundraising mechanisms in place the best way to go about raising money for investment in this community?
The United Way infrastructure and model for securing funds is very strong. It relies heavily on community and business volunteers. While this is an enormous benefit, the United Way must equip these volunteers with the information to inspire and motivate them and others to give. We achieve this by telling stories of impact and change as well as through a strategic program that provides year-round stewardship.
Our focus on community impact enables us to provide that type of stewardship. In addition, we must establish a stronger relationship with our supporters. United Way is often accused of ignoring donors 11 months out of the year and then knocking on their door to ask for an annual gift. I look to change that perception. I am excited about the campaign this year and am optimistic that we will see a very positive response from the community once we begin to do a better job of telling this story.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by witnessing pure acts of kindness and selflessness. They are around us every day, it’s just that we are sometimes too busy to catch them. I see this daily with my staff, with the dedicated folks working with our agency partners, with the volunteers as they interact with the community, and through the support from our donors. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.
I am also inspired by seeing the clients our agencies support. Whether it’s a young child playing basketball at Rainbow House or job training at Job Point or a meeting of adults at Phoenix Health Programs, seeing the mission of these agencies in action is reassuring that we are doing the right thing. And it’s a motivational reminder that I’ve chosen the right career.
Funded agencies of the Heart of Missouri United Way for 2015-2016:
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Missouri
Boys and Girls Club of the Columbia Area
CHA Low Income-Services
Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture
Columbia Community Montessori
Family Counseling Center Inc.
Family Health Center
For His Glory Inc.
Harrisburg Early Learning Center
Heart of Missouri CASA
Lutheran Family & Children’s Services
Mary Lee Johnston Community Learning Center
Mid-Missouri Legal Services Corporation
Nora Stewart Early Learning Center
Services for Independent Living
Sustainable Farms and Communities
The Food Bank of Central & Northeast Missouri
The Salvation Army
United Community Builders
Voluntary Action Center
Youth Empowerment Zone
Boonslick Heartland YMCA