Ever changing, always United:United Way of Erie County leader works to raise funds that stay local as the world around her evolves

It has had several names since its founding on Oct. 29, 1923, as the Sandusky Community Fund.

War Chest.

Sandusky Community Chest.

Erie County Community Chest.

Erie County United Fund.

And, finally, in 1977, it became the United Way of Erie County

But as the Sandusky-based nonprofit agency – which annually raises thousands of dollars that go to other organizations trying to do good in the county – approaches the big 1-0-0, its executive director, Sara Godfrey, is more interested in looking forward than back. 

After all, she wasn’t part of the first 98 years or so, having come on board in April 2022. 

Her path to running the organization is one full of twists and turns, the Bellevue native earning a degree in criminal justice from Tiffin University. 

Her experience with nonprofits began about a decade ago when she worked as the volunteer coordinator/support group facilitator/program coordinator for the domestic violence shelter Safe Harbour, which serves Erie, Ottawa and Huron counties. There, she says, she learned a lot from its late director Linda Mitchell. 

United Way of Erie County Executive Director Sara Godfrey (Photo/Courtesy of Sara Godfrey)Her career later would take her to Cleveland and the Cuyahoga County Detention Center, where she worked as a social worker and more.

The pandemic made her want to be closer to family, though, and she came back to Bellevue when she was hired to lead the UNoEC, Godfrey pitching the board of directors on the idea of going with someone with less administrative experience but with lots of work on the ground with public agencies. 

“(It) gave me a different passion and a different look of things than a … director who has never been in the field working along those that are struggling,” Godfrey says during a recent phone interview. 

As a result, she knows how much the funds the United Way redirects to organizations can mean.

“I know how important it is,” Godfrey says, “and how the support of everybody in the community really has to be there to make a difference.”

The staff is just she and a part-time finance manager, so Godfrey wears many hats, being responsible for forming partnerships, engaging with the community – and especially with donors – and meeting quarterly with partner agencies.

And when we say the money raised goes to organizations trying to do good in Erie County, that’s crucial to understand, Godfrey says. 

“There is a perception – or a myth, so to say – that the money raised does not stay local,” she says, noting that while the organization is connected to United Way Worldwide, it’s similar to a business franchise largely on its own. “Any of the money that comes in stays here locally. We only fund the agencies that are in Erie County, so everything that comes in comes back to those specific agencies.”

When she arrived in 2022, she says, UWoEC was funding 15 agencies with a total of $182,000. The campaign that raised money for 2024 provided 19 agencies with $220,000. In the campaign beginning in October, for money to be distributed in 2025, the goal is about $200,000 – for 20 to 23 agencies.

United Way of Erie County is a local social impact organization on a mission to crush poverty in our community. (Photo/Courtesy of Sara Godfrey)An agency receiving $10,000 in the upcoming cycle is Care and Share of Erie County, a “choice pantry” that, says Executive Director Anita Kromer, strives to provide a “grocery store feel and experience” to residents of Erie County who meet certain household-size and income-level qualifications. 

In an email, Kromer emphasizes the wide range of business-like expenses facing a nonprofit such as Care and Share – the type of operational costs people don’t always associate with them – and says United Way money helps.

“United Way of Erie County is progressive and has the foresight to understand the need to support their agencies in a manner that trusts their leadership and board of directors’ oversight to empower them to allocate funds appropriately to programs and operations to make those programs stronger,” she says in the email. 

When you see UWoEC’s current goal is less than it most recently raised, you shouldn’t think meeting it will be easy, Godfrey says.

“It’s very difficult to get that kind of money in,” she says. 

“The economy has changed because of inflation. People don’t have the excess money they used to donate,” she says, adding that closings of major industrial places of business in the area in recent years haven’t helped.

The same goes for the constant turnover at myriad workplaces.

And then there are the changing ways in which messages are delivered AND in the way lots of folks handle their money.

“A lot of things are going towards digital now, but … a lot of your donors aren’t into digital changes yet, so that can sometimes be a struggle just to find the right channels to make sure that we’re reaching the newer generations and older generations with our brand awareness and our mission and our vision – and how important it really is and where they can donate and the different ways they can donate.”

Those aforementioned quarterly meetings with the agencies that receive funding, Godfrey says, are largely about looking at how to help fill “gaps” in the community with projects. Issues include mental health, bullying, suicide prevention, the opioid crisis, transportation and housing – low-income and otherwise.

This year’s campaign runs into December, and Godfrey certainly hopes you, along with your workplace, will consider giving to it.

“We’re very, very grateful for the support that we’ve already gotten,” she says. “There really is strength in numbers.

“These agencies are not going to be able to provide the services and programs if we’re not able to fund them,” she continues. “It really is a team effort. That’s one of our main (slogans) is ‘Live United.’ United, you can do many things.”