United Way of Douglas County announces plans to merge with United Way of Greater Topeka

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Kurt Schueler, chair of the United Way of Douglas County board, and Matt All, United Way of Greater Topeka Board Chair, spoke at announcement event Aug. 3, 2022 touting the proposed merger of the two organizations.

Story updated at 1:44 p.m. Wednesday:

The United Way of Douglas County and the United Way of Greater Topeka announced Wednesday that the two nonprofit organizations planned to merge.

The resulting organization, the United Way of Kaw Valley, would serve four counties: Shawnee, Jackson, Jefferson and Douglas. Leaders from both organizations, which are about 30 miles from one another, announced Wednesday morning that the two organizations are in the final stages of authorizing the merger.

Jessica Lehnherr, the current CEO of the United Way of Greater Topeka, will serve as the CEO of the new organization. Lehnherr said she was excited for the two organizations to join forces and combine best practices, while still preserving local control of funding.

“It really is an exciting day to really bring all of our talents together to better serve both of our communities,” Lehnherr said.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Jessica Lehnherr, CEO/president of the United Way of Greater Topeka, speaks at an announcement Aug. 3, 2022 touting a proposed merger between the Topeka nonprofit and the Lawrence/Douglas County United Way organization.

Leaders from both organizations said United Way’s work in Douglas County would continue to be funded with donations made in Douglas County and would continue to be defined by Douglas County volunteers. They said the merger would help address common challenges, including fundraising and recruiting staff.

Matt All, board chair of the United Way of Greater Topeka, said that over the past 20 years, both the number of participants and the amount of money raised by the organization’s workplace campaign has steadily declined. All said that the United Way of Topeka was recently able to stabilize those declines, and the merger will continue those efforts for both organizations.

“We are really confident we’re going to be able to do those same things moving forward,” said All, who is a Lawrence resident but has worked in Topeka for years. “That’s really been about adapting the message to a different generation, helping them understand why it’s important for them to invest in their communities.”

Lehnherr said there will be no staffing cuts due to the merger, and that the two organizations will continue to have 22 employees total. The Douglas County office, which last year decreased from eight to five employees, will retain those five employees. Lehnherr said the merger will also allow the United Way of Kaw Valley to hire a new fundraising staff member, who will focus on fundraising outside workplace campaigns, including individual giving, donor experiences and planned giving.

Douglas County will continue to have a physical office in Lawrence after the merger, and will remain in its current leased space for the time being. United Way of Douglas County Director of Operations Mandy Enfield, who will head up the Lawrence office as vice president after the merger, said the merger will provide efficiencies with back-office aspects of the organization and allow the Douglas County staff to focus more on its work with local agencies.

“It frees us up locally, our staff, to really be able to support our partners,” Enfield said.

The idea of a merger goes back to late last year. As the Journal-World reported in October 2021, Jeffrey Cornish, former president and CEO of the United Way of Douglas County, left the position as part of a decision by the organization’s board to undertake strategic planning related to the United Way’s future. Longtime volunteer and former board chair Peggy Johnson has been serving as interim CEO since that time, and she said that following the merger she would return to her volunteer capacity.

Kurt Schueler, board chair for United Way of Douglas County, said the idea of a merger dates back to those strategic planning conversations. Like All, Schueler said the environment has changed for philanthropic organizations, and that options were carefully considered and a merger was determined to be the best action.

“When we combine in the United Way of Kaw Valley, we have a combined staff that can utilize resources that neither organization by itself was able to access,” Schueler said. “We’re building a larger but also stronger and more effective team that’s available to every county in the region.”

Existing programming and grants for both organizations will continue after the merger, which Schueler said includes the Douglas County office’s racial equity grant program, anti-poverty grants and the Americorps program. He said the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Equity report will also continue to drive local efforts.

Schueler said the United Way of Kaw Valley will have a regional board that includes representatives from each of the four counties, and a Douglas County advisory council that will provide input to the regional board. Referencing a recent trip to Northwest Arkansas by local government leaders from Lawrence and Topeka that focused on regionalized economic development, both Schueler and All said that concept extended to other areas.

“The idea behind it is that there really is a regional identity that we can forge together that will make both communities stronger,” All said.

The organizations will hold final approval votes next month for the merger and plan to file with the Kansas secretary of state this fall.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

United Way of Douglas County building is pictured on Aug. 3, 2022.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

Kurt Schueler, chair of the United Way of Douglas County board, speaks at announcement event Aug. 3, 2022, touting the proposed merger of the two organizations. At left is, Matt All, United Way of Greater Topeka Board Chair, and at right is Jessica Lehnherr, CEO/president of the United Way of Greater Topeka.

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