Making Awww Stories Possible

Aloha United Way, the agency that has helped so many people old and young for the past 90 years, was in trouble itself until Kim Gennaula came on as the new president. One of her first acts was to recruit turn-around wizard John Dean of Central Pacific Bank for the board. For this picnic, they’re joined by CPB mascot Alex, as well as Brody Maeda and Lorraine Williams

For the past 90 years, Aloha United Way has been helping the less fortunate in our Islands, but last year it was AUW that needed saving as it teetered on the edge of extinction with donations plummeting and administrative costs eating more than a fifth of its collections.

John Dean, Lorraine Williams, Brody Maeda and Kim Gennaula

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(clockwise from top left) John Dean and Alex from CPB, Lorraine Williams, Brody Maeda and Kim Gennaula

In order to right the ship, the AUW board looked to someone whose passion and voice would be heard and felt throughout the Islands, a person people could trust. They found it in former newswoman Kim Gennaula.

“I was brought on because our board recognized that we needed a pretty sizable reorganization and transformation,” says Gennaula, who at the time was the philanthropy director for Kapiolani Women’s and Children’s Medical Center. “These changes were guided by input from CEOs from across the community on how we could be better for the community.”

Saving the organization has not been easy. There was a tremendous amount of fat that had to be trimmed from a charity that was taking heat for spending 21 percent of the contributions it took in on administration. A third of its staff was let go, human resources was outsourced and the entire focus of the charity was realigned.

“A primary shift we had to make was to stop thinking of ourselves as a social service agency that sat back and waited for money to come in,” says Gennaula, who boasts that every employee now has fundraising responsibilities. “The community wanted us to go back to being active fundraisers on behalf of the nonprofit. We hadn’t been doing that for a number of years.”

But how does a woman who spent the better part of the past two decades in front of the KGMB News cameras gain the acumen to make the hardline decisions that a president of charity needs to make? She acknowledges she doesn’t know and asks for help, that’s how. She canvassed the business community and sought help from those who know how to run a business best: Hawaii’s top CEOs.

In the process of her learning, she also was seeking a partner to help her on a regular basis, a chair for this year’s fundraising campaign who could help lead them back to the heights of the 1980s when AUW’s coffers were overflowing.

“We needed a chair who reflected our new energy, our new purpose with a passion for the United Way and a level of professionalism and credibility,” says Gennaula. “We wanted all these things wrapped up in one, and as I went around the community, John Dean’s name kept coming up. They liked him, respected him and were impressed by the turnaround he had done at CPB.”

Dean took over a troubled CPB in December 2010, and has returned it to its place in the pantheon of local banks – it is the fourth organization he has brought back from the brink and therefore a perfect source for Gennaula to go to with the tough decisions she had to make.

“Before I joined I did some research, and I would not have joined without Kim,” says Dean, who has been involved with the United Way for the past 30 years including chairing a campaign for it in Oklahoma City.

“A lot of them have gotten lost a little bit, but this young lady has done an unbelievable job at a course correction. It is never easy, but because of what she has done and where she is heading, I got excited for my involvement. She is a natural, and she knows when to ask questions. I think it is important to know when to ask the right questions, and I think she is very good at that.”

While her questions have helped provide some new direction, it was a luncheon this spring that really gave AUW the push it needed to change the path it was on. It was hosted by U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye and Walter Dods at The Banker’s Club, and the top 30 CEOs were invited to hear their plea for the survival of the AUW.

“It used to be if you were a big-time CEO in this town you were on the United Way board, and somehow through the years that has fallen by the wayside,” says Gennaula, who after the success of the luncheon welcomed 12 new CEOs to the board.

Bringing these community leaders into the fold took more than just the appreciable weight of the influence of Inouye and Dods, but it also was proof that AUW was a viable and valuable asset to the Islands. When it was founded in 1919, there was no way to gather financial support for many small charities, so having a central “community chest” was necessary.

But in 2012 when anyone can donate with a stroke of a finger on a phone, or with a strike of a key on a laptop, why do we need a centralized clear-inghouse for our donations?

“The most valuable thing we do is the payroll deduction,” says Gennaula, citing how we all want to give, but we often find it hard to find the money in our strained budgets. “It makes it super easy, and you can still give that same $500 and you don’t even notice it. And at the end of the year, you have the satisfaction of giving that gift.”

When you choose to donate in that way, 100 percent of your money goes to the charity you have selected, and you have the assurance that if the charity is under the umbrella of AUW, its finances have been thoroughly vetted.

Another valuable service it provides is to the little charities that no one ever hears about or sees on the cover of MidWeek.

“There are a lot of organizations out there that provide a critical service that you and I are not familiar with,” says Dean. “I would tell you that I know who to give to, but there are probably 50 organizations that are critical to this community that you have never heard of, and AUW is there for them.”

Under Gennaula’s leadership it has brought down the administrative cost from 21 percent to 15 percent, and while this is an impressive drop, it would be even more significant if it did not include the many services it provides at no charge to the community, like the 211 non-emergency help line.

“We handle everything from callers saying ‘I need food’ to ‘where can my kid get a flu shot?’ to ‘I need help to pay my rent or I am going to be homeless,'” says Gennaula, claiming that they field up to 50,000 calls a year at a cost of $200,000 a year.

“I don’t call that administrative costs. That is a vital service that no one wants to provide,” says Dean.

The strides Gennaula has taken to returning AUW to a place of respect in the community have impressed many, but they don’t answer the basic question in most people’s minds: If you left the newsroom to have more time with the kids, why now take on a job that absorbs even more of your time and focus?

“This was a chance to help the entire community, not just one organization,” says Gennaula, who ran the AUW campaign for Liberty House back in the ’80s and had 100 percent participation through its 34 stores. “What I wanted really passionately was to bring back that understanding of the importance of the United Way that was there when I was there. And I know how vital every one of those dollars are, and United Way dollars are even more vital to nonprofits because those are the only dollars that come to them unrestricted.”

But this role has not slackened her passion for her kids, now 10 and 8, and she still picks them up every day from school and gets them to their activities.

“It has required some superhuman scheduling on my part,” admits Gennaula. “When they go to bed at 8:30, I get back on the computer and work another two or three hours. My kids are excelling, though, they don’t notice the difference. I have just been drinking a lot of caffeine!”

The job is not done. This year’s goal is $9 million, with dreams of one day getting that number up to $30 million a year, but Gennaula insists they have weathered the storm and now must settle into the norm while remaining ever vigilant, as there are too many people relying on her and AUW.

“I am very conscious of the fact that if I mess up, 300 nonprofits feel it,” says Gennaula. “For me, that is a huge responsibility I do not take lightly.”