Talking shop with Nancy Jernigan of the local United Way chapter

Monday, April 6, 2009
KIT DOYLE ~ kdoyle@semissourian.com0Nancy Jernigan of United Way.

Southeast Missouri is greatly influenced by numerous not-for-profit agencies in the region. Leading the way is the United Way of Southeast Missouri, which distributes funds to these entities and coordinates programs that benefit the community. Nancy Jernigan has been leading the United Way of Southeast Missouri for nearly 14 years. Jernigan and her husband, Jeff, have three children. Born in St. Louis, Jernigan moved to Cape Girardeau when she was 16. She attended Southeast Missouri State University for three years until she moved to Nashville, Tenn., to finish her degree at Belmont University. After moving around the country, Jernigan returned to Cape Girardeau in 1995 to be in town with her father, Wayne, after her mother, Eloise, died.

Q: What has been the greatest joy of being executive director of the local United Way?

A: I guess having the real ability to try new things and present new ideas with the United Way system behind me to move the board and our community in a direction that will benefit the community, because they're not all my ideas. There are some great minds in this system and we really benefit from them.

Q: Who have influenced you the most in your life?

A: My parents, because the basis of who I am came from them and their values of hard work. I've always been influenced by my husband. He's so wise and intelligent and cares so much about people. He's been a great partner in bouncing ideas off of and think through some of these issues. I have a lot of respect for John Mehner. I know his real priority is his faith, which speaks a lot about an individual and the basis for their decision-making and the way they live. We agree to disagree a lot because [of] our ideas about business versus the social sector. But he always gives me a different perspective on issues that I don't understand because they're not a part of my world. I hope I do the same for him because the business world and the social sector need to come together for all these issues we've worked on. My pastors and other members of my church I've had over the past years have also been a big influence. My faith has become very important to me in the last 15 years or so as I mature. I've always had a strong faith but I've come to a better understanding of how important it is and a focus it is and should be for me.

KIT DOYLE ~ kdoyle@semissourian.com0Nancy Jernigan heads the United Way of Southeast Missouri.

Q: How does your faith affect your decision making?

A: It's wonderful to me to realize my job is a God job. The work of the United Way when you get down to the heart and soul of it is helping people that are in need. And that is just biblical to me. Short of being a pastor, which I'm sure I'm not equipped to do, I think this is one of the best jobs you can have in combining your faith and work in the community. You understand it's not about luck because that's not part of God's plan. It's him working through all of us allowing us to do what we do. I've been reading the book, "A Conversation with God." It talked about how everything we say and do is based on one of two emotions -- love and fear. If we do everything out of love, it's genuine and brings joy. When actions are based out of fear, they tend to hold us back and cause us not to make the best decisions. If every decision I make is based out of love for the community, then it's the right decision.

Q: If you could do anything else, what would that be?

A: It would be missionary work. That's what I hope to do when my kids are on their own. What that is, I don't know. But I really want to work more on the ground with people somewhere to see how we can show God's grace and love.

Q: What's something most people may not know about you?

A: I was adopted. I feel very special because of that. I realized how your life could have gone a totally different way if not for that. I don't really know what the circumstances were but I think my life could have been totally different had [my parents] not been looking to adopt. It's a very unselfish thing to realize someone else could provide a better life than they can.

Q: The United Way of Southeast Missouri recently celebrated the completion of the "Live United" 2008 campaign with an lunch event in Cape Girardeau. The contribution goal was $1.275 million, yet you fell short of the goal by $100,000. During the celebration you said most of the organizations that you all give the money to received five to 10 percent less in overall donations in 2008. How much does that affect these local not-for-profit entities?

A: It's $100,000 less we have to invest in the community. We've done what we can to cut back, like cutting back on our office cleaning service. I was vacuuming [the office] earlier today. But we've always been good about holding expenses down here at the office. By having less money to invest, it makes us smarter in how we will invest that money. But the piece we're missing is how we can prove we're going in the right direction. I hope the United Way's integrity will come into play there. We've always done the best we can at having the greatest impact. It's not like we're doing a radical change. We're just understanding better what strategies we need to focus on to make the greatest impact.

Q: During these economic times people will pose as not-for-profits to scam donors. Have you seen that happening here in Southeast Missouri?

A: I haven't heard of that happening here. Our community is quite unique and it's so neat to live in an area like ours. Cape Girardeau and the surrounding area are pretty tight-knit. If someone does come around and try that word will spread fast. As a result those people won't get far.

Q: How do the current economic times we're living in compare to those in the past?

A: If we can pull together and do more cooperation, we'll get through this time. Our nonprofits and community as a whole have always cooperated. There aren't a lot of barriers here and from other United Ways and towns I've talked with, that's quite unique. People here are focused on doing what's best for the people who live around them. In the 13 years I've been in this job there has never been a more meaningful time than now. It seems [that] for non-profits there have never been enough resources. So it will be harder for them trying to get through and adjust. But it's always been hard. The needs now are growing at a time when their resources are diminishing. That forces you to be smarter, focus and collaborate as an organization. We have all these organizations like the Big Brothers Big Sisters and Girl Scouts but we have to help them reach the rest of the community. I don't know if it's that hard but it takes a great investment of time. I see it as the United Way's job to identify those issues that are the most significant. The issues we want to identify and affect are those that impact the entire community.

Q: You showed me a comment that recently ran in our "Speak Out" section that you indicated you'd like to have an opportunity to respond to. The comment said your organization begins new initiatives each year that are funded through contributions, yet the public is never told through news articles or television reporting the effect those programs have had in the community. Please respond.

A: What I'd like to say to this person is we have to do a better job at communicating that. One way is through our LIFE Initiative, where we feel that access to after school programs is important. We will work with schools to help them identify those that are most at risk. That's what I see as a critical thing we're working on now. We have a number of resources available but need to focus on how to get the families most in need to take advantage of the services in the community. We're don't think the answer is more programs. We're trying to focus on helping those agencies that have programs already in place that establish relationships with families in need. I don't know if we need more money or programs but we do need more time. And that's a limited resource. Our current framework focuses on education, income and health. We've started with education because it's where we invest most of our contributions, at 55 percent.

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