Build Blue Podcast: Sioux Empire United Way & APX Construction Group

Build Blue Podcast Logo alongside APX Construction logo and Sioux Empire United Way logo

Each year, Sioux Empire United Way partners with hundreds of businesses to help fund and serve the local nonprofits making a difference in the Sioux Empire. Thanks to these partnerships, we are able to impact the lives of children, vulnerable adults, and people in crisis.

In March of 2024, our Chief Operations Officer, Christina Riss sat down with Jessica Blais of APX Construction Group on the Build Blue Podcast, a show built on relationships, focused on people, and rooted in the community featuring guests that are building a better tomorrow.

Tune in to hear more about our community impact process, Day of Action, Volunteer United, and the impact that Sioux Empire United Way has in our community!


Intro: Built on relationships, focused on people, and rooted in the community. Welcome to the Build Blue Podcast. Tune in for weekly episodes featuring guests who are building a better tomorrow. You'll hear inspiring stories from industry leaders, business owners, community partners, and our team members. The Build Blue Podcast, where construction comes to life, an APX Construction Group production.

Jess: Welcome to the Build Blue Podcast. My name is Jess Blais and we are joined today by the Sioux Empire United Way; and we have Christina Riss, the Chief Operations Officer from the United Way, and we're so glad to have you. Thanks for joining us.

Christina: Thank you so much for having me.

Jess: Tell us to start. What was your very first job? And we have had to narrow this down on the podcast to the first job that you had a W-2.

Christina: Oh, goodness. I don't know. What would that have been? Working at a golf course? I would think I probably got a W-2 there. Yeah, working at the golf course in the summer, which is a great job for me. It was just really kind of very part-time, but working a few hours. And then at the time, I did a lot of golfing. And so it was kind of that perfect combination of being able to work for a few hours, and then going out and playing a round of really terrible golf. But it was an enjoyable summers.

Jess: Work and passion collide often, I find, when we ask that question. So that's fun. Do you still golf?

Christina: No, I was a terrible golfer, and I would like to pick it up again someday. Probably need some lessons. It is one of those lifelong things that you can do for a long time, and you can pick it up at any time. So tell us a little bit about yourself and your background and how you came to your position at the United Way.

Christina: Yeah, so I am a South Dakota farm kid. Out of high school, I went to Brookings. So I went to undergrad at SDSU, really focused on education and wanting to kind of impact our kiddos in our communities. At that time, I really decided that I wanted to be even more impactful, not that teachers have a wonderful, they have such an incredible impact on so many lives, but they're only limited for how much time they can support each individual kid. And so I then decided to go and get my masters in counseling and human resource development, really wanting to be a counselor, working even in the schools, being a school counselor. And at that time, I loved it. I loved the program. I loved the opportunity to really work more closely with our kids, but really saw during that experience how many needs there were with our kids and our families. And that really is what led me to Sioux Empire United Way, really being able to come into an organization that has such a significant impact on so many lives and really focused on those services that really help to support our community.

Jess: Tell us about the Sioux Empire United Way and the main pillars of need that you serve.

Christina: Our mission at Sioux Empire United Way is to lead, sustain, and nurture a unified and effective response to community needs. And we really do that through supporting three different pillars. And our local pillars here are really focused on children, vulnerable adults, and people in crisis. And so anything that we're looking at supporting programs within the community, they really are focused on those three specific areas.

Jess: And I want to talk about the partner agencies and programs that are supported, but maybe if someone isn't familiar with how the United Way works, you guys are a fundraising agency and then you push those dollars out to your partner agencies.

Christina: Correct. Yes. And so we actually, here in Sioux Falls, in the Sioux Empire area, we identify the needs of the community. And so we heavily rely on volunteers, and we have only nine paid staff. And so we really rely on our volunteers to identify those needs. You know, they focused on, like I said, those three main pillars, but identifying those needs, identifying what the financial need to support those needs is, and then really pulling the community together to go out and raise the funds that are necessary in order to have that very specific impact within our community.

Jess: And how many partner agencies and programs are supported through your fundraising?

Christina: You know, the needs of the community are ever changing. And so it does change year to year a little bit. We get new programs that come in, we have some programs from time to time that will become self-sufficient, which is always a wonderful success story that frees up those funds for other needs within the community. Here in 2024, we currently have 34 different agencies and 75 different programs.

Jess: Wow, that's amazing. Let's talk about the impact and importance you mentioned, the volunteers, and then financial supporters of the organization as well.

Christina: Yeah, so again, you know, with nine paid staff, we are really we pride ourselves in being able to efficiently and effectively raise dollars to have the greatest impact possible. And you know, we can only do that with that support from both donors and our volunteers. And so in any given year, we have between 600-800 volunteers that really work to support the various areas of our organization. As I mentioned, you know, all the way from determining where the funds need to be invested all the way to, you know, we have probably anywhere between 400-600 hundred volunteers every year that are out there tirelessly knocking on doors and meeting with different organizations to really raise the dollars that are necessary to have that impact. You know, donors, we raise approximately nine million dollars every year. And so we really rely on that support of our community. We have over 15,000 individuals and about 700 businesses that support our campaign efforts each year. 

Jess: I always think it's interesting when you talk about those individual donors, how big of an impact a small amount over time can make when you consider the numbers all coming together. And obviously with you guys raising over nine million dollars, those individual donors are so important.

Christina: Absolutely. Every dollar is making an impact on the community. And we love each and every donor, and we really value their focus on being able to help fulfill our mission.

Jess: Can you tell us about the process of vetting and funding the partner agencies? I know a lot of volunteer hours go into this process. And I always think it's interesting for people who aren't aware how that behind the scenes portion of your work looks.

Christina: So our process actually starts every December. And so in mid-December, our applications become available for funding. And so organizations in December and January, they are completing the application. It's due typically at the end of January. And then our volunteers in the Community Impact side of things, we have approximately 55 to 60 volunteers every year. They will review all of those applications. And then the agencies will come in and present. And so when the agencies come in to present, they're talking about the need for the program within our community. They're talking about the outputs, how many individuals were served, how many individuals could be served with the support of United Way. And then, of course, any donor or any volunteer, why are they giving, why are they giving of their treasure, why are they giving of their time? It's that impact. And so really focused on looking at the outcomes of that particular program.

Christina: And then, of course, on the financial side too, really wanting to understand their financials, focusing on their audited financials, the historical need for support from United Way, and really what they're looking for in the future and really identifying how United Way can play a role in ensuring that a specific outcome is achieved within the community. As I mentioned, we have 55 to 60 volunteers in the Community Impact side. We divide those volunteers into 6 different impact areas. And so between 8 and 10 volunteers will meet actually with those each program. And they will go through that process that I just described. But actually every decision has to go through 3 levels of review before it's ever finalized.

Christina: So it starts with that initial vetting process of those initial team members. Then it goes on to our chairs. We have 12 impact chairs that will review all of the recommendations coming forward. And then it goes to our board. And so when you're giving to United Way, you can be confident that it has been thoroughly vetted and that we know exactly where each and every dollar is going and that it's going to meet a significant need within our community.

Jess: I always think that word confidence is so important throughout this process with 15,000 individual donors and over 700 businesses who are supporting the United Way here in the Sioux Empire. Just hearing how that process works and how many hands are involved, it is that confidence that they know that their dollars are helping these folks right in the community and it's going to good use.

Jess: Tell us about the capital campaign and how it's going so far.

Christina: Yes, and so we actually are just wrapping up our campaign. We will be announcing our goal achievement next week, so I can't talk too much about it yet. But next Thursday, we'll be having our annual Thank You Event where we'll really talk about our goal achievement and then give out some awards for some really incredible businesses and volunteers that have done amazing things this past year to help us meet the needs of our community.

Jess: That's so exciting. Congratulations. Tell us about the upcoming Day of Action on April 17th.

Christina: We are very excited for this. This is our first ever Day of Action. Some other United Ways have maybe done it or they have done it. Maybe you've even been a part of that yourself. But this will be our first annual, hopefully it will be annual, right? Our first Day of Action. And so it's taking place on April 17th. Right now we have 18 different projects that are scheduled to happen that afternoon amongst 16 different agencies. Right now we have about 177 volunteers that are signed up to really participate that afternoon. And it's really a variety of different things that they'll be doing all the way from packing lunches with like the St. Francis House to working with Thrive to build garden boxes. And so there's just a really amazing variety of things. And it's really a great opportunity for local businesses, individuals to also pull their teams together and get out and do a volunteer project together as well and really making a difference for our local nonprofits.

Jess: There are so many ways that folks can get involved with the work that you guys are doing, whether it be giving of their time, talent, or treasures. So I would love to hear some of the different levels of engagement, whether it be hosting an employee rally, getting involved with the volunteer opportunities. So let's kind of break down the different ways to engage with what you guys are doing.

Christina: Yeah, I mean, the one thing that we always want to do is make sure that our volunteers have a really positive experience. And so really kind of also looking at what their interests are and what their background is. And so when you're thinking at it from a volunteer standpoint, we do have a variety of different ways to get involved. Whether that's looking at the Community Impact side of things, whether being able to be part of that process of identifying the needs, or even committees like if you have a background in marketing, maybe it's serving on that marketing committee, or really on that campaign side and really interested in going out and making those asks and helping us raise those dollars. And so there are just so many different opportunities to be involved.

Christina: And part of this Day of Action that we just talked about, this actually is coming forward with the efforts of a committee that we call our Volunteer United Committee. And so it used to be our Emerging Leaders Program, but we've kind of transitioned that to this Volunteer United Group. And so this is a great opportunity for individuals to get involved with United Way and to really better understand our organization, but also understand the programs that we help to support. And there's not as much of a commitment to it. And so we have a variety of different activities each month that an individual could sign up and go out and volunteer with United Way and with a funded organization as well. And so those are those direct ways to really be out there volunteering, as well as thinking about it from an individual being able to make a donation or a company considering making a corporate gift or holding a rally within your own company. Maybe stepping up and being that volunteer within your own company to really kind of lead the charge and kind of getting your coworkers, your colleagues on board and understanding the impact that Sioux Empire United Way has on our community. We say in any given year, one in three individuals within our service area are impacted by United Way. And so really giving individuals the opportunity to be a part of that, whether it's through time or treasure, I think it's an exciting thing to be a part of.

Jess: Yeah, absolutely. What is the best way for someone who is interested to reach out to you guys to get involved?

Christina: Definitely either giving us a call or going to our website and just kind of better understanding what they might be interested in. We have a Facebook page, an Instagram, LinkedIn, are also great opportunities to kind of just follow us and get a better idea of all the work that's going on within our organization. But definitely reaching out to us and really talking through what your interests are for getting involved. We would love to be able to visit with anyone that's really interested and connecting you to kind of that volunteer opportunity that best aligns with kind of your interests and passion.

Jess: And I'll make sure that we link all of the social and website information in the show notes of this episode to make it really easy for folks to find you. Do you guys do events at all?

Christina: We don't do too many events. No, you know, we obviously do a lot of rallies and big company rallies in the fall, but we do our annual Thank You Event, which is coming up next week. And then in the fall, the last few years, instead of we used to have a big kind of kickoff event that we would do for our campaign. And we've kind of transitioned that to a kind of a week kickoff event schedule. And so whether it's getting free coffee one day, kind of some of the things that we did this past year, or we have a beer launch that we have partnered with the last couple of years. And so that's kind of a kickoff activity. But yeah, so those are a couple examples of a few of the activities or events that we host.

Jess: Tell us about some other ways that folks can engage with the United Way.

Christina: Yes, and so one great opportunity to engage with us just to get a better sense of United Way and the different programs that we support would be to get involved in our Volunteer United. We have two different events, kind of activities every month that individuals would be able to kind of take a look at that list. If there's something that's of interest to them that they really want to learn more about or it feels like it's a good fit for them or individuals within their company, they're able to sign up and really come out and get to know other people that are interested in that. And really a great networking opportunity and an opportunity to engage with United Way as well as our funded organizations.

Jess: And those opportunities can be found on the website as well, Christina?

Christina: Correct.

Jess: Okay, perfect. Good to know. Volunteer United sounds like a great option for folks who are new to the United Way and want to engage and get to know the work that you guys are doing here in the Sioux Empire.

Christina: I would just say thank you again for having me. And if anybody is interested in learning more, please do reach out. It really is an amazing opportunity to get involved and better understand the needs of the community. Sometimes we're kind of in our own circles and it's really a wonderful opportunity to meet other individuals that are passionate about the community, better understand the needs. And then for those that are really looking for an opportunity to give back financially, it really is a great way to make one gift to have such a significant impact. One gift can impact the lives of one in three and goes to support 75 different programs. And so I just encourage you if you have an interest in learning more to please reach out and visit with us more.

Jess: Well, thanks so much, Christina. This is the Build Blue Podcast. You can listen to us anywhere you get your podcast and we will be back with another episode next week.