Redefining Partnership and Collaboration
by Bill Varner

Mobilizing the compassionate power of our community to improve the quality of lives in Central Virginia.

United Way of Central Virginia is a 501c3 non-profit organization that is working to advance Education, Income, and Health in our community by supporting programs, services, and collaborations. We are improving opportunities for our youth to succeed in school. We work to stabilize families through programs that reduce hunger, improve housing stability and reduce domestic violence. We are improving health care accessibility for individuals of all ages to improve health and wellness.

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Bill VarnerToday’s interview is with the Executive Director of the United Way of Central Virginia, Bill Varner. He’s a masters-educated healthcare executive with 27 years of experience and a proven track record of:

• thinking critically and quickly in a rapidly changing and competitive environment
• understanding complex concepts and translating them into easy-to-understand, actionable issues
• building consensus among people with individual and varying agendas
• balancing macro level thinking with keen eye for detail
• establishing and leading high-performing teams and motivating toward a common goal
• strong interpersonal, written, presentation, and oral communication skills.

Interview Transcript

Hugh Ballou: Hey there, it’s Hugh Ballou. We’re back. This is a bonus session of The Nonprofit Exchange. We are recording a series of interviews about partnerships and collaborations. Recording some thought leaders in the place where SynerVision is located in Lynchburg, Virginia. It’s central western Virginia, about halfway up in the commonwealth on the side almost in West Virginia.

Bill Varner: Almost.

Hugh: Almost. And my guest today is a new friend. I have only been here a year, and we met shortly after. People kept saying, “You need to meet Bill Varner.” Give us a little background, Bill, on who you are. You came from corporate America to run a nonprofit.

Bill: I did. The last 30 years, I have spent in health services and hospital administration. The last 17 of those were with Centra as their vice president for strategic planning, marketing, business development, communications, and PR. All of that has been in new business development, evaluating communities and determining what their needs are and putting plans and processes in place to meet those needs. One thing that’s interesting about the health system environment is while there is often one single plan for the organization, there are numerous subcomponents to the organization, too. You might have a focus on cardiovascular services, a focus on women’s and children’s services. There can be strategic plans at each of those levels as well, but they all have to work together toward one single ambition. I have the responsibility for that. I did that for the last 17 years at Centra, headquartered in Lynchburg, and covered all the geographies that organization covers.

About a year and a half ago, the opportunity presented itself to run United Way. They were looking for a different skill mix for their incoming executive director, no longer just someone who was comfortable with raising funds, but someone who could say this is an organization that needs to adapt to the future and the current state. What type of skills and experience do we want in the role? Bottom line, they were looking for somebody with more of a strategic planning/vision-setting, tracking incomes type of person. That not only fit very well in my wheelhouse, but I was also very interested in doing something that actually put me a little bit closer to the people that benefited from the work we do. Centra is a great organization, but I am obviously not a physician or nurse or clinician. More and more in my life, I found that I really wanted to be closer to those who were having an impact in the community and to see who we serve. United Way is an ideal fit for me.

Hugh: In my world of empowering organizations and leaders, the centrality of it is starting with your vision, mission, and strategy. Being a musical conductor, we have to have the chart in front of us so we know what we have to do. It’s a really important foundation for any organization. Coming from corporate America into this philanthropic work for a for-purpose organization—we like to call them that because nonprofit is such a crazy word. When you and I first met, give me an idea. Let’s talk about how many other organizations you support.

Bill: We support 26 agencies, 38 programs in those agencies. We actually fund those programs. Several of our agencies have more than one program. 26 organizations, 38 programs.

Hugh: What makes your work different than Community Foundation?

Bill: Community Foundation and we overlap in some respects. Much of what the Greater Lynchburg Community Foundation does focuses on social needs and community needs. They have a broader focus in that they may have benefactors that have funded foundations within their structure who have a very dedicated focus outside social services. We are strictly focused on social services. But we recognize that because we have a shared purpose in the community, we talk. That’s a monthly get-together we have. We have included the Centra Foundation. There may be others we want to include in that. We are all to some degree doing the same thing. Let’s at least make sure we’re coordinated. If we are asking agencies and other nonprofits to collaborate and coordinate, we need to hold ourselves to the same standard. So let’s get together and talk. Not sure exactly what is going to come from it. We don’t have a hard deadline as to when we will have certain deliverables, but we are starting to see that there will be opportunities for us to communicate and make sure we are all rowing in the same direction around certain needs in the community.

I may be getting off your question a little bit, but that’s why we recognized early on we needed a single direction. I started to talk about this idea of why don’t we do a single community needs assessment? In the past, each nonprofit we support in various times in their planning cycle would do a needs assessment. They each didn’t necessarily coordinate with one another. I thought if we could do one needs assessment for the community, not only would we save the time and effort of having everybody do it separately, but we could all participate in that one process, get input into it, and see the same results. We would then ideally be all rowing in the same direction. Here are the three or four biggest issues in the community. Let’s make sure we exert most of our time, resources, and effort on those areas. We have the data and feedback to support those are priority areas. We are doing much more than if somebody comes and asks for a grant, we fund them. We’re really looking strategically at if this is addressing a community need. Bill at the Community Foundation and I are trying to stay very coordinated in that effort.

Hugh: At the heart of collaborations and partnerships, there is defining the need and defining the vision and your philosophy of how you will proceed. How has the work of part of the conversation has been with the city, with the arts center, and with a group called Unity in the Community who are purposefully pulling people together and having projects they can work on together. The theatre is opening up, and there is a whole program centered around the arts. Unity in the Community is centered around religious and service programs. You sit around that table. Thinking about partnerships and/or collaborations, they are slightly different, you can collaborate without being in a partnership, how has your work specifically and your work through United Way created a catalyst or been a facilitator of those things?

Bill: Let me answer that by going one step back. I think it’s important to understand a place like Lynchburg in central Virginia. One thing I have noticed here, and I have been here 17 years, and I have been in positions myself where we needed help for health issues or other things. This is a community that steps up. This community does not sit around. You just gave an example of your request for people to participate in a choir, and 100 people are there. You don’t know if they’re all singers, but there is a lot of interest. This is a community when it sees a need, it does not hesitate to rally a group together and try to address that need.

Now there is good and bad with that. The good is that you have people who are there who are ready to go, symbolically speaking, they are not thinking all the same. What you also get is multiple efforts that may be duplicated with an existing effort or somehow are running counter to an existing effort. But at the very least, you have multiple organizations who have not yet communicated with one another, who may not even know the other exists. Now you have two different organizational structures. You may have two actual nonprofits who are registered, who have to create a board and have an executive director. They each go into their own direction and suddenly you have fragmentation. I will say a lot of what makes this a unique and wonderful community to live, that good heart that is willing to step up and engage, the unintended consequence of that is there is often too many people who have not yet coordinated. We are replete with organizations who are fragmented and could benefit from coordinating.

We have identified that as an issue in our strategic plan. We feel like we have a role in being a catalyst to bring those organizations together. One, because we work with multiple organizations, we may be the first place to see that you are doing the same thing as this organization is doing. Why don’t we get you together and talk? Our funding could go a lot further if we could support a consolidated and coordinated effort than it would if we were trying to support two separate organizations. By those way, those two organizations, and in some cases it is six, seven, eight organizations who overlap, are each out in the community asking for funding. My experience with donors is by the third time a person comes and asks for money for the same need, they suddenly realize this isn’t coordinated. I won’t give my money to this. I think there is a benefit that can come to those who do coordinate in that the ability to “sell themselves” to a donor and to sell their potential impact to a donor is greatly heightened.

We are in a unique spot to see maybe for the first time where there are points of fragmentation. It’s not always just a duplication or a fragmentation. There are some cases where the work of one organization could feed the work of another organization. Two places should be working together because they are taking care of people at different points in their life. Make sure they are doing a hand-off from one organization to the next. We feel like because we are in that unique spot that sees a lot of this, and we are in the position to be able to fund, and we track outcomes, that is an important role for us. Not just as a fundraiser to give money to those organizations, but to help those organizations operate more efficiently between one another. We are also doing some things to help them operate more efficiently within each organization.

Hugh: That’s promising.

Bill: We are in the very early stages of that. I don’t want to oversell accomplishments on that. We are starting to recognize where those overlaps are and are trying to bring groups together and see some of the challenges in that. It’s tough for groups, at the end of the day, if you are going to coordinate and collaborate, what you are also going to do is compromise. It means that if I am going to coordinate with another organization, I have to go in with the spirit of compromise, and I have to go in it saying there is a purpose we are coming together for that supersedes my personal self-interest in this. It may in fact require me to give something away for the greater good of the community. I think as long as we are willing to do that and take self-interest and self-preservation out of the equation, I think we will do good things. As long as self-interest, self-preservation, egos, turfism stay in the discussion, it will be hard to move the needle. But I think the purpose of focusing on the community is a much more noble cause than the purpose of focusing on organization and organizational growth. We just need to be all prepared and recognize we will have to compromise.

Hugh: I remember reading a story about one of the larger foundations in southern California in the LA area telling their organizations they funded. They pulled them all together and said, “We are not going to fund you anymore unless you work on collaborative efforts. We’re leaving the room. You come back to us with a collaboration, and then we will revisit the conversation.” There was a funder stepping up and setting a boundary. We are not duplicating funding anymore.

Part of what came to my mind as you were describing that situation was that we create an unintended consequence of leadership: a competitive situation. We have a need, so we will service that need. There is too much of when we didn’t adequately do our research about what was available. In business, we look at our competition. What is our unique value proposition? Is it being served?

A lot of people come to me when they want to start a nonprofit. I say why don’t you work under another one as a project? Do it for a year, and see if there is really a need for this. Then you don’t have to go through all that paperwork.

Bill: That’s music to my ears. That’s exactly what we are asking organizations to do. Before you start a nonprofit, pump the brakes. Let’s take a look and see if there is somebody else out there not necessarily doing the same thing, but addressing the same need. If there is, talk to them first. It’s much more exciting to get your own organization started and create your own logo and website. That stuff is sexy and exciting, and people get caught up in that. You need to let that go. If my real purpose is to serve the community, not just create an organization, let me find out if there is a moving train I can hop onto now, somebody else who is already doing this.

In fact, we had an example of that this last year. An organization came to us and wanted to start a new nonprofit. We think you are more appropriately aligned with an existing organization. Long story short, they are now a program under that organization. At least for now, that makes the most sense for them. Now they don’t have to go find a separate board. They have not created costly infrastructure. They will share the overheads of the other organization. If anything, that helps spread that organization’s overhead out, so that’s a win-win.

We’ll say we have stopped short. We do recognize that as a funder, we have some leverage to say we will withhold some funding until you collaborate. We have stopped short of saying we will not fund you. In our view, that is punishing the wrong person. We’re not punishing the organization; we are punishing the people who benefit from that organization. I’m not going to tell for example if there are two backpack programs in the community that provide food to kids on Friday and they are not collaborating, I am not going to say I am cutting your funding until you collaborate because I am not hurting those organizations, I am taking food out of the mouths of the kids on Friday. While it feels like an important knob to turn, to me, it’s being a little reckless with money as a motivator. It’s not targeted enough to actually motivate the right people. It just hurts the community. But we have said our funding is going to put strong preference on those organizations that collaborate.

Hugh: That’s true of a lot of private foundations that do fund nonprofit projects. They look favorably at collaborations and partnerships.

Going into ways- I want to talk about two things. Going into these joint venture things, what are the deficits? People don’t think about writing agreements for certain things. I want to talk about that. And then what are the resources that you and your organization bring to foster those conversations?

Bill: It’s interesting. I will talk a little bit out of both sides of my mouth. One, I will say I think those organizations who come together to collaborate should not set too high of an expectation early on. I think it’s okay to say, “Let’s get in a room and talk and see where things go.” If we put a lofty expectation in there meeting one, we may scare each other off, and we may not really know what we’re trying to do yet. Don’t set super high expectations right out of the gate. Don’t be too rigid with saying we have to have an outcome by December.

However, at some point, you have to switch the conversation from the stream of consciousness rambling, which some of these can be, which can be ultimately beneficial. At some point, you have to get people on a map. We have talked now for a few meetings; what are some of the things we think we share?

Hugh: It’s kind of like dating, isn’t it? I didn’t ask my wife to marry me on the first date. Did some relationship-

Bill: That might have been a little presumptuous.

Hugh: A little.

Bill: It’s very much like that. Once you know a little bit more about each other, you can say is there something more here? Is there a common purpose that we share? Is there a common goal that we should work on? If so, let’s articulate that as clearly as possible. Maybe that’s just one goal. If so, we make part of our work to focus on that goal, and let’s keep having this open conversation about other areas you might benefit from or other people you want to bring to the table. But I think ultimately, if work is to get done and accomplishments are to be made and we are going to have positive, sustainable impact on the community, you have to get a plan together.

You have to have the basic rudiments that a lot of people think are NBA 101, so people don’t do them. They think they have to hold this in their head. You have to have a vision statement that is meaningful, clear, concise, and not have vague language, not be marketing fluff. You need to have a meaningful vision statement. Then you have to talk about the strategy that will get you there. That strategy has to be goals, objectives, tactics, 90-day plans, 30-day plans, who is accountable for it, when is it going to be done, and how do we measure whether or not it was done. If you have that line of sight between that vision and what you need to have done Monday morning, that is a recipe for doing good things. I do think those early collaborative efforts need to be loose on the front end, but gradually get more focused as topics bubble out of those areas.

I am in several of those meetings right now. A couple of them, we are in those early stages where we are just talking. We leave the room. The type A in you leaves the room says, “We did a lot of talking, but I don’t know what we accomplished.” The more patient side of you should say, “We have done a lot of talking, but we have not talked before. That’s good. That’s progress. No real hard outcome just yet, but we will get there. Maybe the next meeting or the meeting after that, we will plant a stake in the ground and say that we all want to do this. We all focus on food, clothing, and shelter. Let’s pin that up on the wall and say what can we do differently together to do this?”

That can be scary to organizations because that does ultimately mean you are going to somebody in the room, probably everybody in the room will have to compromise a bit. You just need to know that going in. If you are going in saying, “I am not doing anything that is going to take something away from me or that causes me to lose influence or control over a certain area of my life,” if you go in there with that attitude, you might as well not be in the room. You have to go in saying, “This is not about me. This is about the community.” If there are points along the road here where I may be doing something that affects something we are measuring at United Way, maybe I need to let it go. If it’s better for the community, if what I lose is more than made up for by what the community gains, I should let it go.

I will give you a good example. We run a backpack program right now. We fund several backpack programs, but we run a couple different schools out of the United Way. We get revenue for that. That revenue is included in our total pledges that we report at the end of the year. Ultimately, all those backpack programs need to coordinate and consolidate a little bit better. That probably will mean our backpack program could move to a more centralized program somewhere that might be able to do it more efficiently and effectively than us. If I move that backpack program out, that is probably the right thing to do to get it in a more efficient program. But I have also taken X thousands of dollars worth of revenue that had been associated with that program outside of my organization. Somebody looking at our dollars might say you just went from $100 to $75. You’re losing ground. Not really. I know where that program went. I know it’s doing better where it is now. It made more sense for it to be operated there. If I am collecting $25 less than I used to collect, that’s okay. That’s not a failure. In fact, that’s evidence we collaborated on something. If my only interest is in growing our revenue, I would never do that. That’s why you have to let that interest go. There is room for all of us. At some point, organizations may need to consolidate and think about shared purposes. Right now, we are in the earlier coordination and cooperation stage.

Hugh: One of the things I am clearly hearing is that you’re a catalyst for people to think differently.

Bill: We are trying to be, and trying to facilitate conversations like that. and help them see that we are doing this, too. We are not some expert coming in and saying that we want you to do this and it’s going to be hard on you and easy for us. We are holding ourselves to that same standard. We can be the voice of experience and say, “Here is what we had to learn about ourselves and our behavior in order to do this effectively.” We want to share our experience with you and see if you could see there is a different way to think about things that might be more advantageous for the community.

Hugh: You’re the champion of fostering new thinking, but you’re also bringing some skills, history, tools, and leadership to this. You re bringing business expertise into tax-exempt business models, which a lot of nonprofits don’t think of themselves that way. We have to generate revenue. Otherwise, we will go under. The unintended consequences are people want to go too fast, so you are encouraging people to take a deep breath.

Bill: Before starting a new organization out of the ground.

Hugh: Or even two organizations- we spoke of one before we went live, which we won’t talk about here. We have two coming together who have had some history who had not talked about the philosophies and processes and values moving forward. They got to get to work. There is a self-imposed urgency sometimes. Are we in the long haul compromising our work by going too fast?

Bill: Absolutely.

Hugh: There is something we could do now. Part of what United Way brings to the table in the community, you are not only working in Lynchburg, Virginia, but you are working in central Virginia.

Bill: Amherst, Bedford, Campbell, and Lynchburg.

Hugh: That’s pretty much the footprint of the greater area.

Bill: That is, yep.

Hugh: With the impact having more than just funding the programs. You’re a funding agency; however, you’re fostering this creative thinking about how to work together and how to go to the top a step at a time.

Bill: We’re doing that not only around collaborative efforts, but we are also trying to establish a program that we are casually referring to now as beyond funding. Many people know us as a organization that does work to improve the community through fundraising that supports nonprofits. In the course of visiting all these nonprofits over the past year and getting familiar with how they operate, it’s become clear to me, and I’m sure you feel the same way, that they don’t have the marketing department and a finance department and a social media department and an HR department. In many cases, they have an executive director who might be a volunteer, certainly I daresay most are overworked and underpaid. They are in it because their heart is in it and they want to do the right thing. Our money we give them each year is important.

They have ample needs beyond that. We survey our membership at the end of last year and asked, “Other than the money, what else could we be helping you with?” About 20 things that we thought they might answer to give them some prompts. We left it open-ended, too. We heard a lot of things. Most said we need help with grant writing, marketing, social media. Many said we need help with board development and board selection or coaching or performance reviews or my building. Our organization can help with some of those things directly. We have someone who writes grants. My background is strategic planning and business development, communications.

Aside from our having to fulfill every one of those needs, what we want to do is serve as a broker between those organizations who have their needs and people in the community who can help you address those needs. Right now, one of our agencies who we had a meeting with last week, they need help with their finances. We connected them with somebody from a local employer who says they think they can help them out. We’re in the middle. We brokered the relationship. We will stay in touch with it and see if this organization can improve its financial situation. There are several who want grant writing help; we can probably provide that directly for them. We are trying to break the mold of us just being an annual check-writer. You all need help in various areas. Don’t be shy asking for help. Tell us, and we will work to get through it.

Hugh: That’s great. That’s a great model. People who are listening and reading the article are looking for ideas. How do we up our game? This will live on in its form as a podcast. As we do a wrap here, parts of this article are some of the other entities in the city, in the arts community and the church community. How do you interface with any of those in your work? Do you?

Bill: In some cases, we are taking a sit back and wait and see posture. In many cases, we are directly at the table. Some of these efforts have just gotten started. We have United Way, Centra Foundation, Greater Lynchburg Community Foundation, and that is one group. We have another group that Nat Marshall has pulled together that is us, Salvation Army, Goodwill, Interfaith Outreach, and a couple others. We are in those very early stages of just talking. Poverty to Progress has its combined effort with Bridges out of Poverty. We are in some of the sub-committees of that. We are not sure exactly what our bigger role in that could be, but we probably need to spend some time with the leaders in that effort, Treney and Hugh, to understand what is a better place for us to plug in. Is there some place we can be more effective in that? Given that is one of our big focus areas—we focus on health, education, income, and basic human needs—under income, poverty is one of the biggest issues that we could possibly talk about addressing. We have things that we’re doing right now that are not yet looped into the Poverty to Progress initiative. We have more to do to build lines of communication there. Again, that is another one we are sitting back and waiting to see where is the best place for us to plug in. It’s broken down into eight or nine groups now. We think we need to try to figure out how to take these lofty conversations and turn those into actionable plans. That is where that effort is now and we may have a role there.

Hugh: It’s a shame there’s only one door. You have covered a lot of turf.

Bill: You’re the only person who has said that.

Hugh: I’m getting tired thinking about it. There are a lot of sub-conversations in there. As we close this out, what thoughts would you share with other leaders who want to move into a partnership or collaborative relationship with their community? What thoughts would you have for them to go forward with?

Bill: I’ll take a step back on that question, too. One thing I learned early on when I got into this role, and a certain experience in my life from my past made this role very compelling to me, made me be in a position to help people. As I have met executive directors in all the organizations that we support and other organizations, they tend to have a story. They have some reason they are in that type of work. Nobody gets into nonprofit work because of the glory, fame, and riches; you get into it because you care about it. That to me makes this an incredibly exciting sector to work in. The people that you work with are invigorated because they genuinely care. When you get caught up in operating an organization, you can turn down the light on that part of your brain and your heart and get obsessed with what you have to do today.

My thought is when you go into a collaborative effort, remember what brought you there. What brought you there is you wanted to help people, not that you wanted to build an organization. If you can keep the light shining on that, the collaboration falls naturally behind. You have to be willing to let some personal interest go so that the benefit accrues to the community, not necessarily to you or your organization.

Hugh: Bill Varner, visionary leader for United Way in central Virginia. Thank you for sharing your wisdom today.

Bill: Thank you for your time.

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