PEF members involved in SEFA say campaign needs all hands on deck
By KATE MOSTACCIO
With COVID-19 wreaking havoc on the economy and millions out of work, our country is facing unprecedented times. The role of nonprofit organizations is more vital than ever in supporting low-income, developmentally and physically disabled and other less advantaged members of our communities.
State employees can help by supporting the State Employees Federated Appeal (SEFA) campaign – a charitable giving campaign where PEF members are on the frontlines donating their time to helping others.
PEF Retiree Tom Wickerham, a longtime environmental program specialist with the Department of Environmental Conservation, and current chair of the statewide SEFA Council, has been active in SEFA since early in his state service.
“I got involved after being solicited as a newer employee,” Wickerham said. “Charitable giving was always in my blood. My dad was an institutional fundraiser for a local college and later for a retirement home, both of those depend on giving.
“I have a 29-year-old disabled son,” he said. “After Tyler was born, I realized so many things were supporting us. I was looking through the list of charities and there were over 10 that were directly assisting my family’s life. That was it, I was sold.”
Wickerham has spent the last 30 years helping build the power of SEFA to support its chosen charities.
“SEFA is a statewide charitable campaign for state employees and it is run by state employees and volunteers,” Wickerham said. “It makes available a vetted list of charities and employees have the choice, primarily through payroll deductions, to give to the charity of their choosing.”
A decade ago, SEFA was running campaigns that brought in nearly $10 million a year. Charitable giving in the years since has dwindled. Last year, SEFA distributed $3.66 million. And, it is not just SEFA that is struggling.
“That slow decline has been something seen across all charities,” Wickerham said. “Some of the biggest parts of our problems right now is the involvement of state employees and the lack of encouragement of upper levels of the bureaucracy.”
Joining Wickerham at the helm of the campaign is current PEF member and statewide SEFA Council finance chair, Bill Ferguson, who works for the New York State Department of Economic Development. He said that in addition to a decline in giving, SEFA also must pay overhead.
“Our colleagues in our facilities always ask about administrative fees,” Ferguson said. “How much does it cost SEFA to put on this campaign? Admin fees are capped by regulations at 15 percent. So, at no point can somebody’s donated dollar exceed 15 cents for our admin fees. The difficulty is, as our campaign pie continues to shrink from $10 million to $3.66 million, that 15 percent continues to put additional pressures on the kinds of ideas, campaigns and creativity we can bring to bear to help.”
SEFA is looking at ways to increase visibility and drive participation. There is a Facebook page and a Twitter account, both of which the organization hopes to use as the campaign gears up for its next go-round of solicitation in September.
This year will be especially challenging with COVID restrictions in the workplace.
United Way, Earthshare and other charitable federations and organizations provide management help and campaign support across New York state but it’s state employee volunteers in the workplace that really make SEFA campaigns a success.
“The most successful campaigns are when a colleague asks a colleague to participate,” Ferguson said. “Being able to ask someone face to face,” is key.
Wickerham said on-site volunteers sharing and spreading the word about SEFA bridge gaps between coworkers and build leadership skills among state workers.
“Volunteers are gaining teambuilding and leadership skills, project management and professional development” experience, he said. “It also helps the individual grow their own networks. The asking process builds personal relationships and can be a morale builder. It’s a way of doing good for somebody else.”
By participating in SEFA, employees gain valuable work skills and the state should embrace and encourage its workforce to take part.
“It really is growing them professionally,” Ferguson said. “It makes them better employees. We become better leaders and better managers. Ultimately, the skills and experiences that you gather in your work through SEFA make us better professionals and better leaders in our own job functions. Networking, communication, leadership – are all of those things that really are the characteristics of good leaders and good managers.”
There are different ways to volunteer within SEFA.
“We have a lot of different levels of volunteers,” Wickerham said. “Most of it starts at the local committee level. Those local committees are responsible for the budgeting and planning process.”
The best way to get involved is to visit www.sefanys.org and fill out the online volunteer form. This form will be forwarded to Statewide SEFA Director Alicia Otis or a local coordinator who will match the interested state employee with the best role within the campaign.
“Someone will contact the volunteer and they will have a conversation about the best match,” Ferguson said. “If they need help at a facility, they will do that. If they need help on a committee, they will do that. Most likely it would be help running a facility campaign, soliciting asks.”
Wickerham said there are probably a lot of people who would like to help – they just haven’t been encouraged to make the leap.
“There is reticence on the part of management to allow them,” he said. “It really doesn’t take much time, an hour or two a week maybe. We’ve been working on some regulatory changes, trying to make the system easier.”
He said this is where unions and their leadership can be especially helpful.
“PEF, CSEA and other unions can play a critical role in making this an acceptable work task,” Ferguson said. “Unions are encouraged to participate.” The SEFA cabinet has traditionally included union presidents or executive level leadership.
More important than ever
With COVID, this year’s campaign is going to be different and more challenging with fewer in-person solicitation opportunities. Ferguson and Wickerham said SEFA is still working out how it is going to jump that hurdle.
But one thing is clear – the importance of giving.
“The state can’t and won’t pay for everything,” Wickerham said. “One thing state workers need to understand is that this is their campaign. They get to support their chosen charities in their communities for their neighbors and for their fellow employees. It’s a ‘feels good’ kind of thing. It’s not the government, it’s not United Way, it’s ours as employees.”
“We organize it, manage it, carry it out,” he said. “Unions are largely involved in this. We need every bit of help we can get: management, labor, person-to-person, member-to-member. Together we are SEFA strong and New York tough.”
SEFA is endorsed by PEF, CSEA, UUP, NYSUT, NYSCOPBA, NYSOMCE, and the PBA of NYS.