For about two years, United Way organizations collectively have been pushing toward more sustainable improvements to the lives of people in their communities.
In other words, the organizations want to help agencies teach folks to fish so they will be fed for a lifetime.
United Way of the Bluegrass Chairman Harry Richart said William W. "Bill" Farmer Jr. is the right man at the right time to push that initiative into high gear.
Farmer is the new president and chief executive officer of the local United Way organization. His first day on the job was Oct. 5, and he hasn't slowed down much since.
"The United Way has moved from a fund-raising organization to an organization dealing with systemic underlying issues associated with problems," Farmer said, "specifically with education, income and health."
One big reason for the move, he said, is because donors want those areas fixed or at least targeted. And because the local agency has laid off employees, raised 4 percent less in 2008 than in the previous year, and cut the amount it gives agencies, donors carry a lot of weight.
"The reason donors donate is because they want to influence change," Farmer said. "And what the donors are saying, what investors are saying ... is we want to address the support on a long-term basis so as to ensure people don't get into the situations that they are in today.
"Our response is to the donors," he continued, "because they are the ones who are investing the money. They can make the determination on how they want their monies invested."
Richart said the three major areas this United Way is concentrating on are "better education for all citizens, better health care and health habits, and financial independence. They impact us all and make us better. But he (Farmer) can't do that by himself. It will take the whole community along with him.
"And one of his attributes is that there is nobody out there that Bill won't interact with."
That's why Farmer hasn't slowed down much. He said he has met with donors and agencies in Madison, Scott and Montgomery counties, as well as in Lexington, talking about the direction the organization is taking and asking several questions including, "What keeps you up at night?" and "If you were me, what would you work on?"
He wants to focus on programs in each of the United Way's partner agencies that work to diminish systemic problems that hold Kentuckians back.
And he's working hard, "meeting with as many people as is humanly possible," because his family is still in Charlotte, N.C.
Farmer and his wife, Kehaulani, have an 11-year-old daughter, Alexis. His family will move here in November from Charlotte, where Farmer had been vice president of corporate development for Time Warner Cable in the Carolinas, before starting his own consulting firm. That firm, The Farmer Group, aimed to assist businesses and non-profits with public and social policy.
He worked for Time Warner for 28 years. When he started, cable consisted of 12 channels and HBO, he said.
Farmer said he grew up in Rocky Mount, N.C., in the northeastern part of the state. His father, the late William Farmer Sr., worked in the textile mills, and his mother, Retha Farmer, operated a pre-school and later became a kindergarten teacher's assistant for 30 years.
Retha Farmer said her son became seriously involved in civic activities when he lived in Jackson, Miss., before moving to Charlotte. "I told him when he was in Jackson, God was grooming him for this job," she said.
At Time Warner and through civic and governmental agencies, Farmer has been working with the same problems that this United Way is targeting.
With the "advancing common good" vision of the local agency and committed volunteers such as Richart, Farmer said, all the pieces are in place for the transition to a new day.
"It's philanthropic capitalism," Farmer said. "Some people still make decisions based on tugging of the heart strings. That is still important, but the overwhelming majority of them are making decisions based on 'Why is this good?' and 'What is it going to do to improve the community?'
"I believe we can be one of the most effective philanthropic organizations in the country," Farmer said.