United Way of Hampshire County hires new leader


Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 17, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — A Florence resident with extensive experience in marketing, business development and digital strategy, including at the University of Massachusetts and Baystate Health, is assuming leadership of the United Way of Hampshire County.

John Bidwell, who served as a member of the United Way board from 2008 to 2013 and helped lead development of a strategic plan in 2009, replaces James Ayres as executive director. Ayres left in May to lead United Way of Pioneer Valley in Springfield.

“I’m ecstatic. This is really an amazing opportunity to participate in the community at this level,” Bidwell said Tuesday.

Bidwell founded the branding and marketing firm Bidwell ID in 1999, and ran the company until 2012, when he became director of marketing and digital strategy at Baystate Health. In 2016, Bidwell took a job at the UMass Amherst as executive director for marketing and new business development in university relations.

As a board member in 2009, Bidwell co-led United Way’s strategic plan, which changed decades of precedent by shifting from a one-year funding cycle to a three-year cycle. That, Bidwell said, allowed partner agencies to engage in more long-term planning, knowing that they would have funding for three years.

“That’s a challenge that all agencies face, trying to get reliable funding,” he said. “It makes such a big difference for them. It was good for them, and good for us.”

‘Fantastic reputation’

United Way board chairwoman Kate Glynn said Bidwell’s extensive experience in marketing and branding, as well as his deep ties to the community, made him the ideal candidate.

“He brought the right mix of being able to see issues from a strategic, higher viewpoint, but also to talk about some of the steps that you’d have to implement to get there,” she said. “He also has a fantastic reputation in the community.”

United Way’s search process was lengthy, Glynn said. The board began its search over the summer, but after interviewing candidates went back out to look for additional applicants. After relaunching the search in October, the board settled on around 11 people for initial interviews, and Bidwell was eventually chosen from a group of three finalists.

In an age when more and more organizations are able to reach out to donors, and when anyone can set up a GoFundMe page, Glynn said all nonprofits face a challenging new landscape. Bidwell’s experience, she said, will help him tackle the problems that come with the changing nature of giving.

“We need someone who can help shift how we are interacting, and how we are presenting ourselves, in today’s and tomorrow’s philanthropic world,” Glynn said. That includes reaching out to younger donors, she said — “the next generation of philanthropic givers.”

Glynn said part of that work is figuring out how to make the organization’s backbone — donations through payroll deduction — more efficient.

Bidwell said he’s ready to tackle those challenges — the increasingly digital means of donating, the growing options that perspective donors have — head on.

Another potential obstacle came up when Bidwell recently visited a forum for new United Way leaders in Virginia.

There, a big topic of conversation was the recently passed Republican tax bill, which many nonprofits worry could decrease charitable giving across the board because of, among other things, a doubling of the standard deduction, which could lead some people to forgo itemizing their deductions.

“We’re still feeling this out,” said Bidwell, who has already met with the offices of U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey about the issue.

He said, however, that he’s confident in Hampshire County donors. “This is a really caring community, and most people give because they care about the community they live in. I’ve got to believe that’s not going to change fundamentally.”

Peace Corps experience

Bidwell said that in his time working in the Pioneer Valley, he has been able to get to know a lot of the region’s leaders, and hopes his ties to the community will benefit him in his new role.

“He values the relationships we have with the local business community, donors, volunteers and with our funded partners,” Renee Moss, who has been serving as United Way of Hampshire County’s interim executive director, said in a statement.

In addition to his work experience, Bidwell is a lecturer in the Isenberg School of Management at UMass, served for four years on the Hampshire County Chamber of Commerce and has worked on Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz’s committee to strategize marketing around the MGM casino being built in Springfield.

But it was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali from 1989 to 1991 that Bidwell said feels like the closest analog to his new job with United Way.

It was in Mali that he met his wife, fellow volunteer Kris Holloway. They worked together on projects, and when they returned to the States Bidwell eventually edited her 2006 book, “Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali.” The two recently co-authored a new book with the Holocaust survivor Irene Butter, “Shores Beyond Shores: From Holocaust to Hope.”

“Being in the Peace Corps, I think when you make a decision like that you do it because it’s heart work,” Bidwell said. “Going into this job feels very akin to that Peace Corps feel ing.”

Editor’s note: This article was changed on Jan. 17, 2018, to clarify that John Bidwell met with staffers in the offices of U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey. The senators themselves were not present.