People: United Way volunteer Ben Nelson

November 15, 2004|HERB BROCK

I've never had a cell phone. Ben Nelson has never lived without one.

But we do have something in common. He and I both were displaced Kentuckians who came back home, and we both love the sound of "My Old Kentucky Home." But while I have to wait to hear that eye-moistening, heart-rending song at a University of Kentucky ballgame or before the Kentucky Derby, Nelson gets to listen to it several times a day.

Where does he hear it? Where else? On his cell phone. He gets to hear the song a lot.

I got to listen a couple of times the other day when I had the pleasure of meeting Nelson. I had heard good things about this guy. He was a native Kentuckian who had made Danville his new Kentucky home.

More than that, he had decided immediately to give something back to a community he was just getting to know. It's like a guy who had decided to give an expensive gift to a woman he had just started dating. But to hear Nelson tell it, he knew all he had to know about Danville to fall in love and give her that token of his affection.


The gift? Working with Heart of Kentucky United Way. It's an organization a lot of us who work for local businesses appreciate and support but do little to help out, other than to check the box to deduct a few dollars from our paychecks.

Nelson has done more. He also has deducted a lot of time from his extremely busy, cell phone kind of lifestyle.

His way back to the Bluegrass came about two decades after this frequent flier had flown his Kentucky coop. Nelson, who grew up in Lexington, graduated from Transylvania University in 1980. He worked for five years as a chapter consultant and then director of operations for Phi Kappa Tau, which is headquartered in Oxford, Ohio.

In 1985, Nelson landed a job as a recruiter on college campuses for a major aerospace and defense contractor. He moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area with his wife, Danville native Julie Helton Nelson. "It was the Reagan era and defense contractors were doing a booming business. I couldn't hire fast enough," he said.

But, as much as he liked his job and the couple liked the Dallas-Fort Worth area, they couldn't move fast enough back to Kentucky. That opportunity came in 2001.

Nelson was hired by Alliance Data Systems in 1999 as vice president of organizational development. While the company was based in Richardson, Texas, it had an operation in Johnson City, Tenn. Hint: Johnson City, Tenn., is a lot closer to Kentucky than Richardson, Texas. And Nelson saw an opportunity to connect the geographical dots for his boss.

"Julie had a dream, a desire to get back to a place that was close to her family, and I wanted to get back to Kentucky, or a place as close to it, as well. And we firmly believed our kids (Katherine, McKay and Sam, now ages 16, 13 and 9, respectively) would benefit from the move closer to home as well," he said. "I told my boss about our desire, and also reminded him that with my laptop and my cell, I had a virtual office that could be anywhere.

"He said, 'Let's try it.' And we decided to try it in Danville. It was great. I was able to keep the job I love, Julie was able to return to a place she loves, and I have since found out why she loves Danville so much. It's a neat town that I now love, too."

Goal of $990,000

Now, back to the way Nelson is showing that love, and the gift he is giving to a new object of his affection. Local banker and longtime United Way board member Greg Caudill hooked up his new friend with the organization for this year's campaign, which has a goal of raising $990,000 for some 27 non-profit agencies.

Nelson agreed to give it a try, even though it meant squeezing his new duty into those few weekdays he's in Danville. He takes that "virtual office" of his, including the ever-present cell phone, on business trips two or more days a week.

As a management type involved with the spreadsheet world of big business, where the expenditure of every penny is evaluated and the performance of every program is scrutinized, he expected to see a less-detailed approach at the United Way. He was pleasantly surprised.

"The people and concerns who give so generously to the United Way need to know that the folks who handle and distribute their money do it in a highly businesslike and professional manner," said Nelson. "It is a very impressive process."

The process involves collecting reams of data from each of the agencies seeking United Way funding. It also involves meeting with the heads of the agencies and grilling them, albeit in a nonconfrontational way, about their expenditures to find out exactly where every dollar does.

"The United Way pushes the agencies to prove, both in data and in narrative form, how they are impacting the people they serve and the overall community they serve," said Nelson.

Focusing on duplication of services

In another way to make sure United Way donations are allocated wisely and prudently, he said the organization in recent years has also been focusing on the duplication of services.

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