Shelley Valentini to retire as UWNEMN executive director; Erin Shay to take on role

United Way of Northeastern Minnesota (UWNEMN) will experience a changing of the guard this week as longtime Executive Director Shelley Valentini retires and current Community Impact & Engagement Director Erin Shay steps up to fill the role.

Valentini has worked for UWNEMN for 29 years and has been the executive director for 25 of those. In her time as executive director, she oversaw major changes to the local charitable organization, including the transition from a purely fundraising-focused organization to one that also incorporates community impact work. This change led to an increase in UWNEMN services and – by far the largest change in  Valentini’s tenure – a new building (and growing staff) to support those services.

“Taking on a capital campaign of $1,000,000 in a two-year time period for a new building in the midst of increasing challenges to fundraising was scary, but it was also the best thing that ever happened to our organization,” Valentini said. “With our new United Way home complete - thanks to countless donors - and all of our work under one roof, we have dramatically increased our efficiencies, expanded our reach, and stabilized our future.”      

For her entire United Way career, Valentini traveled the region speaking with friends, neighbors, and colleagues about the impact their donations could make in the local community. For several years, she was the only UWNEMN employee, so she visited every local workplace holding United Way meetings on her own and was known to many as “the United Way lady.”

In 2004, Valentini hired Shay, who over the years has worked in every possible facet at the organization including marketing, event planning, annual campaign, and community impact initiatives.

Together, Valentini and Shay pivoted UWNEMN’s focus to community impact.

“When I first started, United Way’s major responsibility was to raise funds to pass on to other non-profits through a fund distribution process,” Valentini said. “Changing to a community impact organization meant that when our organization saw a need in the community that wasn’t being met, we created programming to meet the need and ran the program ourselves.”

Donations to UWNEMN now continue to support local non-profit agencies as always, but they also support a host of UWNEMN programs like Buddy Backpacks, Comforts of Home, Lunch Buddies Mentoring, Meet Up and Chow Down, Smiles United, United for Veterans, and the local sponsorship of  Imagination Library.

Stepping into her new role as executive director, Shay said she knows managing these programs and the fundraising to support them – and local non-profit agencies – will be vastly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s probably the biggest challenge ahead,” she said. “We rely on face-to-face meetings with employees in local businesses to tell our story and provide them the opportunity to contribute to our programming, and we know this probably won’t happen this year.

We know from past experience, when we don’t have the opportunity to talk to people about out work, the donations just aren’t there.”

However, Shay said, “this is an opportunity for us to get creative.”

The organization has already found creative solutions, like coordinating with schools so Buddy Backpacks were delivered to children during last school year’s closures, setting up “pick-up only” appointments for Comforts of Home, and adapting to “grab and go” style for Meet Up and Chow Down.  In addition, UWNEMN has been raising and distributing crisis funds for local individuals, programs, and agencies negatively impacted by COVID-19.

An Iron Range native, Shay said she is excited for this new chapter and to “continue to create positive changes in the communities that we all love so much.”

Starting August 1, Shay will lead a team of four full-time employees and one part-time employee, while Valentini will stay on as an executive advisor, working from home to aid in the transition until February 2021.

Valentini said she looks forward to spending more time with her children and grandchildren in retirement – and she know she is leaving UWNEMN in good hands.

“I have worked alongside Erin for many years and know that she will excel in this new role and will continue the impactful work of UWNEMN, putting her own stamp and creativity on it as she always has,” Valentini said.

While Shay feels as though she is “stepping into big shoes,” she is grateful to the UWNEMN Board of Directors for their trust in her – and to Valentini for years of mentorship.

“What I’ve learned in my United Way career with Shelley is there is always a new challenge ahead, and our roles will constantly evolve,” Shay said. “Never has that been more clear than now, and I look forward to seeing how our team of strong and dedicated staff members continue to develop as their roles and the role of UWNEMN in our region evolves throughout this transition.”