By Harvey Lipman, STAFF WRITER August 14, 2007
Bergen County’s United Way is a completely different entity than it was five years ago and most of the change is attributable to Tom Toronto.
The world of philanthropy was undergoing dramatic changes in 2002 when the United Way board hired Toronto as president and gave him the mission of steering a new direction.
People weren’t interested in handing their money over to the United Way for its leaders to decide what charities would get the cash.
“Donors were designating where they wanted their money going. We were becoming just a mail drop,” said James E. Healey, chairman of the local United Way board. “We had to find a way to make a big impact in Bergen County without a lot of money.”
Toronto had been heading up fund-raising campaigns for various United Way client companies and developing marketing plans for the organization when the board named him president.
“I took the passion I had for marketing and I turned it to the human-service side,” he said. “We know we can run a multinational campaign on behalf of a corporation, but we’re Bergen County’s United Way. Let’s get back to our mission. We’re going to help people in a concrete way.”
But perhaps the biggest change under Toronto was refocusing the charity — homing in on a few key issues he felt could achieve the “big impact” the board was seeking.
To Toronto, those key issues were finding a way to connect people in need with services, preventing small needs from growing into catastrophic ones and figuring out how to help keep low-income working people from sinking into poverty.
The answers he came up with: the 2-1-1 phone-referral system; the United Way’s Compassion Fund, which provides emergency cash assistance; and an ambitious plan to develop a revolving-loan fund to finance the construction of affordable homes for the working poor.
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Occupation: President, Bergen County’s United Way
Education: B.A. from Montclair State University, M.A. from Columbia University
Family: Resides in Leonia with his wife and two children
United Way’s net assets (2006): $10.2 million