by Jim Boyle
Kat Sarff has landed the perfect job as the executive director of Sherburne County Area United Way. She didn’t come to it quickly.
It was during her training to be a district manager with Caribou Coffee that she realized her 12-year career in corporate America hadn’t brought her to where she wanted to be.
“I thought it would be great, until I realized it’s a very lonely role,” the 40-year-old Zimmerman wife and mother of two told the Star News on April 19.
She enjoyed getting to know people, progressing and landing the job of managing the Elk River Caribou Coffee near Cub Foods in 2004. She and her husband moved to Zimmerman in 2006 and they looked to begin setting down roots. Caribou, however, likes to move their managers around, so she soon was tasked with other locations before taking a shot at the district manager role. Officing mostly out of her car and going from coffee shop to coffee shop to manage essentially from a distance was not the community she was looking for.
The Iron Ranger, who grew up in the town of 1,048 people in Keewatin, had two associate degrees — one from St. Cloud State University and the other from St. Cloud Technical College — quickly learned two associate degrees were not the same as one four-year bachelor’s degree.
She returned to school and received her bachelor’s degree in business management with an emphasis in marketing from the University of St. Thomas. In the meantime, she started volunteering at Sherburne County Area United Way in February 2019. When a marketing job opened up at the nonprofit a few weeks later, she saw the kind of opening she was looking for. She was hired in March 2019 by Joy Nadeau, the organization’s executive director.
She quickly began raising the profile of the local chapter of the United Way. In her marketing role, she helped start an empathy and equity group of community leaders who gather once a month to talk on topics of race. There is also discussion around hosting events to bring the community together.
Sarff also helped start the Power of Kindness, a community engagement group that finds ways to get out in the community and to give back. The people involved don’t ask for anything but to engage with people and make them smile.
The more she worked, the more opportunities she sensed.
“I just saw so much potential in our organization,” she said. “Everything I did I wanted to do bigger and I wanted to do more.”
The pandemic was not a deterrent for Sarff. It was an accelerant. She loved the work that the Sherburne County Area United Way did. As the pandemic continued to grip the area, she saw the needs of the community grow.
When Nadeau retired in October 2020, Sarff was eager to accept the challenge first as an interim director and then as executive director.
“She left pretty big shoes, but I knew there was so much potential,” Sarff said.
Sherburne County Area United Way Board of Directors Chairman David Richter knew there were opportunities and challenges. He said earlier this week the world is a different place than it was 12-15 months ago and Sarff has been a key leader in SCAUW’s transformation.
“Where it has made sense, we have transformed the highly personal interactions and activities to responsible socially distant activities,” Richter said.
Board meetings are now done on Zoom. IEmpower programming has shifted to a more remote-based programming. And community investment activities have shifted from personal interviews and in-person board meetings to a remote process review and score system for allocations to community nonprofits.
“SCAUW’s new leader has been supportive of change and a change agent,” Richter said.
“I am most excited about Kat as a new leader with fresh ideas, our changing board with a higher level of engagement and what we can collectively do to benefit the community,” Richter said. “We have a great team, and I am proud of what we have accomplished in the last 12 months and look forward to what we can do as the constraints begin to loosen.”
Sarff and the board are in the process of expanding their mission beyond vulnerable youth. They are reaching out to companies that support them for input and considering surveys.
“Youth will always be a big part of what we do, but we know that the needs of the community have changed and we need to change, too,” she said. “I see our job as supporters of the community. If we see a need, we will seek out how we can help.”
SCAUW will continue to give to nonprofits to help them continue doing the amazing work they do. They also want to fill in gaps.
This past month it partnered with chambers of commerce in Elk River, Big Lake and Princeton on a parks challenge to get people outside and moving as well as letting people know where all the area parks are. There were weekly prizes and a grand prize awarded.
This month, for Mental Health Awareness Month, SCAUW is doing a social media campaign with the STIR committee (Stronger Together Inspiring Resilience) called “Are You OK, MN” to help people realize everyone has their own issues and what we can do to help ourselves. It will include a drive-thru event at the Lion John Weicht Park with the Thumbs Up group on May 8 from 10-11 a.m. The two organizations will hand out grab bags for both kids and adults with items to help alleviate stress.
Going forward the plan is to get their nonprofit connections group back together to see how all of the area nonprofits can support one another and how SCAUW can better support them and raise up the good things they are doing.
SCAUW also wants to form a centralized location for finding volunteer opportunities and one place for organizations to be able to advertise for their need for volunteers.
“I would love to be able to get to the point where we can match people up with specific skills and passions to a place where the volunteer and organization can thrive together because people have lot of skills to offer, but they aren’t always the ones that organizations advertise for because they are things that would be ‘nice’ to have not a ‘need’ to have.”
They are also simply getting out in the community more to let people know United Way is here in the Sherburne County area, and to let them know they care about them. Sarff and her husband are now building a home in Otsego. The new director says she has no plans of leaving her United Way position anytime soon.
“I could do this job the rest of my life,” she said. “I’m pretty sure this job was made for me. It allows me to build relationships in the community. It allows me to help out in the community. I’m able to collaborate.”
“I love connecting people to other people and resources. I’m not OK with the status quo. I need to reach for the stars and keep on going. That’s exactly where I think we can take this organization and help out so many more people in the community.”