‘It’s been an honor’: Milford United Way CEO ends 44-year tenure with organization

MILFORD — A 44-year tenure as president and CEO of Milford United Way is coming to an end for Gary Johnson.

Johnson has announced his retirement as president and CEO.

“It’s a good time for me to retire because we are looking possibly a shift here in how we raise money, who we go to and where it is going to be distributed and how it is going to be distributed in the community,” he said. “The board is having initial discussions on possibly changing the focus of the organization, so bringing in a new person might be a good thing at this point. Not to mention that 44 years is a long time with one organization.”

Johnson’s journey with Milford United Way started in 1978 when he saw a job ad in the newspaper for the campaign associate.

“There was a federal program called CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act), which gave employers funding to hire people for 30 days,” said Johnson. “In March of 1978 is when I was hired as the campaign associate for Milford United Way.”

When he first applied to United Way, Johnson said he only knew he wanted an administrative position and to eventually manage an organization or company.

“I didn’t know much about United Way when I started,” he said. “But I grew to learn a lot.”

As Johnson was learning how to fund raise as the campaign associate, he said he was treating it as if he was fundraising for a political campaign, but the president and CEO at the time told him it was distinctive.

“He said it’s nothing like raising money for a political campaign. He said it was going out to companies and individuals and raising money for human services, so United Way could distribute the money in the community to where it’s needed,” said Johnson.

While he was the campaign associate, Johnson enrolled in night classes at Quinnipiac University, where he obtained his law degree.

As the CETA funding for Milford United Way was coming to an end in September, Johnson said the board decided to extend him an official job offer.

“I accepted the job offer right away,” he said. “I enjoyed what I was doing, and I knew there was some possibility of moving up in the organization because my predecessor wasn’t of retirement age quite yet, but I knew if I performed well, the board might consider me in the future.”

After eight years of working at Milford United Way, Johnson was voted by the board as the president and CEO in January of 1986.

“I learned how to work with people, ask people for money, work with volunteers, work with the board of directors and how to help people because that’s what the job comes down to,” said Johnson.

The 44 years of experience didn’t just make Johnson a better CEO and president, but it also changed him as a person.

“I have become more sensitive to the needs of people than I was when I first started because we’ve done so much, we’ve helped so many individuals and families,” he said. “I’ve come to see that there is a real need out there in the city.”

Johnson said currently, in Milford, there is a 6 percent poverty rate and about 30 percent of the city’s residents are at the ALICE level (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed).

Throughout the 44 years of being at the helm, Milford United Way has released many programs to help the community under Johnson's leadership. The programs he’s incredibly proud of are the Diaper Bank and the emergency fund programs.

“It helps families with infants and small children who can’t afford the price of diapers each month,” he said. “The emergency fund that we started years ago helps people, individuals and families with rent assistance, utility bills, food, medical, and sometimes, motel stays if someone is homeless, a family is homeless, or people are displaced.”

“We’ve also been instrumental in helping new agencies start in the community,” Johnson added. “There are a couple that comes to mind. One is the Get In Touch Foundation, which is breast cancer awareness. Another program we helped start was the Milford Prevention Council, which is educating the public on dangers of substance abuse and alcohol.”

When programs like Milford Prevention Council were started, they would go to Milford United Way to receive help with funding, but Johnson said they had to fill a need in the community.

“We often offer seed money to new agencies or programs to get them started, and sometimes they become agencies of ours,” he said.

Looking back at his 44-year career, Johnson said he has accomplished the goals he set out to do, even if sometimes it was difficult to reach his yearly goals.

“The biggest goal in this organization is raising money and meeting your goal each year. There were several years where we raised over $1 million just in Milford,” he said. “We have been the largest single fundraising organization in town for several years; 2001 was the high mark when we raised $1.4 million.”

Being an organization that relies on fundraising, as president and CEO, Johnson has gone through two significant events where fundraising wasn’t as high because of the state of the economy; the market crash of 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve tried to deal with it as best we can, and we were raising as much money as we could due to the obstacles that have been facing us for years,” he said.

Even though fundraising isn’t as high during crises, Milford United Way still responds during those situations. The two events that came to Johnson’s mind were Hurricanes Irene and Sandy.

“We were able to raise over three-quarters of a million dollars ($750,000) from grants, companies, individuals to help a lot of families affected by those storms,” he said. “The one thing about Milford is residents pull through when there is a disaster. Even though we may not have been raising year to year the money we used to before 2008 if a crisis comes along that affects the community, they band together and want to support their fellow neighbors, and we clearly found that out during the storms.”

During the storms, Johnson said they primarily helped people financially, and in total, they helped more than 100 Milford families.

“Through a comprehensive casework situation, we would be able to help families get back in their homes,” he said. “I remember a lot of cases where families had to hire construction people to come and rebuild or renovate after the storm damage, and through the money we raised, we were able to issue checks to help families with their rebuilding or renovation costs.”

As the official retirement date of June nears, Johnson said it has been an honor and a privilege to serve Milford.

“It’s been an honor to be able to help individuals and families over the years and to hopefully give our community a leg up, a hand up when needed,” he said. “It’s been a great career, and it’s been a great ride, and I’ve enjoyed it.”