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Philanthropy as a Family Tradition

For many families, traditions come in the form of backyard ball games and dinnertime routines. For the Sullivan family, philanthropy and “voluntarism”—as it was then called—served as their household habits. This tradition started in the 1950s with Indiana residents, Frank and Colette Sullivan, and has since been strengthened by their children: Frank, Mary, Anne and Bob.

A well-respected insurance salesman known for his corporate engagement, Frank used his sales skills throughout his volunteering endeavors. He served as campaign chair in 1958 and board chair from 1961-63 for United Way of St. Joseph County. In this role, Frank made a campaign call to Studebaker, the biggest manufacturer in South Bend at the time. He convinced the company’s CEO to continue supporting United Way—even as they were closing their factory. As a result, Studebaker gave its largest corporate gift ever. It was a testament not only to Frank’s passion for United Way, but his commitment to ensuring laid-off workers were given access to the services they needed.

“When my dad started his United Way career, someone recruited him and it took,” said Mary. “Ever since, we have been committed to helping one another as a family, supporting people in need and giving back to the community. As my dad liked to say, ‘We can accomplish anything if you don’t care who gets the credit.’”

Over the years, Frank served in various United Way roles in South Bend and Newark, New Jersey. He went on to help develop sales-training film for United Way of America in the 1970s, and served as a leadership volunteer for United Way of Greater Newark from the mid-1970’s to early 1980’s. In 1987, Frank was the recipient of the Alexis de Tocqueville Award, a national honor. From that point on, philanthropy had become a Sullivan family tradition.
Over the years, Bob and Mary found themselves following in their father’s footsteps. Bob’s first United Way role was in 1976, where he served as a loaned executive in South Bend. He went on to serve on the board of trustees with United Way in Toledo, Cincinnati and Chicago. In 2008, Bob served as chair of United Way of Greater Cincinnati. Today, he is the regional president of Fifth Third Bank in Chicago, and the campaign chair for United Way of Metropolitan Chicago.

Mary, meanwhile, had an illustrious career as a United Way professional. Prior to her start in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1974, Mary served as the first female management intern for United Way of America, where she worked for the planning council in Dayton, Ohio, and for United Way of Greater Portland. A year later, Mary held the role of Planning, Allocations and Campaign Associate for Metro United Way. And in 1976, she served as Coordinator for Metro United Way’s Volunteer Center, where she found her niche—volunteer engagement. For 42 years, she helped advance individual, group and corporate volunteer engagement for Metro United Way, and in the final decade, supported corporate engagement.

Through the years, Frank, Bob and Mary knew families and friends who had been helped by their campaign efforts. The Sullivan family knew where to turn 26 years ago when their mom, Colette, was dying from breast cancer and Frank was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. They turned to United Way and learned of the services offered through the Visiting Nurse Association. This agency, which was funded by United Way of St. Joseph County—where Frank started his United Way career—helped the Sullivans access quality care.

The Sullivans’ United Way involvement reaches deep into their family tree, with many family members having served as donors, advocates and volunteers. Bob’s son serves as the campaign coordinator for his division at Fifth Third Bank in Cincinnati; Mary and Bob’s brother- and sister-in-law are Tocqueville donors in Indianapolis; their sister served as a troop leader for 15 years for Girl Scouts of the USA, a United Way-supported agency; and her husband served on United Way of Stark County’s board. What’s more, their aunt was a longtime employee of United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, and their grandma worked at a thrift store sponsored by a United Way agency. With so much involvement over the years, you could say United Way has become a member of the family.

“My dad was a lifelong volunteer, so we knew what kind of impact United Way can make,” said Bob. “We’ve always viewed United Way as a family. United Way convenes leadership throughout the community that only it can do.”