Brandon Blackburn has joined the United Way of Central Illinois as director of strategic partnerships, effective Jan. 22.

Most recently, he was director of operations for Mission BBQ and previously held a similar role with Panera Bread, overseeing operations from Chicago to St. Louis. In between, he worked in banking and founded WayPoint Crown Consulting, a company that helps small business owners get started.

“I actually started as a poker player right out of college and did that for about seven years,” Blackburn said of his career trajectory after graduating from Western Illinois University. Following a six-year stint with Panera Bread, he briefly took a banking job and found he didn’t enjoy it.

“This was during COVID, and I hated being by myself in an office building; everyone else was working remotely,” he said.

Blackburn spent the next three years with Mission BBQ, based in Springfield, before accepting the position with the United Way.

 “I want to work for a place that wants to do good,” he said. “We’re the largest charitable organization in the world, with good oversight that helps direct giving locally. A lot of people do things online where they donate a few bucks, but they don’t really know much about the organization (they’re giving to) or where the money goes. We make a difference right here in people’s backyards.”

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