For much of her first year since taking office as the head of the United Way of the National Capital Area, Rosie Allen-Herring has been preoccupied with shoring up the new identity of the local philanthropic powerhouse.
The organization is traditionally known for being a workplace giving middleman, but Allen-Herring is working to make it more than just a conduit, which has been a tough sell in an age where dozens of viable online giving platforms are sprouting up. She now wants the organization to be a vehicle where donors, nonprofits and community leaders come together to create social change.
She has boiled down the new mission to three words: “Convener, collaborator and catalyst.”
“It’s not the United Way we knew before,” she said, sitting across the table at Café Phillips in Northwest Washington, next to the United Way offices.
Since she came into the job last summer, she revived a women’s leadership group which brings together prominent female philanthropists to encourage and improve giving practices. For a new veterans initiative, she brought together other nonprofits to help veterans get jobs. Just a few weeks ago, the United Way NCA raised $1.1 million in its regionwide online giving campaign, Do More 24.
The group also won plaudits when it gathered corporate giants to provide emergency funding to nonprofits that were hit by the federal government shutdown.
“We want to be known for bringing the right people to the table to discuss the issues that everyone cares about,” Allen-Herring said.
This new mission has been a long time coming. The United Way overhaul began with Allen-Herring’s predecessor, William Hanbury, who stepped down last summer.
When Hanbury came on board in 2009, he inherited a budget hit hard by the recession, sloppy financial management practices, departing nonprofit members and an organizational reputation still wounded by a financial scandal in 2002. But by the time Hanbury left, there was a savvier crop of managers in the office, cleaned-up finances, a wider social media presence and double-digit growth in fundraising dollars.
Allen-Herring has been working to build on that, but the United Way still faces challenges in playing the middleman. For instance, it recently was criticized by a charity about how award cash was doled out during the Do More 24 campaign. Allen-Herring disputed the claim, and said the award has been paid.
Allen-Herring, 47, who spent her career rising through the ranks at Fannie Mae, is well-connected and Washington-polished. She often punctuates her stern if idealistic statements about social impact with a warm smile. She also boasts a lengthy résumé of board service, including the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, the Girl Scouts of the Nation’s Capital and the Washington Area Women’s Foundation. But perhaps that sort of blend of political savvy, business expertise and community passion is exactly what the local United Way needs as it continues to reinvent itself in a changing economy.
So what has challenged her most at United Way so far?
“I don’t have the checkbook,” Allen-Herring said. “I’m used to writing the checks to nonprofits, asking the tough questions about how impactful are you, where’s the data, who are you serving, which is always the more comfortable position. I always think about how I would’ve convinced me in my other role.”
She said she believes her cross-sector experience is one of her greater assets for a role like this.
“Having been in corporate America, I understand numbers,” she said. “I will go toe-to-toe with you on finances all day long, but I believe you can bring business acumen to philanthropy. I call it the business of philanthropy.”
At Fannie Mae, she was known for designing a new corporate giving philanthropic division after the foundation shut down in 2007. There, she managed a budget of about $70 million. Before that, she also worked with the D.C. government to expand the down payment and closing assistance program and created an initiative for workforce housing that provided $12 million in home loans and mortgages.
Allen-Herring was the last of 10 children raised in Greenville, Miss., by her father, who worked for what is now Archer Daniels Midland, and her mother, who was an educator.
Allen-Herring’s mother raised her children to be community-minded, often dragging her along to visit the elderly in nursing homes.
But it was her brother who gave her life-changing advice just before he died.
“I remember being a little frustrated at work,” she recalled about her early days at Fannie Mae. “I didn’t know if that was where I was supposed to be. And he said ‘Oh no. You’re not confused. You are there at the table to have a voice for the people that don’t have a voice.’”
This is what she said drives her career.
Now she is looking to convince donors that United Way is that voice.
“We’ll get there,” she said.