My father was a doctor. He was active in the civil rights movement. My mother was the first African American president of Atlanta Fulton County’s League of Women Voters. She served on the city council and ran for mayor of Atlanta. I grew up in a house where we would eat dinner together on Sunday nights and Wednesday nights — the nights my father wasn’t on house calls. Most of our conversations always had something to do with politics or current events. They were talking about what was going on in the world — what needed to happen to improve outcomes in life and what political situation needed to change for things to get better. Even when I went to business school and later Wall Street, I always felt strongly that if you have a career, that’s great, but how does your career help enhance quality of life for people?
This is a new position at United Way. Why was it created?
Three years ago the membership of United Way of America agreed to merge with United Way International and become one organization under one umbrella, United Way Worldwide. It was also clear that we needed to maintain a degree of focus and leadership dedicated to the United States and that we would establish a president of United Way USA. That’s my role now to focus on the work we do specifically here in the U.S. From a revenue perspective, the U.S. still represents about 80 to 85 percent of the whole United Way network. About 1,200 United Ways out of 1,800 around the world are here in the U.S.
What’s first on your agenda?
The most important commitment we’ve made, especially as it relates to the U.S., is to focus on the network’s ability to work with communities to improve the qualities of life for people across the country in the three areas we’re focused in: education, financial stability and health. In education, we want to cut the dropout rate in half by 2018. In financial stability, reducing the number of financially unstable working families. And in health, increasing the number of healthy youth and adults.
What are the biggest challenges facing the United Way today?
Economic challenges are still pretty big for us as they are for most nonprofits, governments and people. The second one is that we’re on a different path that is moving our organization from where we’ve been to where we know we need to be to make a difference in communities. Just being a traditional fundraising and allocation organization doesn’t always make a lot of sense for people in the current day when people can give to whomever they want.
Online giving has made giving more direct. How do you plan to make the case for United Way’s relevance as a middleman?
To some extent we’ve always played the role of being somewhat of an intermediary in some way. People give to us and we make investments in worthy causes. At the end of the day, you could fund a lot of great nonprofits and still not be able to talk about how all that work made a difference in a community, and that’s a role we can play. Not to force everyone to take on an agenda that’s not consistent with their own mission, but to increase the degree of collaboration as an effective coalition who are willing to come together to solve problems.
United Way chapters across the country have been raising the requirements for its nonprofit membership to support more effective charities. How is United Way defining what is an effective charity?
Every decision we make has to be pointing in one basic direction, which is how are our investments helping to move the needle on our three strategic areas. When we make a decision about partnerships, it really is to think about the coalition of partners needed to execute on a community-wide or national plan to achieve that goal. When it comes to the nonprofits that are involved in that work, the first point of decision starts with ‘Are you aligned with the strategies that allow you to produce the outcome of cutting the dropout rate?’ If they are aligned, there has to be an assessment in how effective that organization is in producing those results. There are times when small community organization absolutely have a role at the table. I would not be one to say that there’s some hard and fast measure based on budget size around effectiveness. It’s not like we’re trying to force organizations into one narrow hole for consideration, but it is to say that from a national perspective, we’ve got to do a much better job of assuring people that when people invest their money in United Way, we can make sure that money gets invested in things that we can say produce results.
— Interview with Vanessa Small