The following is a conversation between Brian Gallagher, CEO of United Way Worldwide, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Denver: It comes as no surprise that the nonprofit organization leading the way in community after community during the COVID-19 crisis is the United Way. And here with us is the CEO of United Way Worldwide, Brian Gallagher. 

Thanks for being here, Brian. I know how terribly busy you are. 

Brian Gallagher

Brian: It’s my pleasure, Denver. Thanks for having me. 

Denver: How is United Way Worldwide addressing the growing concern surrounding COVID-19?

Brian: Three ways, specifically. 

We at United Way Worldwide and well over 200 local United Ways across the US and the world have created recovery and response funds so people can make the contribution to make sure that the people that are most vulnerable in their communities get help. We run a three-digit dial-up in the US called 211, and we’re taking non-emergency calls that are COVID-19 related. And then we’ve spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill and state houses around the US advocating for the needs of nonprofit organizations, specifically, and the nonprofit sector. 

Denver: Now, getting back to that 211, I know that connects individuals and families to organizations that can help. What are people calling about, Brian, and do you see certain new trends developing?

Brian: Well, yes and no, I guess, on that one. 

So 211 is a three-digit dial-up, just like 911 or 411, non-emergency information line. Every year, we take 12 million calls, texts, or online inquiries, just people looking for help. Right now, we’re taking 75,000 calls a day. That’s 27 million calls for the year. Twenty-six states have designated 211 as the statewide non-emergency dial-up. 

And so early in the crisis, Denver, the most prominent calls were around “Should I get tested for Coronavirus?” “I don’t have a medical home. I don’t have a primary physician. What should I do?” “I don’t have health insurance. What should I do?” Increasingly, now, what we’re seeing, the shift is moving to economic concerns – “I had a job. I no longer have a job.” “My hours have been cut.” “I get a certain amount of unemployment. What will this new legislation give me in terms of unemployment?” It’s moving now toward economic issues. Health issues are still there, but we’re seeing the shift in 211 calls. 

We’re like a heat map across the country. We’re taking 75,000 calls a day, 27 million for the year if you model it out, and we can tell you where are the hotspots across the country and what are people asking about 

Will giving continue for basic housing needs, education, daycare, transportation…all the basic human needs that people have? 

Denver: That is really interesting. 

What are some of the challenges that nonprofits are facing at the moment and are going to face later when we come out on the other side of all this, Brian?

Brian: Let me start kind of local and then pull back. 

There are 40,000 nonprofit organizations in the City of New York who have no cash reserves. The vast majority of nonprofits in the country are small businesses, and they don’t build, by and large. They are a cash-in-cash-out operation – I raise money and I help people with it. There are nonprofits that are building huge balance sheets, by and large.

So the biggest challenge some are going to have short term is how to stay in business, to be honest with you. Those organizations who are larger and have fundraising capability, I think, in some ways, including us at United Way, we will raise more money in response to this crisis because we are genuinely responding to the crisis. But then over the mid- and long-term, the question’s going to be: Will giving continue for basic housing needs, education, daycare, transportation…all the basic human needs that people have? 

So I think what you’re going to find are larger organizations will be able to weather this, smaller nonprofits will suffer in it. Those that are more online and digital today, those of us that have been making that investment, I think are going to do better than those that are face-to-face. I think of food banks that if you’re a food bank and you rely on senior volunteers to work in your food bank, and you rely on people coming and going and the movement of durable goods, and you’re not digital, that’s a nonprofit that’s going to struggle and it’s going to need our help.  

Denver: And I think that’s one of the reasons, as you talked about that fundraising shortfall and challenges, is why you’ve been advocating for that universal tax deduction for everyone. 

Brian: We have. And as we talk right now, the Senate has passed the $2 trillion economic and support package. Looks like that will become law soon, maybe even by the time people are hearing this, it is law. We have a pretty good sense of what’s in it, and one of the things that is in it is a universal, above the line, charitable tax deduction for up to $300. 

That is a big deal. United Way is the largest privately supported nonprofit in the US and probably the world. We raised $3.6 billion in the US, but our average contribution is $350 a year per person. And so, charitable giving in the United States has been driven by super wealthy people and fewer and fewer people have been giving to charity. We needed an incentive for people to give. They want to give anyway, but that’s in the tax bill or that’s in this economic and support package. 

We also made sure that nonprofits were treated like businesses in this economic package. So the small business loans that you’re reading about, the financial support for industries – nonprofits are all eligible for those. The payroll tax credits – nonprofits can take advantage of that. We made sure that they were called out explicitly because the nonprofit sector in the United States represents 6% of all GDP and 12 million employees. We are the third largest employer in the economy by industry – retail, hospitality, and then nonprofits – that employ Americans.

Denver: Great work. That is so true. When we turn on the TV, we hear about the corporate bailouts. We hear about the small businesses. We hear about the families and individuals. You never hear a word about the nonprofit organizations. And here, you’re just citing in terms of the breadth of what they represent.

Brian: We worked hard in this negotiation, Denver, to make sure that that’s not the case. 

The other thing that we said to lawmakers is that “you keep the majority of these 12 million nonprofit employees working, they then help other people. They actually then drive charitable giving, which creates this virtuous circle in communities.” I’ve heard so many times in the last few weeks that “we’ve never seen anything like this, until going back to like World War organizing efforts.” And what I said to them is, “You know what? The United Way before we were United Way was a Community Chest, and before that we were War Chest.” 

That’s who we are. We’re this local community infrastructure that creates this virtuous giving and caring circle. And as it relates to public policy, if you made sure nonprofit employees continue working, continue serving people, driving charitable giving, you create a virtuous circle that actually drives economy and helps people.

…what you’re starting to see are the kind of the digital, native organizations like GoFundMe connecting with long-term infrastructure organizations like United Way, and what we put together is the actual innovation. It’s not that any one of us is going to create some new earth-shattering approach, but it is a new application in a new environment.

Denver: Absolutely. 

You know, the way we’re working right now, Brian, would have been unimaginable just two weeks ago. Are there innovations you’ve introduced that had been effective? Maybe so much so that you just might continue with them after this is over. 

Brian: What you see are…I don’t know that you’d call them innovations per se because in my view, there’s never really a singular new idea, but it’s application of existing ideas, that I think what’s going to jump from this in terms of just giving and helping is peer-driven giving. 

So increasingly, in our national fund, and I know for local United Ways, so we still have individuals and large corporations and foundations that are making gifts, but increasingly, we have cause-related campaigns where people can come together to drive giving or by-product, cause-related, digital platform-driven support. Digital giving and online giving has been going up, but it’s not anywhere close to non-online giving. That’s going to change. And I think that because one of the things that I think is going to be true post-crisis versus pre-crisis, we’re going to be way more digital than we were as a sector. And I think people are going to be accustomed to giving, engaging, giving help on digital platforms. 

And so, we have a partnership with GoFundMe, that we are their content response to people who respond to their COVID-19 response fund. So what you’re starting to see are the kind of digital, native organizations like GoFundMe connecting with long-term infrastructure organizations like United Way, and what we put together is the actual innovation. It’s not that any one of us, I don’t think, is going to create some new earth-shattering approach, but it is a new application in a new environment. You see employers like Lyft and Google and others who are working with 100-year-old organizations like ours because we’re in every community in the country and we need each other. I think that’s what the innovation is going to be, Denver. 

Denver: You’re right. It’s new combinations that have never been tried before and come out the other end with something completely different. 

Brian: Exactly right.  It’s already clear that we’re going to, in the US, raise tens of millions of dollars, probably more in this response, and we’ll do that through those kind of new approaches, new technology, new partnerships. We’ve already raised $80 million in Korea, and Japan, most of that online and on digital platforms. So that’s going to be a big shift, I think, for the entire sector. 

…a leader’s job is to help people stay focused in the short term but understand that there is a long-term reality that’s going to happen, and then to literally get outside of your own head.

Leadership’s easy when the water’s calm. Leadership necessary and critical when the water gets choppy.

Denver: Brian, adaptive leaders in a crisis often have to dig a little deeper, like a great athlete at a crucial moment, for skills and talents that may have been buried. Have you had to do that? And if so, what have you been looking to bring to the surface? 

Brian: What I’ve been saying to our 10,000 employees across the US and another 2,000 outside of the US is the way to dig deep is to try to get outside of your own self. The fact is that everybody feels anxious and if you’re a leader, you’re feeling both pressure and anxiousness. And one, you have to say to yourself “That’s natural. That that is to be expected.” So you got to be self-aware about that. But then I think what leaders and I do personally is try to focus on: How do I make sure that we’re in service to others? And when we do that, think about it both in the immediate term and then try to take a longer view. We will get on the other side of this. 

So, a leader’s job, I think, is to help people stay focused in the short term but understand that there is a long-term reality that’s going to happen, and then to literally get outside of your own head. What drives anxiousness is when you start talking to yourself and you start creating scenarios and that happens to leaders because you don’t have a lot of people to kind of bounce ideas off of or share concerns with. And so, what I’ve said to all of our folks is the good news for us is we help other people. That is the best way to deal with your anxiety. So make sure that you’re taking care of your family members, make sure you’re taking care of your neighbors, make sure you’re taking care of people in your communities. And as you do that, you’ll be taking care of yourself. The leader’s responsibility is to call people to that action. 

I would say as we look at, for instance, political leadership across the United States right now, you can watch someone like Andrew Cuomo, whether you like him or you don’t like him, what he’s doing is he’s being very clear and transparent about the immediate need and the urgency and even the direness in some cases, but he’s also trying to map out where is this going and where will we get on the other end. That’s what leaders have to do. And honestly, if you’re in a seat like mine, this is why you signed up for it. Leadership’s easy when the water’s calm. Leadership is necessary and critical when the water gets choppy.

Denver: Well, that’s good advice and very good insights. 

Finally, Brian, what can people do to support United Way in their communities right now? 

Brian: So a couple of things, Denver. You can go to to get to the national fund. We can then take you to any local fund. That’s the best way right now, is to give financial support so your local United Way can support the people that are in most desperate need in your community, whether it’s health-related or economic-related. 

And if you need help yourself, call 211. And it is a three-digit dial-up that is best positioned to get you with one call, one text, one online inquiry to the right service at the right time.

Denver: Fantastic. Well, I appreciate this so much, Brian. Stay well and thank you for all that you and the United Ways across the world are doing. 

Brian: Thanks, Denver. I appreciate the opportunity. 

For more interviews from The Business of Giving on the response to the COVID-19 Crisis, visit You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at

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