The following is a conversation between Angela Williams, CEO of United Way Worldwide and Denver Frederick, the Host of the Business of Giving.
Denver: A case could be made that the most important and most influential nonprofit organization in the world today is United Way Worldwide. And although it’s a global organization, its power and its impact come from understanding and serving local communities. And here to tell us what’s been happening at the United Way, as well as where it’s headed, is Angela Williams, the president and CEO of United Way Worldwide.
Welcome back to The Business of Giving, Angela.
Angela: Thank you, Denver. It’s good to be back.
Denver: The last time we spoke, you were the CEO of Easterseals. So now you’ve been in this new role for just about a year now, what would you say is your number one takeaway, Angela?
Angela: My number one takeaway now that I’m in this seat with United Way Worldwide is that even though there may be similar issues in each community that we serve, there are still distinct differences on how we craft the solutions for that particular community’s needs.
Denver: Do you find it a challenge sometimes to have a single thread that goes through your 1,100 United Ways in 37 countries, but at the same time be able to customize solutions on a community-by-community basis?
Angela: I think that is the secret sauce right there because when we think about access to healthcare, or we think about homelessness or economic mobility, or just basic needs where someone may need help with food or utilities or paying rent, those are needs. But then when you really drill down and look at the specific community, how we approach assisting that person or creating systems of support and building out that safety net, it has a local flavor to it.
“…what that means is we are hyper locally focused in that we know the individuals that have needs; we know the people that have the resources, and we serve this unique place of trusted advisor, a community broker, community partner. And so we can bring everyone together around the United Way table to create solutions for not only emerging needs– whether it’s disaster relief or issues around lack of water, drinkable water, for example, Jackson, Mississippi, to midterm and long-term emerging crises and needs– that we can start to think about these solutions.”
Denver: Oh, that’s really interesting. There’s that old expression which says that everything old is new again. And one of the current trends in philanthropy right now is place-based philanthropy, and I follow this very closely, and I talk to people about it.
But as you know, I started my career at the United Way, and I was thinking about it the other day. Place-based philanthropy, that is the United Way. That’s what it’s always been. And it’s even becoming more so with your focus on local communities. Tell us about that focus. And also how does the United Way try to show up in a community?
Angela: Well, Denver, first of all, it’s just so exciting to me that you are a former United Way colleague. I love it.
Denver: And a proud one. I loved my time there. I adored the organization.
Angela: That is so wonderful, and I hope we’ve contributed to your pathway to get to where you are now with The Business of Giving. So that tells me, there’s still more for me to do. I can look at your career. But getting back to your question about place-based giving and what’s old is new again, and the fact that United Way has been in communities for more than 135 years. And just like your first name, Denver, we started in Denver, Colorado 135 years ago. And there was this notion that there were specific needs in the community.
And we had four theologians and a woman who came together to say, “Let’s create this community chest of resources where we pool together all of the resources from business, from other nonprofits, from individuals. And put these resources in this community chest that we can then disperse to meet the needs.”
And so United Way has been doing that in various forms for more than 135 years. And so what that means is we are hyper locally focused in that we know the individuals that have needs; we know the people that have the resources, and we serve this unique place of trusted advisor, a community broker, community partner.
And so we can bring everyone together around the United Way table to create solutions for not only emerging needs– whether it’s disaster relief or issues around lack of water, drinkable water, for example, Jackson, Mississippi, to midterm and long-term emerging crises and needs– that we can start to think about these solutions.
“And so one of the things that I’m looking forward to doing with United Way in our 1,100 local United Ways in 37 countries is to really build a nimble, flexible organization that is able to meet needs and change with the times, change with how people are thinking, looking at trends. But not only looking at trends… because those are backward looking, but looking at signals, which is forward looking. What do we see coming down the pike and what decisions can we make today that will impact us 20, 30 years from now and set us up for a future that’s really sustainable, impactful, and relevant?”
Denver: Yeah. And what you just described there as something else, which has become a buzzword maybe about 10 years ago,–collective impact– where things come together and you share information, and you focus on a complex solution. And as you say, for 135 years, that’s what you’ve been doing. How challenging is it to keep a 135-year-old organization relevant?
I speak to a lot of older organizations and sometimes despite what they try to do, there’s just a lot of layers and a lot of history. What do you do to remain so relevant?
Angela: That’s a great question because you’re right: our organizations, whether they’re for-profit or nonprofit, have life cycles. And they are always in need of a refresh based on what is currently the current environment and external factors.
So for example, when I think about technology and AI, the old way of connecting with people has changed. We have the internet. We have the access to the internet where people will go on and look for resources. And then we have different ways of giving where people used to go to church to give, or we had workplace giving campaigns.
But now, people from their cell phones can actually just find out what organization does something that they’re passionate about, and go right to that organization. Or that we have other processing platforms where people can stand up a fund quickly to meet a need that’s happening locally.
So given these external factors, they impact how we as an organization look at reaching volunteers, reaching individuals, sharing various nonprofits that we’re connected to and the role and importance of the United Way. So we’re kept on our toes.
Angela: And we have to be because the world is rapidly changing. And so one of the things that I’m looking forward to doing with United Way in our 1,100 local United Ways in 37 countries is to really build a nimble, flexible organization that is able to meet needs and change with the times, change with how people are thinking, looking at trends.
But not only looking at trends… because those are backward looking, but looking at signals, which is forward looking. What do we see coming down the pike, and what decisions can we make today that will impact us 20, 30 years from now and set us up for a future that’s really sustainable, impactful, and relevant?
Denver: What is one of those things you see coming down the pike?
Angela: So when I take a look at certain signals, I think for example… and I use these examples all the time, and it’s almost too late now because I’m sure the nonprofit sector is not thinking about this, but when you look at now, how in 2021, 2022, we’re hearing more and more about launching citizens, every day people going up into space, and the creation of pods to live in space, and we hear a lot about Elon Musk doing this type of work. So the question for me is: Well, what if all the high-net-worth donors decide they want to leave Earth and go somewhere else? Then how do we create relationships? And I mean, it sounds out of this world, but it really is.
Denver: It really is, literally. Yes. No, that’s great thinking because that’s exactly the kind of thinking you have, even as crazy as it may seem, things like: Look what’s happening to our world right now. Things that were preposterous are currently happening.
It’s so interesting what you say about connecting with individuals because I come from an era, when we did these workplace campaigns, all I got was really a big batch every quarter of money that came in from those companies. And now, I know you still have corporate relationships… and we’ll get to those in a minute, but I didn’t even know the names of the people.
Now you need to connect with the names of those people because they’re individuals, and they’re probably going to move from one company to another company, and you’re looking to build that relationship over and beyond philanthropy cloud or in some other fashion.
Angela: Yes. And so one of the things, I think, that is important is that: How do we keep connectivity with individuals? And then that raises the question about using data. And I will say a soft spot for us that we need to continue to solve for is making sure that when an employee leaves a company and goes somewhere else, that we’re able to maintain the relationship. And that’s something that we haven’t mastered yet, and we need to.
And then I think about what about a young person that at the moment they may not be making as much money and they want to volunteer. Well, we want to be able to capture their heart and their passion in volunteerism, but then as you know as a good fundraiser, you want to stay connected with them and move them along the continuum to be a donor.
Denver: Yeah. And it’s tough with volunteers. I mean, not only has workplace giving changed, the workplace has now changed so where do you even find these people? And it’s just a declining resource, and then it’s even been aggravated further by the pandemic where many people who had been volunteering stopped, and how do you then reignite them to come on back again?
Angela: Well, Denver, can I just interject here to say: think about the fact that we are coming through this pandemic that started around March of 2020, when folks were sent home. And even now, we find ourselves almost completing 2022 and a number of folks are still working from home. So what I’ve heard from corporate partners is: How can you still generate excitement for a workplace-giving campaign when people aren’t in the workplace?
Denver: Yeah, right. No, these are big challenges.
Angela: Yes. And you look at trends now where people are saying, ”Well, I don’t want to go back to work. I want to continue to work from home. And so that then raises the question about human connectivity, which I think is so important because giving, donating, volunteerism is relational. It’s not done by a bot.
Denver: Yeah. No, absolutely right. And I shouldn’t editorialize here, but I think it’d be good if a lot of people got back to work. Nobody wants to do it. I don’t want to do it. You’re lazy. It’s pretty easy just going from one room to the other. But you know what? It builds character getting up every morning, shaving, putting on makeup, taking a shower, going to the train and then seeing people.
And I think our mental health would be improved. And I kind of hope we get back to that, to the extent that we can. It’s nice to have a little bit of freedom, but this idea of isolation, I don’t think is going to work out all that well.
Angela: I’m one that believes that the best conversations happen at the so-called water cooler.
Denver: Yeah, right.
Angela: We don’t have water coolers anymore, but there’s nothing like just running into a colleague, or going out to lunch, or going out after work and just chitchatting. You just can’t negate the importance of that.
Denver: Yeah. And particularly I think when it comes to innovation. Because innovation, so much of it is serendipity, and it just happens. And you really lose that and you can’t do it in a structured: I’ll have a Zoom call with you for 15 minutes later today; that’s not the way it works.
You mentioned corporate partnerships before, and that has really been a hallmark of the United Way really pretty much since its very beginning. Tell us about your corporate sponsorships and maybe a couple of them that you find to be particularly interesting.
Angela: Well, we’re blessed to have about 45,000 corporate partners.
Angela: And that’s an incredible opportunity to work with people in different industries, in different locations, and in different cultures because we have not only the smaller businesses, but we have global corporate partners.
What I’ve found so incredible in talking to various CEOs and I’ll just name the CEOs of a couple of companies that I’ve had the pleasure of just having conversations– the CEO of Valero in San Antonio, the CEO of Lilly in Indianapolis, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, the CEO of John Deere.
What I find in talking to these individuals is that they are such strong supporters of United Way. They’re strong supporters of the workplace-giving campaign. And they believe in the work that we do and how they personally, as well as their colleagues and their employees, can really provide support in local communities.
And I will just give you an example of how committed they are. I had a meeting with our European and Israeli CEOs several months ago, and the woman that’s in charge of John Deere’s corporate giving in Europe and the Middle East and Africa, she actually, I just had a short window of time, she actually, I think, took two to three planes.
Left her small kids with someone for the day to come to Paris to sit down, to say how committed John Deere is to the relationship with United Way and to talk about how we can increase giving in Europe and what the differences look like with respect to philanthropy in the European countries. So that speaks volumes about how committed these partners are: Procter & Gamble, Whirlpool, so many others, Deloitte.
Denver: Yeah. I always found support of the United Way to be a good placeholder as to whether a company was a good corporate citizen or not. Very rarely do you find a good corporate citizen who’s not a good supporter of the United Way.
And it’s good to see that you’re making some inroads in Europe, just for the reasons that you said, because I know you’ve had a much more pronounced presence in Asia for a lot of different reasons, but Europe, because of the way the government does a lot of the social work… It’s been slacking a little bit, but I guess you’re beginning to really make some ground there.
Angela: We are. And I just continue to have conversations with European leaders, as well as our local United Way staff in Europe. And we talked about philanthropy and I said, I asked the question, I know that you all in Europe pay high taxes so that the government meets the needs of individuals. And my question was: How’s that going?
And I said, “Aren’t you beginning to see gaps where needs are going unmet? And do you recognize the fact that even governments can have blind spots? And therefore, there’s a role to play by the nonprofit sector in partnership with companies, in partnership with the government, to be able to meet needs?” And they acknowledged that. And so there’s an opportunity for us to really do more in that space.
Denver: Yeah, not to say that a United Way dollar is better than a tax dollar, but the two complement each other. And the United Way can do things that governments can’t do, including taking risk and doing things of that nature that then can be scaled at the governmental level. So the idea of putting it all in one basket isn’t going to give you the most efficient or effective return.
United Way Worldwide, you now have one of the most diverse executive leadership teams in the sector. Tell us about what you did to bring this about other than deciding to bring this about, which I think is the most important thing. And how this is changing how the organization makes decisions, and how the organization operates.
Angela: As a diverse person, I have always felt the need to be in a working environment that values diversity in all its forms. And it’s diversity, including race, gender, nationality, professional experience, backgrounds, et cetera. And so being in this seat, I felt like there was absolutely no excuse for me not to model what an environment that I’ve always desired to work in.
So it was wonderful to be able to have the opportunity to reach out to various individuals to say: “Are you interested in working at United Way? Here’s who we are. This is what we do.” And for them to say yes. And it is absolutely phenomenal to have such a diverse leadership team and to model that for not only this sector, but for all of our partners.
Denver: That is absolutely fantastic. Sometimes… I don’t mean to belittle this… we make it too fancy by half by having these studies and doing this and doing that. And I’ve always said so often, just have the CEO decide we’re going to do it and do it right now instead of a lot of the window dressing that goes around before you actually get it done.
You’ve also formed an advisory council, which is made up of some of your local affiliates. Tell us a little bit about that and how that’s changing the dynamic of the organization.
Angela: What I really appreciate is that there was work underway prior to me starting at United Way Worldwide. And the work was to put together the board of trustees, put together an operating model task force to really look at the business of United Way, how we govern ourselves, et cetera.
And out of that task force came the recommendation to put forth a network advisory council, comprised of approximately 35 leaders from around the world that are in the United Way system to really work with me, my team, and the board of trustees, so that we have open dialogue and communication as we think about the strategy of the network, about how we work together, how we govern ourselves, our future.
And so I’m really excited to be working with this leadership team. For example, we are starting to talk about what does it mean to be a thriving organization, looking at that. We’re talking about philanthropy and our current mode of raising funds, and how do we look at revenue diversification for sustainability purposes. We’re having conversations about the brand.
All of those things that when I talked about earlier about an organization and its life cycle, we’re in that mode where we are doing that again. And we also are looking at the culture. So when we think about the vision that we’re casting for the organization and the strategic imperatives that undergird that vision for our future state, then we must develop a culture that allows us to achieve that future state. So we’re working on that, too.
Denver: Well, you’re working on a lot. Let me pick up on one of those things and that’s philanthropy. And we’ve had a concentration of wealth in this country, and now more and more, it seems we’re having a concentration of philanthropy.
We’re getting more and bigger mega gifts, which is good on one hand, but fewer and fewer people are giving to charity. What do you make of that pattern? How concerned are you over it? And what can be done to create a better balance?
Angela: Denver, you’re right that the trends show that giving is declining, especially with the younger generations. And I had dinner last night with one of our corporate partners, Ernst & Young, and we were talking about that as well, is that the younger generations want to volunteer their time, but not necessarily give the resources, the financial resources.
I think that we have to, in this sector, help educate the younger generations about how we need financial resources in order to meet needs, and perhaps our sector is not doing a good enough job in that. And so that’s something that I want our organization to really continue to take a look at to figure out how we can do more.
I’ll just give you one quick example. Within my first, I would say 60 days on the job, at a United Way convening, one of the CEOs asked me, “How can we start connecting with the younger generation?” I suggested why not start volunteerism opportunities in high schools and junior high schools. And once we start young people thinking about how to connect with their local communities and get their hearts, then that’s when we start thinking about the financial resources as they grow older.
Denver: Yeah, really interesting. Let me ask you one other thing about United Way, and that is something that I really love, your 211 national call line. Tell us how that works, what’s it about. Maybe you can give me an example of someone who reached out and was helped.
Angela: 211 is a national treasure, I believe. And it covers most of the United States, not all of the United States, there are some gaps. But people who have a need can call 211 and get support, recommendations, referrals for a need they may have.
I will say that in the second half of 2022, we are seeing a 40% uptick in calls to 211, to our United Way platform, or 211. And people have a need to pay their utilities, to pay rent, and to get food. We take in 20 million calls a year. So to have a 40% uptick in calls because of inflation says there is an incredible amount of need.
And so this 211 infrastructure is also a bellwether because when we pick up the phone or online help callers, we know what is happening and can pinpoint a specific community, what is going on. Is there a mental health crisis that’s emerging? Are people starting to be on the verge of homelessness? Are people losing their jobs and not able to put food on the table?
So what is the emerging crisis we can pinpoint? But then going back to the beauty of the United Way system, we are a connector and trusted advisor. So not only can we refer people, but we can go to government; we can talk to corporations; we can bring people around the table to really address those needs.
So you asked the question about how someone was helped. Before I joined you, I was just reading some work we’re doing around caregivers in partnership with AARP, and we’ve launched a pilot program in 13 locations and we’re getting ready to expand, where our 211 call operators are proactively reaching out to caregivers to say: Here are some resources that can help you in taking care of your loved one.
And we are able to say that we’re connecting caregivers to at least one to three resources that really alleviate the burden that they’re feeling in serving as a caregiver. We have had instances where vets have called and said that they are on the verge of homelessness because their checks, they were held up and they weren’t able to pay their rent.
And so 211 was able to identify resources to supply financial support for the veteran to stay in his apartment. So there are so many different stories that I could tell about how 211 has really helped people.
“…it’s about listening. So it’s important that whenever I show up at a location, I listen first and I hear the language. I hear how people tend to approach things. And from that, I’m able to then respond and hopefully be a leader that speaks in a language and from a value system that they can respond to and respect, and we can have that mutual open-ended dialogue and respect for each other.”
Denver: Sounds like about 20 million actually… and so we don’t have time though. But one thing I really love about what you just said there is that so many organizations use data to measure impact. They want to see what they’ve done, and they want to measure the impact, and they want to go back to donors.
You are using data to drive impact. You’re using the data to get in front of donors ahead of time, get to policy makers, and are really trying to drive and scale impact as opposed to just reacting. And that’s a little bit what you said at the very beginning of looking ahead and not just looking back.
I think that you get to a stage of your career and you say, Hey, I’m a pretty good leader. And I think we’ve always felt, this is me at least, I always feel like I’m fully formed. And then, the time I was like 20 to 30, I said, well, I was completely different, but now I’m 30, that’s it. And then at 40, I’m like, oh no, I’ve changed again. Oh no, I’ve changed again.
We always think that the moment we’re at, we’ve arrived, and we keep on changing. What has happened for you in the last year as it relates to your leadership? How has your leadership changed? Despite your long career, how has it evolved over the last 12 months?
Angela: I would say there are two things. One, I have always considered myself to be a lifelong learner. And in this situation, now that I’ve moved into an organization that operates in 37 countries, I’ve learned how to show up based on a country’s culture and its values. Someone recommended to me this book called The Values Compass, and I have used that to read up on a country before I’ve gone in to visit. That’s been helpful.
Secondly, it’s about listening. So it’s important that whenever I show up at a location, I listen first and I hear the language. I hear how people tend to approach things. And from that, I’m able to then respond and hopefully be a leader that speaks in a language and from a value system that they can respond to and respect, and we can have that mutual open-ended dialogue and respect for each other.
And then the second thing I’ve learned is I don’t like it when people go to a brand new leader and demand their vision for the organization on day one. So I am not a proponent of demanding that a new leader have a vision statement ready to pull out of his or her pocket on day one because I think it’s so important for a new leader to listen and to learn the culture of the organization before beginning to formulate that vision for the organization. So those are my two big things.
Denver: Yeah. Empathy runs right through both of them. Final question here. Once in a while we have trouble sleeping because you have some really daunting challenges you face, and I’m sure they keep you up at night, but there’s also the inability to sleep because you’re so damn excited about something that you just can’t wait to get up in the morning and get to work on it. What would that be for you?
Angela: What I’m excited about is version 2.0, maybe it’s three, maybe it’s four, maybe it’s 5.0 of United Way Worldwide and casting a vision that causes excitement and a stir, not only within our network, but externally, such that people want to walk alongside us because they catch the vision and see the possibilities, and want to be a part of making a difference in the lives of people.
Denver: Oh, boy, that’s really nice. For listeners who want to learn more about United Way Worldwide, or maybe even more importantly, learn about their local United Way, tell us what people need to do to get engaged, get involved, maybe even send a few bucks along.
Angela: Well, I love sending a few bucks along. We don’t turn down bucks. But our website is unitedway.org and on the website, people can then identify their United Way nearest to them.
So I’d just say go to our website, unitedway.org. And there are ways to volunteer, to learn about what we’re doing on the ground, of course, ways in which you can donate to United Way. And we welcome everybody becoming a part of this wonderful worldwide family.
Denver: Well, it’s a rich, rich website and there’s a lot of great information there. I want to thank you, Angela, for being here today. It is such a delight to see you again and have you on the program.
Angela: Well, Denver, I’m just glad that you invited me. And it was a thrill to learn that you used to be a part of the United Way.
Denver: I will always be part of United Way, in one way or the other. Thanks again.
Angela: Take care.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Ever-Changing World, will be released later this year.Listen to more The Business of Giving episodes here. Subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify to get notified of new episodes. You can also follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and on Facebook.