While there have been wonderful women leaders of United Way’s Board of Directors, starting with Susan Hirt Hagen as the first in 1987, up until now all the presidents have been men. I am pleased and honored to be the first woman to serve as president, and hope that there are many others following me. However, it is important to me that I was selected based on my experience, skill set and leadership above being the first woman to lead the organization.
United Way of Erie County, along with other local United Ways (LUW), has navigated a significant shift in our work. For more than a century, LUWs focused on being fundraisers in their communities, supporting other direct service organizations. Initially, this was a good model that worked in the 1900s and even early 2000s, but one that is no longer impactful or viable.
Being a driver of this change is where I had focused a lot of my effort and energy over the last seven or so years. It was a deep dive for staff and the Board to understand how United Way could be more focused and have sustainable impact in our community. There are many layers to the work, and it has been quite the journey. We are fortunate to have such talented staff and dedicated Board members.
So, we made it to where we are today. That is something that I am most proud of – being part of that transformation from a transaction model to a social impact model bringing real change to our community. Which begs the question – what’s next?
For the next several years, the focus will be multi-layered to support student success and family stability. This includes expanding the community school model, our flagship effort, while continuing to support other important initiatives, including Erie FREE Taxes, 211 Helpline, Imagination Library and Raising Readers and a focused restructure of the financial model of the organization.
The work to break the cycle of poverty through education is too important to rely solely on annual fundraising, which is subject to many variables outside of our control. We must look at other sustainable funding streams to grow stability for the work. This is a daunting challenge, but one that must be at the forefront of United Way's efforts.
An important aspect of building financial stability is connecting United Way’s work to Erie’s overall economic development eco-system. While there are a lot of exciting activities happening “downstream” in our community that promise to re-energize our economy, many focused on bricks and mortar and business recruitment, we would be remiss as a community to overlook the importance of investing “upstream,” that is, in our human capital. We want everyone to be able to enter the workforce with the education and skills needed to be a part of the vibrant Erie region that is coming.
United Way’s work in the community is vital to Erie’s economic renaissance, and requires long-term, sustainable support. By investing in all segments of the economic development eco-system, Erie will become a region of opportunity for everyone.
Isn’t that what we all want?