New relationships, better listening leading changes at United Way of Greater Cincinnati

Sometimes change comes gradually. Sometimes it comes suddenly. Sometimes it comes from an unexpected gift or an unimaginable pandemic. Or simply new leadership. 

At the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, change was the result of all of that. 

The changes in leadership at the organization are the easiest to spot. Moira Weir was named president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Cincinnati in January of 2020. 

Barbara A. Turner is the board chair. In her day job, she is the CEO of Ohio National Financial Services.

Their experiences, both personal and professional, have changed the organization in more subtle ways. 

United Way of Greater Cincinnati Board Chair Barbara Turner and President/CEO Moira Weir

Turner’s relationship to the United Way may be unique. Today she enjoys the benefits of a very successful career, but at one point she was an 18-year-old single mom, and later a divorced mother of three. At those times, she turned to United Way looking for help with childcare, reliable health care. “I believe in what United Way does,” Turner said. “I know the impact it can have.”

Weir came to United Way after her tenure as the director of Hamilton County Job and Family Services. In her role at JFS, she knew the many challenges facing our community, and she knew that even a well-intended and well-run organization can leave gaps that require creativity to fill. 

Both arrived at the organization during a time of turmoil. In the fall of 2018, former CEO Michael Johnson left the agency just months into his tenure. But he did not just walk out the door. While leaving he made public – and unverified – accusations against United Way’s board leadership. There were also significant budget cuts. It was a mess. 

Weir and Turner were ready for that challenge, and then came another one. COVID-19 both increased the need for help and changed how services could be distributed. 

Neither backed away. “We really leaned into that,” Weir said. “It was an opportunity to ask: How can we show up differently?”

But they did not have a lot of time to think about it. It was time for a change, but it was also a time of increased need. And urgency. 

COVID put some families deeper into crisis mode. It also forced some families, once on stable ground, to suddenly face new and unexpected challenges. 

“One-fourth of local families have to make heart-wrenching decisions,” Weir said. “Do I pay my rent or do I buy food? Do I take my child to the doctor or do I get my car fixed?”

United Way would need to be more nimble to help people. Both Weir and Turner knew it. Some of these changes would also include letting go of some control. It was time to trust people and serve them quickly. 

“You have to listen to them. Listening is a lost art. It takes some humility.” Barbara Turner

“Let me give you one example,” Weir said. “When times are bad, people have to go apply for assistance. Maybe they have not applied for a while, or maybe they have never applied. You have to fill out an application and the system tries to move you through quickly, but still, you have to wait.”

This is not a criticism of JFS, an agency Weir knows and trusts. But it is a large agency and safeguards are in place by design. This is necessary, but it means nothing happens immediately. 

“Imagine going there and knowing you need to feed your family today, and finding out you need to wait 15, 30, maybe 45 days,” Weir said. 

United Way stepped in and provided gift cards to JFS to give to families to tide them over while they waited so they could buy food, groceries, cleaning supplies. Whatever they needed, no questions asked. Asking people to jump through more hoops would only have devastating consequences.

“This was a change for all of us,” Weir said. “We are trusting them (JFS) to make the right decisions because they always do.”

COVID created another challenge. People were suddenly afraid to leave their homes or to interact with people they did not know. Seniors were stuck in their homes but did not want to let strangers in, even with food. 

So United Way of Greater Cincinnati forged new relationships with faith-based organizations and smaller social service organizations that were embedded in some communities. 

“So we went to the community and said: ‘You’re a trusted face, can you help facilitate food delivery?’”

This was the beginning of new relationships for United Way with non-traditional service providers. Turner sees this as a step forward. “Those that are closest to the challenge, the need, are the best to articulate what they need.”

That is the type of knowledge learned by a person who was once on the other side of the gift. Turner was a person who needed help and she knew in her bones that people could be trusted to make good decisions. Sometimes you just need to listen better. “You have to listen to them. Listening is a lost art. It takes some humility.”

So there would be more conversations, more listening. And more pathways. In 2020, UWGC began an innovative new program called Black Empowerment Works. It is a grant program to promote self-determination and prosperity. The essence of the program is conversations with people in the community. People who live the challenges and know exactly where help is needed. 

Black Empowerment Works was the work of the first class of the United Way’s Champions of Change, formed by the organization to “Better understand the unique strengths, opportunities, and challenges within communities.”

Champions for Change

All of this work, all of these conversations, allowed United Way to see the community in a new way. It allowed them to connect dots and see opportunities to help. It also leads to new strategies to help people. This change had to happen. “People are depending on us to make it right,” Turner said. 

Working with new organizations in new neighborhoods can also provide services to people who have fallen through the cracks. Some of these organizations do great work, but they are smaller and less well-known. Most importantly, these non-traditional outlets are sometimes the most trusted in the communities they serve. That leads to better outcomes. 

Will some of the changes made because of COVID remain with UWGC even after this virus is less of a pressing concern? “Yes, yes, and yes,” Weir said. The partnerships that have been formed will remain integral to the organization moving forward. 

“They really knew what was best for their community. We asked them to tell us what we should be doing. These were people and organizations who did not feel heard and respected. And we tested these ideas during COVID because we had to. “

This is, of course, still the United Way, so money will not be distributed solely as a result of new conversations and the trust of non-traditional organizations. Data is still very important to the organization and it probably always will be. 

“We will still listen to data,” Weir said. “Data will remain critical. What is the data telling us? What are the voices telling us? How do we use both to make really informed decisions?”

It is possible that UWGC was more motivated to work with new agencies in new ways because it was the beneficiary of a remarkable gift itself. This gift was a transformative surprise, and it was based in some part on faith. 

At the start of the year, businesswoman and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott gave UWGC a gift of $25 million. Scott knows the problems facing our nation, particularly those stemming from a widening in wealth disparity, need to be addressed on several levels. But she knew where to start. “We can begin by acknowledging that people working to build power from within communities are the agents of change. Their service supports and empowers people who go on to support and empower others.”

That is the type of gift that can change an organization. United Way of Greater Cincinnati was trusted by Scott, and now they will share that trust with new partners to solve old problems. Trust generates trust. 

“She showed us how to do a better job investing,” Weir said. “She trusted us. She trusted our message. She trusts that we are committed to community and hearing the voices of the community in a different way.”

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