Business Weekly: New United Way CEO has many missions to accomplish

Apr 6, 2020

You just stepped into the lead job at United Way of Allen County on Feb. 3 and now COVID-19 has hit. How did you prepare and what changes have you made in the office?

The changes that were required to respond to COVID-19 only expedited and amplified the changes that were already being made at United Way of Allen County. This includes data driven decision making, responsiveness to community need, community impact product development, relational resource development, etc.

United Way of Allen County is in a peculiar place of holding onto the past while pursuing the future.

We cannot be what we have always been if we want results that we have never had. Change was theoretical in my first 30 days; it was accelerated to reality by COVID-19. UWAC is not an office to be changed, it is a movement to be applied according to what the community identifies as a need.

How are you communicating with staff and member agencies?

In times of uncertainty three things are required; clarity, flexibility, and transparency. Clarity of direction, flexibility of how the mission is accomplished, and transparency in communication. UWAC cannot stop doing business because of COVID-19, we just had to find a way to do business differently.

I am thankful for an abundance of technical meeting options and a team willing to over-communicate.

We have challenged ourselves with two questions during this unprecedented time; what are the most pressing needs? And what can we do about it? These are questions we ask ourselves, frontline organizations, and the community as a whole. Communication within the UWAC team is more sporadic and situational, while communication with agencies is strategic. We all want the same thing, a thriving Allen County. It is upon me and our leadership team to orchestrate efforts, evaluate results, and adapt as needed.

How has COVID-19 affected United Way’s ability to raise money?

At UWAC it is no longer business as usual. I am proud to be part of an organization (board of directors, staff, volunteers, donors, etc.) that was able to pivot operations according to community need. It would be socially irresponsible of us to continue to ask the business community to give as normal when their current reality is all but typical. Instead of workplace campaigns, our energy shifted to raising money for the Emergency Relief Fund that will have an immediate impact on our community’s most pressing issues.

How much is needed for United Way to reach its goal?

COVID-19 has caused us to take a strategic pause in our typical “campaign season.” Our goal is no longer how much money we raise, but instead how many lives we positively impact. Of course, margin is needed to accomplish the mission, but if we raised all the money needed and didn’t measurably change the lives of our community then it would still be a failure. How much is needed? As much as it takes.

Tell us about the emergency fund and how it will be used.

The Emergency Relief Fund is a community effort to support and empower those on the frontline of COVID-19 working on the most pressing needs. We have come alongside amazing partners both aligning funding and direct service to create a streamlined process where those that need the funds most receive them immediately.

Data is provided by the Department of Health, Indiana 211, and Mirro Center for Research and Innovation. Then the recently formed ERF Advisory Council, consisting of members of the philanthropic, health care, nonprofit, government, and local community decide where the funds will be distributed.

UWAC’s promise is that 100% of the funds will be distributed in the most effective and efficient way possible making the largest and immediate impact immediately. No administration costs or fees will be withheld, meaning all funds will be reinvested right back into the community.

What has your transition from life in Dayton, Ohio, to Fort Wayne been like?

Still very much in progress. (My wife) Amanda and the kids are still in Ohio until the end of the school year (which may be sooner than originally expected). I am extremely excited to get them to Fort Wayne.

For me professionally it has been smooth. It is easy to fall in love with this community; whether it’s the people, restaurants, activities, breweries, leadership, cost of living, public school system, bustling downtown, the reasons are endless. I have felt welcomed with open arms, and I know the rest of the family will also.

Charities and social services like United Way are exempt from Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s stay-at-home orders, but are you having to work at home (with) distractions?

Departmentalizing is extremely important right now. There are valleys and peaks. The key is to know when to shift gears; leading a new organization, PhD requirements, marriage, and parenthood are all extremely demanding. But they are all things I am extremely passionate about. Distractions are not distractions when it is my 6-year-old daughter asking me to hold her. It is hard to consider helping my neighbor as work when it is engrained in my DNA. With that being said, if we are on a Skype meeting and you see a 5-year-old boy run behind me, don’t worry, it is perfectly normal.

My wife, Amanda, deserves all the credit right now. She is responsible for selling a house, preparing a home, all while being sheltered-in-place with three small children AND teaching her high school social studies class online. She gives me the freedom to get done what I need to all while being an absolute Rockstar.

How do you stay focused on work during this difficult time?

It is not hard to stay focused when your role aligns perfectly with who you naturally are. I feel like I get out of bed and step into a life that is custom-made for me. Turn on any news broadcast, read a newspaper front page, social media platform, or listen to any radio talk show and I am quickly reminded of UWAC’s purpose. We advocate for, financially support, and strategically engage those organizations that are on the frontline.

Our work impacts us all. The better I am at my job, the better UWAC is organizationally, meaning the entire community benefits. This is a responsibility I take very seriously.

What’s a typical day for you like before the stay-at-home orders and now?

I believe typical is subjective. What is typical to one is not to the next. I typically schedule time for reading, writing, physical fitness, PhD work, and of course family. Not much has changed, the same work needs to get done, only the way it is accomplished has changed. I was once told to “marry the mission but date the strategies,” meaning be adaptable in pursuit of accomplishment. The goals are still the same, only the approach has changed.

Have you called upon your Marine Corps experience for your job?

Everyday. There are a lot of philosophical parallels between military service and nonprofit leadership.

Mission accomplishment is achieved by empowering your team, arming them with needed resources, and trusting them with agreed upon roles and responsibilities. I must be capable enough to lead from the front but humble enough to serve alongside. That is my goal, daily.

What drew you to join the Marines and what did service teach you?

During the younger years of my life I lacked direction and becoming a Marine instilled in me exactly what was needed. The Marine Corps is not an occupation you join, but something you become. I have always wanted to be on the frontline, challenged to be the best, by the best. It also taught me that there is a lesson to be learned in every situation; every success, failure, and what to do (or not to do) by every leader. The Marine Corps taught me to surround yourself with the right people and anything is possible.

What did you want to be when you were little?

I had no idea. I was all over the place; baseball player, professional motocross racer, dolphin trainer (please see above no direction reference). I was once told by my sixth-grade teacher that I would either lead a Fortune 500 or Cell Block D. While it was said jokingly there is a lot of truth in that. I have always been a natural leader; my mom would tell you I have a gravitational pull. I never knew what that meant until I realized leadership is not a position, but instead stewardship and responsibility. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I was going to lead it.

What got you involved in United Way?

During a deployment with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit to Haiti, post-earthquake 2010, I saw someone wearing a white “Live United” T-shirt. At the time I had no idea what United Way was or what they did. All I knew was that there was a civilian on the frontlines with United States Marines representing this organization.

After much research I realized that United Way gave me an opportunity to strategically approach my community’s most pressing needs. I fight for those stuck in generational poverty, an increased graduation rate, those that do not know where their next meal will come from, or where they will sleep tonight. Though my uniform now looks much different, mission accomplishment is still priority.

Did you have a mentor either in school or in the workplace?

I have been blessed by amazing mentors throughout my professional career and personal life. I am a firm believer in mentorship and have up to three at any point. Currently, my United Way mentor is Mr. Rodney Prunty, president and CEO of United Way of Central New Mexico. Rodney’s leadership has produced desirable results in multiple communities, and I have always been a huge fan. I reached out, and Rodney graciously accepted.

Locally, (United Way board chairwoman) Mrs. Sue Ehinger has invested in me and I am forever grateful. Sue has quickly taught me to step back from immediate and consider long-term ramifications. She has an unbelievable ability to remove emotion from the decision-making process and think strategically.

And finally, owner and chairman of Power Partners Inc. in Athens, Georgia, Mr. Steve Hollis. Steve is the type of individual that a single conversation will change your perspective for years to come. His humble leadership has taught me that you don’t have to be the loudest voice in order to be heard. Results speak volumes. Steve has been a living example of what it means and looks like to be a servant leader.

What goals do you have for United Way of Allen County?

Our goals at United Way of Allen County is to be a catalyst in accomplishing community goals. There are so many amazing nonprofits in Allen County, generous philanthropists, thriving business community, etc. at the same time there are those in our community that are slipping through the cracks. Our goal is to align efforts, convene those needed, advocate for, and financially support those that desire to be part of the solution.

What do you normally like to do outside of work? You’ve been pursuing a doctorate, no small feat with family and a full-time job.

In an attempt to chase that unicorn of balance I do my best to keep a consistent physical fitness regimen. More than physical benefits it provides mental clarity in my chaotic reality. I am a morning person, so I believe that if I challenge myself first thing then my day can only get easier from there. And when the dust settles after that long day a glass of red wine or a craft beer on the patio with my amazing wife.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

There was a time in my life where priority was having an amazing home for my family to come home to. I am now honored to help create an amazing community for my kids to walk out to. Thank you for having me, I look forward to the amazing work we will accomplish.

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