APHA 2012: A Q&A with Stacey Stewart, President of United Way USA

Oct 29, 2012, 4:45 PM

Stacey Stewart, United Way USA President

As thousands of people who are striving to improve health and health care convene in San Francisco, Calif., for the American Public Health Association Annual Meeting, RWJF is hosting brief interviews with thought leaders from across sectors.

NewPublicHealth also spoke with Stacey Stewart, who was recently named to the new position of president of United Way USA. She was previously the executive Vice President, Community Impact Leadership and Learning at United Way Worldwide. Stewart shared her goals for UnitedWay USA, as well as what she's learn

ed about the integral connections between education, income and health.


NewPublicHealth: What are your goals as the new president of United Way of America?

Stacey Stewart: At United Way we’re celebrating 125 years of history this year, and it’s kind of interesting to take on the kind of leadership role for an organization that has been around this long and been known in communities for so long. But, also to do it in ways that lead us to how we want to be known and how we want our work to be defined, not just in how it’s usually been defined, but how it needs to be defined as we move forward based on what communities really need. I mean, part of how United Way was started was really much more as an organization that was absolutely focused on improving social conditions for people.

We got started in Denver in the midst of the gold rush when Denver was really seeing a lot of people come into the town and thinking they would hit it really big and obviously really didn’t, and a lot of state leaders came together to ask how could we work collectively to address some of the challenges we’re seeing with people in poverty and homelessness and all of that. And they found then that it wasn’t possible for any one organization or state institution to address the problems on their own, that they actually needed to do it together, and that kind of memory still defines United Way in terms of who we are and how we need to go about doing the work.

Obviously, a lot of our history—in terms of thinking about the collective pooling of resources to some extent—is how we galvanize resources to apply to a challenge. But, the reality is that any attempt building on what even financial resources can deal with, it takes a range of different resources—volunteerism, advocates, in addition to the financial resources—to really apply to the issue. So, for me the number one thing is to really reenergize our roots, things that can really help United Way to understand the full breadth of their role in communities as a real convener, and galvanize it toward improving social conditions, especially in the areas of education. And building our capacity as a network to do that and building our relevance in trust as an organization that is focused on that is really critical.

The other thing that we’re really focused on is how are we then seen as a real go-to organization for these issues, a real beacon of leadership in these issues. Not that we’re starting a think tank on these issues, but if we’re a convener on community change, how can we also be a convener on the best thinking and the best practices around this work so that if anybody, whether you’re a policymaker or practitioner, if you’re just looking for who knows the most or who has some of the best ideas around education that I can tap into? How do we create that source of being a repository or that source of information that helps accelerate the work across communities, whether it’s done by our United Way or other partners? It’s just how can we be seen as that beacon or that go-to organization that’s both a thought leader and a real resource to practitioners all around the country? And, I think for a lot of us, obviously, maintaining the strength and health of our network overall has got to be critical.

I mean everyone, especially in tough economic times, is very much focused on resources to do the work and we’re no different in that respect. So continuing to be able to support the resources that are required to make tangible progress on the ground and maintain a real thriving network is something that’s always important to us. To do that so we’ve got to be great partners with people and great partners with our corporate partners, traditional partners…with a range of stakeholders, foundations and think tanks and nonprofit organizations and state and local and federal government partners. Stakeholders all across the board who have focused on these issues and anyone and everyone that cares about the issues of education. We want to be the best kind of partner we can possibly be with them and for them and with them. So those are the big priorities for me.

NPH: What did you learn in your former role as the head of the Community Impact Division of United Way about the connection between health, education and income?

Stacey Stewart: When you ask people what will help them get on a better path for an opportunity for better life, they raise challenges and opportunities that typically fall into one of what we call the building blocks for a great life -- education, income and health. We also know that people don’t necessarily think about them as separate silos. They’re all related to each other. People in their everyday lives understand that in order for me to get a great job, I’ve got to get a great education, and if I don’t have good health, then I’m not going to be able to get any of that.

We at United Way have always tried to think about integration of these things together and have those ultimately drive community outcomes and individual improvement in an individual's life opportunities as well.

So, when I’ve gone to Denver and seen pediatricians at the table in the discussion on early grade reading levels, for example, that is exactly what a United Way can do.  It’s pulling all of these nontraditional players together. On an issue like education, pediatricians can play a huge role in informing and educating the parents to help support their kids in school as well as making sure that the kids themselves are healthy and have an opportunity show up to school ready to learn. I get really excited about that, about United Way, because I think we bring a unique skill set to people to convene and galvanize multi-sector approaches to the work.

NPH: Where do you see the most potential to make a difference when it comes to cross-sector partnerships to improve the wellbeing of the community? What are the kinds of partnerships that you think need to be at the table beyond what you’ve already discussed?

Stacey Stewart: Well, for us, I think obviously the kinds of partnerships with the best thought leaders in this state or in any of the areas that we’re in are really helpful to us because we see ourselves as the conveners and the galvanizers. We want to look to others who have been the best thinkers and researchers on the issues to learn from them, and just basically take those learnings and apply them in classical ways that can ultimately help communities execute on the work that they try to do. For us, we’re an organization that at our roots, we’re very much local—a set of local organizations with local relationships and local partners all across the community.

The opportunity for us, though, is that to the extent that in most of our work we’re dealing with issues that aren’t just isolated or contained in any one particular community—kind of across multiple communities—the opportunity for us is to think about where partnerships can get traction locally as well as how we can build that partnership across an entire country, across the whole national footprint of the United Way. And, so when we think about, for example, our partnership with the corporate center, we’re thinking about companies and how companies get involved in this work in their own backyards, like in their headquarters community, and how they can make a difference there.

But, many of our biggest corporate partners have a national footprint and increasingly a global footprint, and so we’re always thinking about how we can leverage our partnership with that particular entity that meets them at all the levels of where they’d like to play a role—locally, nationally and globally, if that makes sense for them. We have real examples of where that is really working well, especially at the local level. We’ve got United Ways, for example, in Charleston, South Carolina. They have a Link to Success initiative that’s working on reducing the drop-out rate in high-poverty, low-performing Title I schools, and they do it by thinking about integration of background support that supports both academic and life skills—supports that are needed for children to be able to succeed. So they are involving all of the members of the health community to make sure kids have the right insurance coverage. There’s how our United Ways think holistically about these issues and wants to invite all the right partners to the table so we can dig up solutions together.

What we try to do is, where there are beacons of success in a local community, our role is to try to share that information across our network and across communities so that people don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. They can actually learn what’s working and replicate those practices. That’s an important role we play, but our role is—in particular, my role—to both serve and lead. There are times that we have to lead on some of these issues, lead our network and lead the country in some areas, and then there are times we serve. We serve the needs of communities to try to develop these solutions and come up with the right solutions that they think meet their communities’ needs the best, and we’re always really inspired by when these kinds of successes come up because we learn so much as well about what’s working and what’s not.

NPH: Tell us about partnerships with the corporate world and how companies can get involved. What’s the value of companies being a part of these kinds of efforts?

Stacey Stewart: Well, the way that we think about it is that United Way is really positioned to be one of the most effective strategic partners to a company that’s really interested in making a difference in a community. Traditionally, how companies have known us is through operating a workplace campaign and by encouraging employee giving in the workplace. And that really is a core piece of that, and we know that employee engagement drives loyalty. It drives retention, and it drives resources and engagement of those employees into the community issues that are really most pressing, but we also know that companies have broader corporate strategic priorities with respect to their involvement in communities and how they see their role in communities.

We see ourselves at United Way as being able to deliver on a very robust strategic partnership with those companies on their leading corporate social responsibility priorities, and really being a shared value partner with those companies so that the bottom line of improving communities and improving the company’s bottom line can be all achieved. That’s really a win/win situation for everyone involved. What we want to really explore with our companies today isn’t just how much can we expand…it’s how much can the work on education, income and housing be integrated with the company’s priorities to the extent that they want to engage their consumer base in some of this work through volunteerism, through giving, as a result of marketing efforts.

We’re actively exploring those opportunities. We want to lift up corporate leaders as having an important voice on these issues and do whatever we can at United Way to provide those corporate leaders an opportunity to be heard on some of these issues. I think when the business community is seen as a leader in thinking about how to improve communities, I think that’s a win/win for all of us. I used to be chief diversity officer for a Fortune 100 company, and I know for a fact how much diversity and CSR are tied together. To the extent that we could have a company meet its diversity and inclusion goals while also meeting its community goals, there’s a big opportunity for that as well, engaging women, people of color and the LGBT community.

People from all walks of life want to feel connected to a company’s vision, not only in terms of the overall business but in terms of their role in improving community. So there’s a real opportunity for that as well. We think very holistically about our corporate partners. We think about all of their priorities and we think of United Way as a very strategic partner.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.