Last month, United Way employees from across the globe convened in Indianapolis for the annual Staff Leaders Conference to share ideas, celebrate accomplishments and see what lies ahead for the 126-year-old organization. Below, United Way of Greater L.A. Event Coordinator Bentley Coplin, a first-time attendee, recounts her experience.
When I received an invitation from my VP to attend the SLC, I couldn’t believe it. Within my first year of working for UWGLA, I was invited to participate in a worldwide conference focused on organizational leadership and transformation. What an opportunity!
Although I had no way of knowing exactly what to expect, the promise of worldwide connections, career coaching sessions, dynamic keynote speakers and a variety of learning labs was enough to pique my interest. I was on my way to Indianapolis and little did I know the greatest lesson I had to learn would greet me right as I walked in the door.
As the conference kicked off on a rainy Wednesday morning, I found myself sharing coffee with hundreds of new faces. A sense of clarity washed over me as smiles and warm welcomes were exchanged between newfound colleagues. Despite the distance and disparities which separated our local United Ways, we were all on the same team, brought together for the shared purpose of discovering how we could have a greater collective impact not just on our cities – but on our world.
Upon settling into our seats, we were greeted by United Way Worldwide President & CEO, Brian Gallagher. He honed in on this idea of collective community impact and the true potential of United Way to affect the greater good. After all, we are the largest nonprofit in the world. Why shouldn’t we have the largest impact on breaking the cycle of poverty, improving education or providing jobs to hardworking families? What’s stopping us?
I discovered that one of our greatest challenges is our history and a lack of public awareness about what type of role United Way is currently playing in our communities. Innovator. Strategic Partner. Thought-leader. Would you use any of these words to describe United Way? I sure wouldn’t have before I started working here. Fundraiser. Community chest. Payroll deduction. Sound more familiar?
For decades, this was true – community members poured money in, and United Way poured it back out to worthy nonprofit organizations who did the “real work.” In essence, we simply made it easier for you to give money to the organizations you cared about.
While there was value in providing this service, the focus shifted to the bigger picture – how to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And at the end of the day, money simply wasn’t enough to fix a broken education system or reverse the cycle of poverty. United Way recognized that. Although we still act as a community fundraiser and grant-maker, our added value lies in our collective ability to solve major problems in our cities, counties and countries across the globe.
How? By focusing on the most pressing issues and coming up with strategic, peer-reviewed, data-driven plans to tackle them. By getting corporate, nonprofit and government leaders around the table to make decisions and commitments with lasting value. By ceasing to be a risk-averse organization and advocating for policies which improve the lives of the most vulnerable individuals in our community.
It’s true. My United Way is an innovator, thought-leader and change-maker. That’s the message I want to spread across Greater L.A. and far beyond, and I hope you’ll help me. Because if there’s one thing I learned from my experience at the SLC, it’s that our strength comes from our collective power to affect the greater good. Together, we will transform lives — and our own lives will be transformed in return.