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Community Impact: A Talk With United Way Worldwide CEO Angela Williams

Community Impact: A Talk With United Way Worldwide CEO Angela Williams
June 19, 2024

It is a safe bet that every community across the United States has been touched directly or indirectly by United Way. Founded in 1887, the organization is now an international network of over 1,000 local nonprofit fundraising affiliates that raise money and support nonprofits and other charitable groups. These organizations include the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Catholic Charities, Girl Scouts, and Boy Scouts.

In support of its community resiliency efforts, United Way Worldwide is part of a nonprofit coalition with Enterprise Community Partners, LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation), Rewiring America, and Habitat for Humanity called Power Forward Communities that is dedicated to decarbonizing and transforming American housing to save homeowners and renters money and reinvest in communities. The coalition is one of eight recipients of $20 billion in grant awards from the $27 billion Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to provide access to financing for clean-energy and climate-related projects in low-income and under-invested communities.

As President and CEO of United Way Worldwide, Angela Williams leads these efforts. Before joining United Way, she was President and CEO of Easterseals, the nation’s leading nonprofit provider of life-changing disability services, and Executive Vice President, General Counsel, and Chief Administration Officer at YMCA of the USA.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Angela about her vision for United Way Worldwide and its efforts to support small businesses. I am grateful for her time and below is our conversation, edited for clarity.

Q: You became CEO of United Way Worldwide during the Covid-19 pandemic. Can you describe your efforts in helping communities rebuild?

I joined United Way Worldwide in October 2021, when communities were still reeling from COVID-19. As a trusted, community-based organization, United Way played a key role in mobilizing resources and connecting people to vital information and services during a time when a lack of access could literally mean life or death.

In the early days of COVID-19, United Way Worldwide established a fund to help communities cope with the pandemic’s impact. Our COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund, which raised more than $95 million, helped people stay in their homes, pay bills, put food on the table, access health supplies, services and counseling, and more.

The pandemic exposed – and compounded – long-standing inequalities and systems that were already broken, such as the health, education, transportation, and food supply models. United Way continues to bridge the gap between need and access to resources. The 211 network, which is supported by United Way Worldwide, was and continues to be on the frontlines responding to the impacts of the pandemic, especially as COVID-19 supports have expired. 211 is an unmatched service that connects millions of people in need throughout North America to local support and essential resources including housing and food assistance, employment, health care and more. Last year alone, 211 responded to over 15.4 million requests for help. This service is not only a vital helpline, but it is also a unique opportunity to obtain a pulse on the needs of the community, which can help cross-sector leaders understand and respond with relevant solutions.

At our core, United Way is a global convener. We work constantly with public, private, and other philanthropic organizations to make sure we are aligned, sharing resources and data, and making the most impact possible.

Q: Tell us about United Ways key priorities and what that means for business leaders?

United Way has been a cornerstone of the philanthropic landscape for more than 135 years, and today, we serve 48 million people in 37 countries including the U.S. where we reach 95% of the nation’s communities.

From strengthening local resilience to advancing health, youth opportunity, and financial security, United Way is working towards a future where everyone can thrive. We have the deep roots, relationships, and infrastructure to scale community-driven solutions, but more is required, particularly among business leaders.

Despite the growing needs of our communities, charitable giving has declined year after year. Business leaders play a crucial and urgent role in closing this needs gap. True transformational change requires building collaboration across sectors, especially the business sector, to build an inclusive and equitable economy and society. In partnering with United Way, business leaders have the opportunity to invest in social innovation while also strengthening the communities where their employees live and work.

Q: What are some of the ways United Way works with the private sector, including supporting small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs?

One of my favorite sayings is that no one can whistle a symphony. It takes an orchestra to play it. Collaboration is a very important part of my leadership philosophy and it's at the heart of United Way. We are built to identify solutions, mobilize resources, and connect people – to services, funding opportunities, and each other. The global United Way network partners with the private sector – from small businesses to multinational companies – to accelerate solutions at the local, national, and global levels. Some of our innovative partnerships to strengthen communities include:

  • Truist Financial in supporting community resiliency work by funding impact grants to address disaster relief and recovery.
  • General Motors and Lyft to address unmet transportation needs for individuals and families related to employment, health, delivery, and other key transportation needs.
  • Deloitte to support and address challenges associated with farming pollution and forestry in India, as well as addressing inequity in maternal and infant health domestically.
  • DoorDash to help more people access quality and nutritious food, especially in locations considered food deserts.

In our ongoing effort to build partnerships across the globe, all voices and ideas are welcome, especially those of emerging leaders. One of the initiatives that I am most passionate about is United Way’s recently launched Next-Generation Leaders Initiative, a partnership with Institute for the Future. This program is for early career leaders who are committed to United Way and the future of civil society. It aims to prepare leaders to address macro-level trends and issues in their states, nations, and the world at large, in addition to the micro-level needs and goals of their individual communities.

Q: The United Way was recently named as a Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund grant recipient as part of the Power Forward Communities coalition. How will this funding be implemented?

We know that climate change and the associated air pollution is not an isolated problem, and it impacts people from all walks of life. Addressing the most challenging issues related to climate change requires listening to and working with the people most impacted, focusing on long-term solutions, and building community resilience.

Power Forward Communities (PFC), a coalition that includes United Way Worldwide, was selected to receive a $2 billion, seven-year grant from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund’s National Clean Investment Fund (NCIF) to promote residential decarbonization and electrification of homes across the U.S., with a specific focus on low-income and marginalized communities.

PFC intends to provide new below market rate financing to homeowners and apartment building owners to upgrade appliances, weatherize homes, and make them healthier, more efficient, and less expensive to operate. For local and state governments, PFC would leverage public and private investments to help government partners achieve affordable housing and clean energy ambitions, and for investors, PFC plans to create new opportunities to deploy sustainable capital for measurable and lasting impact on families, homes, communities, and the climate.

This work requires the strong engagement and partnership of communities and United Way Worldwide will help to support community outreach efforts. We are proud to be a part of the PFC coalition and support this unprecedented opportunity to advance the health, safety, and economic prosperity for individuals and families across America, while creating impact at a scale that will benefit the planet for generations to come.

Q: If a business owner or community leader wants to engage with the United Way, what should they do?

United Way was founded more than a century ago by community leaders who understood the value and tremendous potential of combining ideas, talents, and resources to help their neighbors in need. This ideal stands true today as United Ways around the world mobilize people to get involved, give back, and take action for the greater good.

Today’s biggest challenges require collaboration, resources, and collective action so that we can build resilient communities where everyone has an opportunity to thrive. There are many ways to give back and I encourage individuals and cross-sector leaders to support their communities through United Way:

  • Contact your local United Way to learn about partnership and volunteer opportunities.
  • Donate directly to a local United Way or give to United Way Worldwide at and your gift will be used where it’s needed most.
  • Leverage United Way’s role as a trusted convenor to mobilize people and resources to tackle community issues.
  • Engage with United Way to advance corporate social responsibility goals through employee engagement initiatives, corporate volunteerism, and workplace giving campaigns.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Yes, as the leader of a global organization with such a powerful legacy of community service and impact, I am proud of the tireless efforts of the United Way staff and volunteers around the world. We believe that there is power and purpose in community-engaged problem solving and that many of the world’s most persistent challenges are interconnected.

The most successful United Way ideas and programs – whether it’s a food bank that provides financial literacy training in Delaware, or an economic empowerment program for women in Ghana – don’t come from a boardroom. Instead, they come from co-creating solutions with communities that are grounded in equity and inclusion.

At United Way, we are problem solvers. We have an intelligent network of people with a wide range of experience. For more than 135 years, we have executed strategies for nearly every problem from disaster recovery to individual financial recovery and we have our eyes on the future. We stand ready to do the hard work needed to bring opportunities and stability to the communities we call home.