Let’s not underestimate the enormous workload ahead for David C. Smith, the recently named president of United Way for Greater Austin.
First, there’s running and scaling the organization, which is actually several organizations and services under one roof: the expanding 2-1-1 Call Center; the volunteer program, Hands On Central Texas; its work in early childhood education, dropout prevention and financial stability; its work running the employee giving campaigns of more than 250 employers; and its multiple giving societies.
But the project that might keep him up at night is United Way’s possible move.
The 1.6-acre city block it owns on E. Martin Luther King Blvd – six blocks east of I-35 – has significantly increased in value since United Way purchased it in 1983. Not surprisingly, someone has made United Way an offer. The Travis Central Appraisal District valued the property at $4.5 million.
Then again, let’s not underestimate David Smith. He founded the Hill Country Ride for AIDS, which was not just the most successful AIDS fundraising event in Central Texas but also the most successful AIDS ride in the country. He also founded the Texas Mamma Jamma Ride for breast cancer, which has raised almost $3 million since 2009.
His leadership as an interim at Conspirare, Communities in Schools Texas Foundation and Thinkery was critical at a time when those nonprofits were most vulnerable. “David carried Conspirare through a period of major transition,” says Bob Karli, president of the Conspirare board, “and left the organization stronger and more vibrant than when he arrived.”
“All I can say is, with respect to the other candidates, when he walked out of the room after the interview everyone looked at each other and said, ‘He’s it,’” says Heather Luecke, vice president of donor experience for United Way. Luecke served as interim president after Debbie Bresette left United Way last fall, and she was actively involved in finding her replacement.
“This is a huge organization,” says Smith, “but I will say this: In every conversation I’ve had since learning I was going to be doing this, you can tell it’s very grounded in its mission and it has a lot of heart.”
How do you get a job like president of United Way Greater Austin? After all, it had been 15 years since United Way had hired for that role. Smith’s predecessor, Bresette, started in 2003, then moved up to interim and then permanent president in 2009. Before her, David Balch had been president since 2001.
In the past 15 years, United Way had changed its business model, not without some controversy. And for a lot of reasons – most notably its complicated business model that’s really difficult to explain – United Way had been off of people’s radars. Smith says he hadn’t kept up with all the changes at United Way in the past 10 years.
In fact, Smith heard about the job from a friend, who urged him to look into it. Smith says he then saw an article in the Statesman about the type of person United Way was looking for, “and that really piqued my interest,” he says, “because I learned that United Way hits on a lot of my personal passions, like breaking the cycle of poverty for people in Austin, especially as we continue to grow.”
Another conversation led Smith to peruse the website and apply online. “And the website is where I learned so much about what was going on at United Way, how they support their partners, their great programmatic work. That’s when I started to think this could be really exciting.”
But like Luecke, Smith says it was the interview that sealed it. “I knew United Way aligned with my passions, but they also told me how they were looking for someone who was willing to work with other sectors, the government, and corporations. They wanted to take this ‘all together’ approach. And I honestly think that collaboration is the only way we’re going to address these issues.”
In his first few days at United Way, Smith says he’s learned a lot, like that in the last year, United Way has distributed $16 million to the community. “I think United Way is at a great stop right now, doing some self-assessment and evaluation, not just looking at programming but also who we are. Asking how can we best bring the community together to address these larger issues,” says Smith.
The possible move for United Way brings up lots of other issues, too. Anyone who’s visited the current headquarters knows that its best days are behind it. (Remember the raccoon in the ceiling?) The organization has vastly outgrown the building and parking lot, too. The 2-1-1 call center is ready to take on more contracts, but lacks the physical space to hold people. And whenever there’s a big meeting in the conference room, the staff is asked to work from home to allow parking spaces for guests.
There’s also the more compelling fact that the population of the people United Way serves is moving out of East Austin into areas outside of Austin. If it sells, the United Way board will have to decide how to best use the funds from the sale.
Luecke says there’s been some “highly spirited conversation” about how the organization will move forward with the possible sale. “It keeps it interesting here, though.”
But according to Luecke, the board has no doubts as to Smith’s leadership. “And I knew that the staff would adore him,” she adds. Smith certainly marks a different kind of leadership than that of his predecessors. Eugene Sepulveda, CEO of Entrepreneurs Foundation and a colleague of Luecke’s said of our post to Facebook, “I’m already looking at United Way differently.”
“I think the community is ready to rally and support the United Way in a big way,” says Smith. “And that’s good, because it’s going to take all of us. What I’m most excited about,” he adds, “is pulling together different leaders with talent, brilliance and generosity of spirit to really reshape Austin and make it the city we know it can be.”