Leading the Way at United Way

No challenge seems too big for United Way of Broward and its forward-thinking leader, Kathleen Cannon

As impressive as it’s been to see the United Way of Broward dive headfirst into the deep end of community challenges created by COVID-19 and its pandemic waves, there’s far more to the scope of its overall impact.

That’s why it takes the better part of 50 pages in its 2022 directory just to touch on the seemingly endless array of programs, initiatives and partnerships—including funding for upward of 130 local organizations—with which the United Way of Broward is involved under president and CEO Kathleen Cannon.

When asked, jokingly, if her team ever asks Cannon to slow her roll when it comes to introducing different ways for United Way to impact the community, the award-winning executive, who celebrates 10 years at the helm next month, acknowledges that effecting change across a spectrum of categories can be daunting.

“We’ve expanded so much that, at times, there are so many spinning plates—and, yes, it can be overwhelming,” says Cannon, who was the vice president and chief operating officer at Broward House for a decade before her role at United Way. “I think that’s my biggest deficit as a leader, but I am recognizing it.

“Sometimes, we can’t do everything.”

It’s not for lack of trying. The organization’s far-reaching tentacles include programs involving computer coding, reading, mental health services for first responders, support for U.S. military veterans, pregnancy education, indigent health care, homelessness prevention, financial stability training, affordable housing, senior care, substance abuse prevention—and that’s just for starters.

“The staff here is unbelievable,” Cannon says. “The people that work here see the needs—and they want to jump in and make sure that we are front and center in helping to solve issues.”

As the organization prepares for a major fundraiser later this month (The Mayors’ Gala), Cannon spoke about her time at United Way.

You’re coming up on 10 years in May as president of United Way in Broward. How has your role evolved over that decade?

I’m a social worker by trade, so the first half of my career was in that realm. Coming to United Way, I had that lens of what the community needs. I also had the lens of how hard it is to work for a nonprofit and the resources that are out there.

Bringing that lens here, we really dove deeply into the impact that we can make. We put business plans behind solving human service issues. That was a big change, and then we continued to evolve that way. Part of that is convening solutions with different parties. We want to bring a wide range of problem-solvers to an issue and chart a strategy for how, together, we can solve something.

But, of course, we can’t continue to run new initiatives and solve big issues if we don’t raise dollars. So, fundraising is top of mind. Over the years, we’ve been successful at that as well—and we’ve also diversified how we’ve done it. In addition to reaching out to philanthropists, we seek grants, we seek family foundations. We have our Alexis de Tocqueville Society, which is an annual commitment of at least $10,000. And then every year we have goals to bring in new donors and dollars.

I’ll be honest, I do feel a lot of pressure because we’re such an impactful organization, and I always want us to be bigger and better. So, I have this new mantra: “Pressure is a privilege.” And I take that privilege very seriously. It’s important to me that our product, which is about changing lives, is always done in exemplary style.

Was the scope of this role, once you rolled up your sleeves, more than you expected?

Oh, gosh. Yes, it’s so much bigger. Before, we would fund organizations and help them along the way. But I wouldn’t say that we put a stake in the ground to solve large social issues. So, the job has gotten bigger, not just for me but for everybody. We’re now seen as the leader in the community when it comes to human services.

So, everything changed. Roles changed. The way we do our job changed. And it’s all for the purpose of creating greater impact in the community.

When we spoke at the start of COVID-19, you had just received a pre-pandemic report that showed that 37 percent of households were considered ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed), and 13 percent were living below the poverty level. How have those numbers changed amid COVID?

It’s hard to get the data in real time, but we’re scheduled to see a preliminary ALICE report soon. But, yes, the numbers are up. People lost jobs. Evictions are happening; people are being priced out of their rent. So, we’re going to see more and more people who need assistance.

Broward County truly is an awesome place to be. But we do have the widest gap in the country between our wages and our housing costs. It’s super-expensive to live in San Francisco or New York, but their wages are higher.

This is a long-term effort that we’re just starting to address. There are folks who are going to take on some affordable housing projects, and United Way can be the gap funding or we give some dollars that get them over the hump. As a community, we have to focus on workforce housing. Think about our teachers. Health care workers. Waiters and waitresses. It’s almost like they can’t afford to live in Broward County. So, we’re going to take on this issue.

And it’s not just rent, as we’re seeing with inflation and the cost of day-to-day goods and services. That’s an additional blow to people already hit hard by COVID-era challenges.

So many people do all the right things. They’re working hard, raising their families, they’re not overspending. And they literally do not have a penny at the end of a paycheck.

We have a lot of financial literacy programs. But how do you grow your assets when there’s nothing left after you pay all your bills? This is where we’re trying to make a difference.

Think of what it would mean to a family if they didn’t have to spend 50 or 60 percent of their monthly income on rent? It makes economic sense to create more affordable housing, because families will spend more money in the community. They’ll visit a restaurant, they’ll buy a car. It’s a cycle of economic success for all.

That’s our goal. We want people to thrive in their communities.

Take me into the war room with your team as the impact of COVID-19 was crystalizing. How did you begin to assess all the different needs, and where to make an impact, understanding that things were changing on a daily basis?

I was receiving so many calls from nonprofits. Once everyone realized that [COVID-19] was going to be here a while, and things were going to be shut down, the nonprofits were [overwhelmed]. They needed help. The grants we typically give are specific to a program; so, we gave them the dollars to use any way necessary to keep their own doors open. We asked other funders to clear their restrictions and funnel dollars to the nonprofit organizations so they could serve their clients.

[In addition,] we sent volunteers to nonprofits to help where needed. We purchased a refrigerated 18-wheeler for Feeding South Florida, because they were working so hard to get food to so many different places. … We upped our mental health programs. We did emergency financial assistance for people like the hourly and daily wage employees who lost their jobs.

What about people with children who did have jobs? You couldn’t stay home with your kids. So, we opened supervised learning pods, where people could drop off their [elementary age] children at a location to do their virtual learning while Mom or Dad were working.

I don’t think we stopped doing anything. We just pivoted and did it differently—and then we added so many services during COVID-19. We weren’t able to serve everybody in every way, but this is where we tried to be forward thinking and prevent even more crises from happening.

One of the United Way success stories to come out of COVID-19 was the Microbusiness Recovery Program. Can you talk about the impetus behind it?

We’re always [creating programs] involving diversity and equity. But after the pandemic hit, we started to do some research, and it became clear that businesses [owned by people of color] were being affected more negatively than other businesses.

So, we carved out $500,000, and the Jim Moran Foundation matched us. We created grants for Black and brown-owned businesses. It was such a game-changer in some cases; they could literally keep their doors open. When we spoke to those businesses it meant so much to them. We’re so proud of that effort.

Was there an area of focus, directly or indirectly connected to COVID-19, that caught everyone by surprise because of the attention it required?

Food insecurity. It was eye opening to understand that people who lose a week of work, or even a few days of work, can struggle to put food on the table.

We do study this, and the ALICE report specifically addresses it. But it really came to such fruition that, no matter how resourceful a family is, they couldn’t provide food. You realize how families rely on the Title I schools, where children receive a free breakfast, free lunch and an after-school snack. Suddenly, these children were home, there’s no access to free school meals, and the parents were out of work. It was a catastrophe. And it was so scary for families. If you remember a few years ago, people waited in lines for hours for food distribution.

So, it became, how are we going to help as many people as possible? So many great companies and people stepped in. As did our team and volunteers.

We were hand-delivering food to shut-in seniors and veterans. We helped with food lines. We opened some schools just for food. Everybody worked so well together—the schools, Broward Sheriff’s Office, the hospital systems, the health department. We came together as a community.

United Way is involved in the Choose Peace/Stop Violence initiative, along with Broward County Schools. Can you talk about how the importance of programs like the Agents of Change and the Broward Youth Coalition and their impact on school-aged children?

That’s another pride point for us. It’s about appreciating each other’s differences and building self-esteem. We also discuss social justice and racism. Certainly, this generation seems so much more accepting of each other; we spend a lot of time with them in these clubs and schools about what that means.

It’s especially interesting when it comes to emotional wellness. Kids are more apt to talk about their mental health than years ago. These programs talk about speaking up and looking for folks who need a friend, as opposed to leaving them alone. We give them skills through different curriculum, plus we have guest speakers. And youth leaders emerge from these initiatives. They learn the skills and build on them. It’s a great way for kids to step into different roles and accept leadership opportunities.

We have new dollars for Choose Peace/Stop Violence, so that’s going to expand to even more schools.

By the Numbers

As the widespread impact of COVID-19 on our communities came into sharp focus, United Way of Broward wasted no time assisting nonprofit organizations, coordinating support and creating new programs on the spot to offset the unprecedented challenges being faced by local households. Those efforts produced the following results—in just the first three months alone (March to June 2020).

$2,194,520: Amount of money raised in donations

385,980: The number of meals delivered to homebound seniors, veterans and homeless individuals

$679,241: The emergency financial assistance distributed for basic needs (rent, utilities, household supplies, etc.)

34: The number of local organizations and programs with which United Way of Broward partnered

$60,469: The value of the masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, etc., purchased and distributed of facilities and providers

461,805: Pounds of fresh food delivered through United Way of Broward’s Project Lifeline

$343,307: Assistance provided to partner agencies so that individuals and families could purchase food

200/400: The number of free books and summer reading kits delivered to children and their families

$1,663: Dollars raised by 18-year-old guitarist/singer Mike Daly, whose parents and grandparents are members of the United Way’s Alexis de Tocqueville Society, by staging several live virtual concerts.

Photography by Eduardo Schneider

Kevin Kaminski
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