New United Way Worldwide Leader Is on a Mission to Improve the Culture of Organizations Far Beyond Her Own
Angela Williams has taken the helm of the nation’s largest charity with a powerhouse resume behind her — and a long list of challenges in front of her.
As the first woman and the first African American to lead United Way Worldwide, she must deal with the fallout of accusations by three former employees of a toxic workplace culture that led to an internal investigation and a recommendation that the organization improve its workplace culture, morale, and procedures for preventing and punishing discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.
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Angela Williams has taken the helm of the nation’s largest charity with a powerhouse résumé behind her — and a long list of challenges in front of her.
As the first African American to lead United Way Worldwide, she must deal with the fallout of accusations by three former employees of a toxic workplace culture that led to an internal investigation and a recommendation that the organization improve its workplace culture, morale, and procedures for preventing and punishing discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.
Shortly after the release of the report, longtime United Way Worldwide CEO Brian Gallagher announced his departure.
Around the same time, the United Way Worldwide headquarters reduced staffing by 19 percent through attrition, voluntary agreements, and position eliminations, according to a spokeswoman, who noted that much of United Way’s fundraising last year produced money earmarked for Covid relief or other needs, and not necessarily operational expenses.
Williams should be well prepared to make big changes. She previously led Easterseals, where she broadened its governing structure to include a wider variety of voices at the top levels of the organization. Her résumé also includes stints at the YMCA of the USA, the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, the Senate Judiciary Committee, and eight years as a lawyer and active-duty member in the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps.
Williams says she wants to make United Way Worldwide a moral leader when it comes to equity and workplace culture. In addition to addressing the organization’s internal shortcomings, she says she won’t shy away from pressing its long list of heavyweight corporate supporters to make sure that their equity efforts are not a passing fad.
At the same time, Williams must oversee the ongoing transformation of United Way Worldwide’s key workplace fundraising efforts in an era when many workers have shifted to remote work, perhaps permanently.
The good news for Williams is that fundraising for United Way Worldwide has held up so far amid the pandemic. United Way Worldwide raised $3.7 billion in cash and stocks last year, up from $3.5 billion the previous year. The organization historically tops the list of cause-driven U.S. charities that raise the most in donations.
Williams talked with the Chronicle about the challenges ahead for her and the qualities she brings to the job.
I’ve read your official bio. Tell me about your personal background.
I was born in Anderson, S.C., in 1963, where my dad was a pastor in a Baptist church. He joined the Navy when I was 4. My siblings and I became global citizens. About every three years we moved to a different military installation.
Growing up on military bases was a wonderful experience. It was a close-knit community. It taught me to accept change and to be flexible and to be able to meet strangers and immediately build relationships.
My parents were very active in the 1960s in the civil-rights movement. My dad was a leader for South Carolina in the NAACP chapter. In Anderson, he worked with a coalition of ministers to integrate the city. That really instilled in me this notion of making sure that everyone has equal opportunity.
How are you feeling about the job ahead as you take the reins?
I feel great. For almost two years now our worlds have been turned upside down. Everything that we have known as normal has been disrupted — our routines, and our way of relating and communicating with others. So now is a wonderful opportunity to re-examine the way we work and the services we provide. You’re going to see United Way Worldwide play a critical role in communities and in the lives of individuals.
You had strong fundraising results last year amid the pandemic — $3.7 billion in cash and stocks. Why did that happen?
People were looking for ways to help. It was clear if you looked at what was going on around you and your own social circles or when you saw the news on a daily basis, there was a crisis and there was need.
United Way has been around for 135 years. People knew our work and our value in communities. Donors want to know that their money is being used appropriately, and that’s why the United Way was so successful in being a charity of choice for people.
What will United Way Worldwide be doing in terms of its own workplace and remote work? And what does that signal about the broader trends that will affect United Way’s important workplace fundraising?
Our staff is still working remotely. In the next couple of weeks, we’ll be taking a look at our engagement surveys that asked employees how they feel about returning to work.
Regarding our fundraising, we will have to meet companies and their employees where they are. We have to find ways of staying connected. That is certainly at the forefront of things that I need to look at. It’s not only the remote work — the general landscape of how people want to give and how they get connected is something that continues to transition. We need to continue to meet people where they are and to create ways in which people can engage, whether it’s through volunteerism or giving.
Earlier this year, following allegations of misconduct raised by three former United Way Worldwide employees, the board commissioned a report that raised concerns about the culture of the organization and its procedures for dealing with complaints. Were any individuals disciplined for contributing to that culture?
What’s important now is that we have processes and procedures in place where people feel that they can come and talk to someone if there are concerns. Secondly, I want to create a culture where there are values in place of caring, honesty, respect, and responsibility.
We have to create the best organization possible to make sure that the local United Ways have what they need to meet the needs of individuals and communities. That’s what I’m focused on. That’s what I want to see. And it starts with transparency, trust, and honest relationships and communication.
How do you take on the challenge of improving the culture at your affiliates?
The task force members are talking about the pillars that create a thriving culture. If the culture isn’t right, then it’s hard for an organization to move forward and be innovative because you’re stuck. It’s not uncommon for legacy organizations to have to go through this as part of the organizational lifecycle. It’s a very similar conversation that I had when I joined Easterseals. We spent a lot of time with our local CEOs and our local board members and national board members talking about culture. How do we build our culture of trust and transparency?
In these federated structures, we’re better together. That’s part of the tension of being in a federated organization. How are we going to work together and how do we bring this brand to life?
You are the first woman and the first African American to lead the United Way. What does that mean for the organization?
I’m thrilled to be the first. However, what is concerning in 2021 is that we are still seeing firsts. And that’s true not only in the nonprofit sector but also in the corporate sector. But I’m pleased to be here in this seat.
My hope is that I’m able to help create a vision for other young women and other young leaders of color to know that there is opportunity and to seize it. And I want to use this platform and this opportunity to partner with companies and with others to say, ‘Here’s how you can identify potential, and these are the ways in which you can foster the growth and development of your staff and your organizations.’
We’ve had a lot of these critical conversations, especially last year with social unrest. Covid highlighted even more so all of the gaps and the disparities. People were in this disruptive mode to say enough is enough and we need to see social change. So this is a moment in time where I hope that organizations do not go back on their commitments to diversity, equity, inclusion, and access. This is the time, rather, to lean into it.
What makes you concerned that there could be backsliding? Are there specific signs that you seeing?
We’ll know more within a year. When you look at the opportunities come up like my position at United Way Worldwide, and as other key positions around the country open up, it will be interesting to see the slate of candidates that are put forth, and who the boards decide to hire. There are ways to reach out to groups to get diverse candidates. That’s something that I really hope continues and I’d love to see more of.
Is it tricky for you to navigate those conversations — to make the case to your corporate supporters about improving their hiring without jeopardizing your support from them? Are they willing to hear that feedback?
Companies are very willing to have those conversations. I don’t think it’s alienating because at the end of the day, companies are comprised of people and if you don’t care about your employees, then you will be a low-functioning organization.
Tell me about your time at Easterseals.
It is a federated organization like United Way and the YMCA. I joined Easterseals in January 2018. In my first year, we addressed some governance changes within the organization. We changed the national board structure and created seats for local affiliate CEOs.
One of the things I focused on was elevating the brand. And then we spent some time on the culture of the organization. Local affiliates have their own staff leadership and their own volunteer leadership. They carry the names, marks, and symbols of the brand Easterseals. Same with the United Way. But what does that mean?
Every affiliate is organized to meet local community needs. However, the rest of the world doesn’t understand that affiliation concept, so there’s an expectation from the general public that when they move, they’re going to look for another Easterseals and expect the same services. So one of the things we began to work on is, who are we? How do we take the best practices from other communities and replicate them where they’re not currently being offered? How do we show collective impact? That was the journey that I was on with Easterseals, and it’s a journey that I will be on here with United Way.
As a sector, we really focus on data collection, being able to show our impact and show the donor how their dollar is being used and how it impacts an individual or family or community.
How long do you see yourself sticking around United Way Worldwide?
[Laughs] As long as they’ll have me. I’m not term-limited, so as long as they’ll have me, I’ll be here.
What is your annual compensation? Always a fun question, I know.
I know it is [laughs]. My base salary is $600,000, plus some incentives.
(Note: Gallagher, Williams’ predecessor, was paid a base salary of $548,784 in fiscal 2019, according to public tax filings. His total compensation that year was $1.6 million.)
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.