Opinion: White, well meaning: United Way should reflect the community it serves

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Opinion: White, well meaning: United Way should reflect the community it serves

By Sean Lyons

The impending retirement of Cathy Train, the long-time president of the United Way of the Thomas Jefferson Area, presents an important opportunity for one of the region’s most prominent philanthropies to better meet the needs of the community and embody what it claims is one of its core values: striving to be a model of diversity and inclusion.

For more than 70 years, the local United Way has provided millions of dollars to help everyone from families in need of housing to working mothers in need of child care.

Undoubtedly, many of the people who benefit from these programs are minorities. But a review of the makeup of the United Way shows a startlingly small number of people involved in its decisions who actually look like the people in the communities it serves.

That raises questions as to whether the United Way is providing services as effectively as it could, whether it provides only lip service to its stated ideal of diversity—and whether the organization is worth the philanthropic investment that thousands of local residents make each year.

Its board of directors, for example, has a total of 58 members. But only eight percent of them—that’s five people—are identifiable as minorities.

Just as alarming is the makeup of the organization’s paid staff. While relatively small with only eight people, its website shows that every single employee of the United Way is a white female—just like Train, who has been running the organization since 1988.

Those numbers are exactly what happens when organizations—even those with the best of intentions—become hidebound, blind to their own biases and keep no measure of accountability for themselves when it comes to diversity.

United Way is certainly not the only nonprofit impacting minority communities that is lily white. A survey conducted last year by Battalia Winston, an executive search firm, found that nearly 90 percent of all nonprofit and foundation directors in America were white.

But that has not stopped other United Way chapters from employing people of color. Minorities make up 38 percent of the United Way staff in Richmond, 35 percent in Lynchburg and 16 percent of the staffs in Harrisonburg and Roanoke.

Tiziana Dearing, co-director of the Center for Social Innovation at Boston College, told the Nonprofit Quarterly that when people of color are kept out of the decision-making roles of nonprofits, “we miss assets they value in the community, run the risk of failing to understand what quality is to those whom organizations seek to support, and under leverage passion for change.”

One step the area United Way might be tempted to take to respond to these numbers is to bring more minorities on to its non-paid board, while continuing its apparent comfort in hiring only certain types of people (quite comfortable: The president’s job pays more than $170,000 including benefits, according to its IRS forms). But that move would only be window dressing.

Our local United Way should embrace its ideals and show in its actions—more than just in its words—that diversity counts, particularly in Charlottesville, and particularly in these times. Selecting a minority candidate as its next president would give the group stronger credibility within the communities it most serves, and allow it to move more confidently toward ensuring the well-being of the children and families most in need.

Sean Lyons is a resident of Charlottesville and a former investigative reporter who worked at a number of news organizations, including the Boston Globe. He is also a former journalism professor at Hampton University.

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