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Single News

WINNER United Way for Southeastern Michigan

Sherri Welch – CRAIN’S Detroit Business – 12.2.2021

Executive Director, People and Culture Lara Keathley (left); Chief People, Equity, and Engagement Officer Tonya Adair; Senior Director, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Andre Ebron; Vice President, Strategy and Transformation Brandon Lee; President and Chief Executive Officer Darienne Hudson; Vice President, Community Impact Eric Davis; Executive Director, Communications, Advocacy, Labor and Marketing Kyle DuBuc; Chief Financial Officer Steve Schwartz and Vice President, Fund Development Shelly Watts at United Way for Southeastern Michigan in Detroit.

The strategic plan United Way for Southeastern Michigan finalized the week before the pandemic shutdowns in Michigan included renewed intentionality to diversify its board and staff. 

But with the reckoning spurred by the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd over the next two and a half months and the disproportionate number of people of color dying from COVID in the early months of the pandemic, United Way knew it had to do more.

Over the past 18 months, the nonprofit has embedded diversity, equity and inclusion in its organizational culture, structure and grantmaking processes. It’s taking the practical strategies to grantees and corporate funders, holding its grantmaking up to DEI tests and funding DEI efforts at smaller nonprofits. And it’s taken conversations about equity and inclusion out into the community with the 21-day Equity Challenge that engaged 5,000 residents this past spring through monthly town hall conversations on equity in the community.  

“Being a people-first organization is all part of our mission,” said President and CEO Darienne Hudson.

“We have to pay attention to equity and inclusion. It has to be part of our DNA if we’re going to serve … the people of our community.”

Early efforts

In spring 2020, United Way began doing virtual “huddles” as a way for its leaders and staff alike to come together to process the trauma everyone was experiencing at the time, Hudson said. 

By June, four staff leaders emerged in conversations with about 30 other employees. They became the early face of United Way’s internal DEI efforts. 

Working with United Way leadership, the group helped the organization develop an understanding of internal cultural challenges through staff surveys and candid conversations, facilitated monthly learning sessions with external speakers on topics like racial history and gender identity, made recommendations on grantmaking and other processes and norms, and launched activities for staff like a DEI book club that are ongoing. It also helped to build a foundation for the 21-day Equity Challenge in May and June. 

“Following the national reckoning on racial inequity and racially motivated violence in 2020, and in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, we began to ask, ‘What more can we do?’ and to examine how to substantively incorporate (DEI) into our organizational practices and culture, as well as what specific immediate and long-term action we could take to contribute to sustainable change in our region,” Hudson said. 

Making it official

United Way began making concerted efforts to diversify its board and, where appropriate, its staff. It increased the number of people of color, women, faith-based and nonprofit leaders on its board, while also adding representatives from Macomb County to ensure it better represented the people it served. 
It adopted a bylaw change made by United Way Worldwide in July 2020, adding DEI training as a requirement for its board members as part of the annual board retreat. In March it conducted the first of those trainings with the Michigan Roundtable on Diversity and Inclusion, facilitated by four board members and the four staff leaders of the DEI committee. 

In September, the organization brought back the Michigan Roundtable to team up with DEI leaders at United Way on training for employees during its staff retreat. 

“Any time you are stepping into this work which is highly sensitive … it’s important that you have executive champions who understand and support this work,” Hudson said. “It’s also important you have a budget aligned (and) some infrastructure with staffing.”

In fall 2020, United Way appointed its chief impact officer as chief people, equity and engagement officer, ensuring DEI efforts are monitored at a high level in the organization. 

To handle the day-to-day focus on DEI, the organization, which is operating on a $54 million budget for fiscal 2022, in March hired community activist, motivational speaker and DEI trainer Andre Ebron, former dean of culture and climate for Detroit Public Schools Community District, as senior director for equity and inclusion. 

Ebron hired two others to work with him, and the team is now leading DEI efforts around internal culture, helping shape policies and developing strategies to bring an equity mindset to United Way’s grant funding and community impact work.

Ebron is working very closely with the four staff leaders of the DEI employee committee created last year to ensure the organization doesn’t lose any momentum, Hudson said. 

The moves have added up to direct investment of more than $3 million in DEI efforts and infrastructure over the past 18 months, beyond millions of dollars in pass-through grants for vaccination, testing and other supports in communities of color, United Way said.

“This isn’t a fad; this has to be the way we do business,” said Hudson.

Equitable grantmaking

In the spring, United Way began working with Detroit Future City to develop a blueprint for equitable grantmaking that gives voice to grassroots organizations and ensures smaller organizations that haven’t received a lot of grants and resources have opportunities to secure them.

“It’s a how to advertise, bring people to the table, some rubric for how you give out grants and how you hold yourself accountable as an organization to do that, to be equitable in grantmaking,” Hudson said. 

It’s also evaluating if the organization is granting to BIPOC-led organizations and those led by people of color. “If you answer and you haven’t met those benchmarks, you have to go back and re-evaluate how you are giving grants,” she said. 

Last year, through local and national partnerships, United Way funded and supported programs and initiatives aimed at serving communities of color. It teamed up with Rocket Mortgage, the city of Detroit and Microsoft Corp. on the Connect 313 digital inclusion effort, providing over $200,000 and administering the effort to ensure all Detroiters have access to internet service, devices to get online, technical support and digital resources for improved learning, employment and well-being. 

It also distributed millions of dollars in funding to targeted efforts underway at Black-led organizations, 10 local churches and other nonprofits to provide COVID testing, vaccination, personal protection equipment and other needed services to Black communities. 

Looking outward

For its first large-scale, outward-facing DEI effort, this spring United Way of Southeastern Michigan replicated the 21-day challenge its affiliate, Washtenaw County United Way, launched, Hudson said.

Initially, its DEI committee of employees led the work before Ebron, and the newly established DEI department picked up the effort. 

It raised $71,000 to fund the effort and worked with roughly 65 leaders from local municipalities, corporations, nonprofits and legislators to create a streamlined experience for participants, to promote the equity challenge and encourage their employees, volunteers and constituents to actively participate.

Through daily education emails, social media conversations, and weekly conversations facilitated by community leaders in the DEI space, participants were invited to grow their individual understanding of different experiences and points of view, while fostering a shared understanding of the inequities that impact daily life across our region and how individuals can take that with them in their daily actions and interactions. Conversations focused on issues of race, environmental justice and issues in the LGBTQ community, among other topics. 

It’s continuing that conversation on equity once a month as part of virtual “town halls” focused on issues such as Black maternal health care, disabilities, and transgender individuals and specific cultural populations such as Chaldean, Hispanic or Latinx cultures to raise awareness and increase understanding of various groups of people who make up the community.

The challenge is something United Way will hold annually, Hudson said. 

“It starts with us as individuals,” she said. 

Quarterly meetings with 60 or more grantees have provided a forum to discuss DEI issues facing the community, including disparities in transportation, health care and food service, Hudson said, and best practices in addressing them.

The monthly meetings of the United Way campaign cabinet are also providing an opportunity to share how United Way is approaching DEI with corporate funders, Hudson said, noting the cabinet members were all involved in the 21-day challenge.

The conversations require environments built on trust and vulnerability, she said.

“These are deeply rooted relationships and spaces where people want to learn for the sake of their organizations, their own families and their communities,” she said. 

Hudson is quick to point out all of those conversations are mutually beneficial.

“This has really been reciprocal. It’s a two-way street,” Hudson said. “We share best practice, but we are also learning best practice from others.”

Striving for racial equity 

In the summer of 2021, United Way created a Racial Equity Fund work group comprised of a diverse cross section of community leaders to help it develop the framework for a new fund that will provide operating grants to community organizations led by Black and indigenous leaders and people of color for projects aimed at eliminating racial disparities in the community. 

The application process for the fund opened in mid-November seeded with $500,000 from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott’s $25 million gift to United Way.

Recipients will be announced at the end of December for grants running through 2022. 

“I hope that the more people see that there are more nonprofits moving in this direction of bringing forthright and very productive (talks) about the work they do in DEI, that more and more nonprofits will follow down this path,” Hudson said. Some DEI topics are seen as controversial and taboo, she said.

“I think it’s important that large organizations like ours are really taking the lead.”