Dona Ponepinto, President and CEO of United Way of Pierce County in Tacoma, WA, has a steady, decades-long history of service to United Way. But, perhaps surprisingly, the most consistent theme you’ll find in her lengthy experience is anything but consistency. Ask anyone who knows Dona, and they’ll tell you that she’s not afraid of change.
“Part of what I’ve done throughout my United Way career, and something I’m probably most proud of, is being a change agent,” Dona says. “Even when I started out with United Way in California more than 30 years ago and things were still somewhat traditional, we were learning how to move in a different direction. Learning about how to better bring communities and partners along to be part of change.”
"Even when I started out with United Way in California more than 30 years ago and things were still somewhat traditional, we were learning how to move in a different direction. Learning about how to better bring communities and partners along to be part of change."
“The transformation of this United Way has been fun to be a part of. It’s where I get my energy,” says Dona. Her energy is contagious, and has inspired staff and partners to get on board with projects such as UWPC’s Center for Strong Families initiative, a project that started in 2016 and has served more than 3,500 families in the area. Funded by more than 15 partners and working in collaboration with organizations like Goodwill, Sound Outreach, Bethel School District, Clover Park Technical College, Tacoma Community House, and the Tacoma Housing Authority, UWPC has opened seven centers to support families as they become more self-sufficient, increase their income, decrease expenses, build credit, and acquire assets.
“It’s about giving people a hand up, not just a hand out,” she says.
Dona served as Vice President of Community Investments for United Way for Southeastern Michigan from 2006 to 2013, a position she was hesitant at first to apply for after living in Southern California for almost 18 years, but proved to be “one of the most fun and challenging roles” she’s ever taken on. During her time in Detroit, she embraced her role as an agent of change and helped the organization reimagine how they invested in communities while also honoring the rich history of the area. Before working in Detroit, Dona spent more than 15 years in California working for Orange County’s United Way and United Way of Greater Los Angeles. In fact, her relationship with United Way stems back even further to when she was a child watching her parents support United Way.
“My mother actually helped start the First Call for Help, a precursor to the 211 program at the United Way in Beaufort, South Carolina,” Dona says proudly. “My parents gave to United Way for more than 20 years. I guess you could say United Way has always been in my blood.” With deep roots in the organization and a strong vision for the future, it’s no surprise that Dona’s time with United Way has been such a positive experience for herself and the many partners she has worked with.
“This isn’t just my career, it’s my vocation,” she says. “And I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
25 YEARS AGO
From her position as U.S. President of United Way Worldwide and past President of the United Way Suncoast (Tampa, FL), Suzanne McCormick offered this observation:
“What has become painfully obvious to me is that in fifty years, as a United Way network, we haven’t collectively moved the needle enough in creating more equitable societies and definitely not in terms of equal access to education and opportunity. We haven’t moved the needle far enough in creating an understanding of the impact we make in communities. We haven’t moved the needle far enough in creating an imperative understanding that we need to invest resources for the best skills and staff talent to help us solve the world’s most complex social problems to improve lives. We have been playing catch up for too long, without ever actually having caught up. It’s time to stop reinventing the wheel and trying to create solutions in silos or community by community. The future clearly dictates that if we truly want to improve lives, we must harness the power of shared technology, create multi-sector partnerships, and work together – as a functional network – with shared values for shared solutions. We’ve been on a listening journey recently, and are actively learning from our history, our mistakes, and our successes. We hope to change the environment we’ve been operating in to allow for more innovation sharing, best practice sharing and learning, and genuine partnership.”
Each list reflects several perspectives:
All reinforce the need of local United Way organizations to:
In retrospect, readers might casually observe, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” While a majority of the specifics change, local United Way organizations continue to be confronted by issues that affect fundraising and quality of individual and family life. Continued concern for racism and sexism is a reminder of persistent issues. A deeper analysis of these issues serves as a reminder of several truths proven by United Way history.
1. The issues defined by United Way leaders transcend individual organizations. They touch nearly every community.
2. They directly relate to that common part of the United Way mission: “to improve lives” and United Ways’ focal responsibility to raise money to do so.
3. United Way continues to serve a centrist role in most communities, developing resources and focusing public attention on causes of problems more often than symptoms of problems.
Reflection: This periodic look at issues identified by professional United Way leaders goes beyond the thought that “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This snapshot of issues underscores the continuing efforts of local, national, and international United Way leaders to confront them in a united way.
The point is – seniors are a mixed bag. They are a lot like everyone else, just older.
That said, there are very real challenges associated with aging. As our bodies and minds grow older, our strength and acuity naturally begin to fade – but this doesn’t happen to everyone in the same way or at the same rate. Many people remain healthy, strong, and vibrant as they grow older, while others become increasingly frail over time. There are a lot of reasons for this decline, both genetic and environmental, with a lot of socio-economic factors in the mix. It’s this set of circumstances we focus on when United Way Healthy Aging develops resources and supports for people as they age.
United Way British Columbia (UWBC) manages a portfolio of Healthy Aging programs that provide important non-medical services to older adults, which help them live at home longer, remain physically active, stay connected to friends, and remain engaged in their communities. Active, Connected, and Engaged: that’s our mantra. There are currently six different programs in the United Way Healthy Aging portfolio, all of which are delivered locally by community-based service agencies. This amazing network of service agencies is the life force of United Way Healthy Aging.
When the pandemic took hold early in 2020, we were asked to take on a leadership role in the Government of British Columbia’s Safe Seniors, Strong Communities (SSSC), an emergency COVID-19 response initiative. We immediately enlisted our Healthy Aging network, and everyone pulled together to help older adults living at home stay safe and connected during the pandemic. Better at Home program providers were a huge part of the SSSC effort. They were joined by other program providers from the Healthy Aging network, as well as agencies from the broader community-based seniors’ serving sector.
Active, Connected, and Engaged: that’s our mantra.
We are so grateful for the amazing community service workers and for the thousands of volunteers who stepped up this past year to provide ongoing support and services to older adults in need throughout the province. And while 2020 was by no means a normal year, we were able to hold the course and meet many of our long-term strategic objectives, like expanding the number of Better at Home programs available in British Columbia (imagine being a non-profit community agency and starting up a new program during a global pandemic – talk about neighborhood heroes!).
There are now 81 community agencies delivering Better at Home services throughout British Columbia, with more to come in 2021. We also stuck to our schedule and launched two brand-new programs, as planned, earlier this year (the Navigation & Peer Support program and Digital Literacy pilot project), and we’ll kick off a new Men Sheds program this fall. As I write this, United Way Healthy Aging funds 127 volunteer driven, non-profit agencies who deliver some 195 Healthy Aging programs in communities across BC.
The work of strengthening connections and supporting seniors continues, even as the COVID crisis subsides, because the need for these kinds of services will continue. Helping people stay active, healthy, and engaged as they age is Healthy Aging’s reason for being, and we are proud of the part we play in strengthening connections that support seniors in need in local communities.
Kahir Lalji is the Provincial Director of Healthy Aging by United Way – a department of the newly amalgamated United Way British Columbia (UWBC). Kahir holds a Master Degree in Gerontology from Simon Fraser University and serves on the Board of HelpAge Canada, BC211, and Destination Imagination. To learn more visit the Healthy Aging webpage, or contact email@example.com.
This feature story is an extension of UWRA’s Aging in Place research conducted in 2019, funded by a grant from the Cinda A. Hallman Memorial Fund, which addresses two of the recommendations made by UWRA:
1) Amplify United Way’s commitments to older adults, and
2) Drive knowledge sharing across the United Way network.
UWRA is excited to spotlight United Way British Columbia (UWBC) and its portfolio of Healthy Aging programs
Toward Stabilizing the Brand...
We are nearly at the half-way point of our LIVE UNITED Initiative, a spring and summer online campaign (see below). You may have heard that NFL star Russell Wilson and his wife Ciara agreed to serve as co-chairs. They join a number of our United Way ambassadors and influencers in helping to push out information about the good work United Way is doing in communities around the world. Russell and Ciara have been generous with their time and talent, recording a heartfelt video to launch the initiative and amplify our content across their social media channels. To date, we’ve generated more than 2 million impressions across United Way Worldwide social media platforms, including content that spotlights the transformative work going on in local United Ways.
Toward Stabilizing the Network...
Listening, listening, and more listening. Neeraj has engaged United Way leaders through dozens of one-on-one meetings with Board Chairs and CEOs, and dozens more in-network and small group meetings, including the Council of States and the Major Market Forum. What he and others have heard informs the work of two task forces, which have been established to set a new path forward.
Toward Stabilizing our Culture...
The two task forces – one to consider our business strategy (including network governance) and the other to consider our culture – are now up and running. Both task forces include representation from local United Way leaders, Board members, and UWW staff. Their aim is to create critical new frames for the future of United Way. The Board is relying on these task forces to bring forward their best recommendations for strengthening our network models and suggestions on how we make decisions together.
The work of the Business Strategy and Culture Task Forces will be instrumental in laying the foundation for the next UWW CEO. The Executive Search Committee continues to work apace. They have finalized the position description and recruitment materials, and the search is underway. We’ll share more information as it progresses. In the meantime, I hope you are all enjoying a safe, healthy, and joyful summer.
One of the distinguishing features of my United Way experience was the training, teaching, and learning.
We wrote the first government relations handbook for local Boards and staff, taught classes at the National Academy of Volunteerism (NAV), and executed the first UW Capitol Hill Day while I worked at the national office. Our first job was to convince local Boards and CEOs that government relations was an integral part of their mission.
My career has gone full circle. One of my most intriguing experiences at the national office was working on the 1986 Tax Reform Act. Nonprofits wanted a charitable deduction for non-itemizers. In my current role as Executive Vice President for External Affairs at Volunteers of America, I worked with several coalitions to make changes more favorable to charitable giving in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act enacted in late 2017.
One of the distinguishing features of my United Way experience was the training, teaching, and learning. I was included in a program designed for staff members of color who were on the CEO track. It taught us how to interview with multiple Board members rather than just one person. We were filmed and critiqued and supported after the class concluded. Even today, I often value colleagues with United Way experience because I find that they understand how to staff Boards and committees, and appreciate the nuances of community leadership. Today at Volunteers of America, our CEO, Mike King, is a former staff member from the United Way of Dallas. Our Senior Vice President of Development, Tom Waters, previously worked at United Way Worldwide.
Being a leader is lonely. Being a Black woman leader can be isolating and disconsolate.
After twelve years at three United Ways, I furthered my career as a Vice President of an urban education think tank at Michigan State University, Executive Director of an international children’s agency (SOS Children’s Villages), and the CEO of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington.
Throughout my life, I have often been a “first and only” – the first and only African American and/or woman in my class, my position, or my organization. I am the daughter of an Army colonel and a teacher. I was born, attended school, and worked for an international child welfare agency based in Germany. I have lived in thirteen places in my life. Often being the “first and only” brought excruciatingly painful episodes of racism, sexism, and exclusion at work. Being a leader is lonely. Being a Black woman leader can be isolating and disconsolate.
Among my more colorful experiences at United Way, a co-worker was asked to stop his Klan mail from coming to the office. An executive had a Black man crawl under the table and shine his shoes during an executive staff meeting. And there were Board members interested in courting. My life was threatened on Haitian radio after I completed an assignment to stop a Miami agency from blatant political activity in Haiti. While such incendiary behavior is rarely displayed today, our country and the nonprofits we lead still have a complicated journey ahead of us toward equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Even today, I often value colleagues with United Way experience because I find that they understand how to staff Boards and committees, and appreciate the nuances of community leadership.
I am proud of my role in several United Way projects. In Indianapolis, we established the first battered women shelter that was partially funded by a new divorce filing fee. I worked in Miami at the height of the crack epidemic. The devastation to families was horrific. We worked with family court judges to pass legislation that would keep children from languishing in foster care and speed up family reunification or adoption.
Along my journey, I built a strong group of friends and advisors. I am still close friends with many of the people I met along my United Way path. Balance and perspective were achieved through active roles in local and professional organizations and world travel. I was an officer of the founding National Board of the Coalition of 100 Black Women and Chapter President in Indianapolis and later inWashington D.C. While at United Way of America, I was on the Board of Women in Government Relations. I have served on several nonprofit Boards. The MetroStage theater Board is currently my most exciting. My travels have taken me to several countries including Morocco, New Zealand, and Iceland. I will have visited all seven continents after my 2023 trip to Antarctica.
By the way, I live across the street from the UWW headquarters.