Saying Goodbye After 30 Years to Something you Love

Today is my last day as President and CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan. I’ve been with United Way in varying capacities for 30 years, the last 20 as CEO for Grand Rapids and now Detroit. I love this work deeply, and it’s because of this love that I’ve always told myself that when I couldn’t give everything to the mission, I would walk in and call it a wrap. At the beginning of this year, that’s exactly what I did.

Now, I’m taking a risk and following a calling to put something new into the world through the launch of Civilla, a Center for Social Innovation in Detroit.

Civilla photo

A recent human-centered design session for Civilla.

Lessons learned

Since my January announcement to step-down from United Way, I’ve been in a period of helping the organization transition, while concepting a new future through Civilla. The last few months have given me pause to reflect on what this work has meant to me. It’s never an easy decision to change paths, but I’m reminded of a valuable lesson I learned during one of the most difficult periods of my life.

At 10 year’s old, I lost my mother. As one of six children, her passing was not easy for my family. But what we learned during that time remains true today: Nothing in life is certain, but by working together toward one common goal, we can make great strides when we all pull in one direction.

Mike Brennan Family Photo

My family

This lesson has been proved time and again during my tenure at United Way and it will continue to be true as I start my new venture.

The mission

I fell in love with United Way’s mission as an entry level campaign associate at United Foundation. As a newly married 22 year old, I had found the intersection of social purpose meets collective action, and it struck a chord deep within me.

Early Days photo

My early days with United Way: Back row, third from left.

My work with United Way has taken me deep into our local community and all over the world on behalf of that mission. I have had the privilege to work in Detroit, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Washington, D.C. I’ve traveled to China, Australia, Taiwan, the UK, Europe, Canada and Indonesia. I have had the chance to meet Presidents, kings, Global CEOs and leaders from all walks of life. But at the end of 30 years, the experiences I cherish most are the ones I’ve had with the people who work on this mission day in and day out. There is no parade for the people who toil in the work of social change, but my respect and gratitude for those who work toward a better world is infinite.

Mike Brennan and President Obama

A meeting with President Barack Obama.

It’s the woman who answers the phone for the 3 thousandth time with compassion to help a caller in need; the coach who volunteers on the field, rain or shine, to reach one more kid; the principal who wires money to a recent graduate so she can buy books for college; the leader who finds a way to persist on a project despite funding cuts; and the volunteer who arrives at a 7:30 a.m. meeting after a red eye flight. These scenarios happen every day in an effort to strengthen individual lives and make our community better. These people are my heroes.

Designing for Social Change

As I step away to challenge myself in my new role at Civilla, I will remember all of the lessons that got me here. It’s exciting to take what I have learned and apply it to the interwoven world of social innovation and human-centered design in an effort to affect social change.

There is beauty in taking a proven method, like human-centered design, and using those techniques for the greater good. Oftentimes, we are so focused on delivering results that there is little time for exploration and innovation. We often forget that the people we are trying to help are central to the solutions we are creating. We must put people in the center of our work.

Mike Brennan photo

It’s all about people and community.

With Civilla, I hope to help leaders grab hold of these tenets and get comfortable in the messy, ambiguous unknown so that they can grow their confidence, learn new tools and build insights to develop new solutions to old problems.

Final thoughts

There may be someone who loves the mission of United Way as much as me, but I doubt anyone could love it more. I leave United Way not seeking a new mission, but rather a new way to pursue it. And I leave knowing that United Way is in solid hands with Dr. Herman Gray at the helm. 

I will always be a champion of this work…till my final breath. Thank you for letting me lead it for so long. Now, as I transition to my new role, I invite you to stay in touch or drop by to say hi. Onto to the next 30 years…

Mike Brennan presentation photo

Looking forward to the next 30.

Design for Gratitude: Gratitude is the root of all virtues


Happiness is born from gratitude. If you want happiness in your life, cultivate gratitude. This is a simple insight, yet often elusive to attain. Living with a mindset of gratefulness was the mantra I was listening to from Brother David Steindl-Rast during his Ted Talk on an early morning drive.

The person I know that leads a life with gratitude is my 91 year old father. All my life I knew my Dad had an approach to life that I admired. The odd thing is I never put my finger on what exactly was the root of his approach until I asked myself, “who is the most grateful person I know?”

On my way home from work later that day, I did my usual routine and gave my Dad a call to check in on him. I asked, “how is your day going Dad?”

“Pretty well,” he said. “I have one issue though, my TV doesn’t seem to be working right.”

The TV is important for someone who is 91, lives alone and has limited mobility. So I asked, “what is the problem?”

“Well, I don’t get any channels except channel 2,” he replied.

“You only get one channel?” I asked.

“Yep, channel 2. But you know I was thinking to myself that at least I get Channel 2 and it is coming in perfectly clear!” he declared.

“That is great Dad, but maybe we could find a way to get the other channels going for you,” I replied. We took a few minutes over the phone and eventually figured out which button on his remote control he needed to push to bring all the channels back.

After I hung up, I thought about my morning drive on gratitude. What might seem as an inconvenience for most of us was an opportunity for my dad to show gratitude: “at least I get Channel 2.”

I remember my Dad telling me one time that “gratitude is the root of all other virtues.”

Gratefulness isn’t born into us, it is a cultivated and learned mindset. Hence, gratitude can be more present in our lives when we design for gratitude. The habits, rhythms and rituals present in our life often need a ‘gratitude cue’ to prompt the mindset we prefer. As Daniel Pink describes in his book Habit, “the cue is a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.” Often our ‘automatic mode’ is a mindset of scarcity, fear and anxiety. Brother David gives us the cue to design into our life: “stop, look, go.” Too often when we design our day, and hence our lives, we don’t stop and look so that we might go in the manner we desire. A gratitude cue of “stop, look, go” gives us a chance to recognize that “at least I get channel 2 and it is coming in perfectly clear.”

Top 3 (Untraditional) Reasons for Giving Thanks

This Thanksgiving, instead of reheating the same old helping of “What I’m Thankful for Stew” (friends, family and health), I wanted to serve up something new. To be clear, I am thankful for all of the above, but sometimes the moments that cause us discomfort also give us our greatest lessons. The following are a selected sampling of times that helped me grow as a leader this year, all of which I am grateful for.


As an steady runner, I maintain balance and mindfulness through outdoor exercise. This year, I had to have surgery on my “good knee.” (The bad knee is already missing cartilage and my ACL is MIA.)

The recovery took much longer than anticipated, but it helped me become more attuned to my health. It also helped me better identify with people who deal with physical limitations daily.

The surgery helped me realize how vital it is to incorporate a wide variety of exercise and movements into my routine, which led me to biking, yoga, hiking and best yet, more walks with my wife. What seemed like a setback ended up adding so much more value to my life.

Catching the bus

Every spring, business and policy leaders converge at the Mackinac Policy Conference to discuss an array of topics that affect our region, including job creation and regional transportation. I decided to forgo the conference to learn about some of those issues firsthand.

So, I spent the day roaming around Detroit by bus to simulate a day in the life of people who rely on public transportation to get to appointments, work, etc.

It wasn’t easy. I  walked along roads in need of repair, in the rain, and reached my bus stop only to be greeted by a long wait. By 3 p.m., I was physically and mentally exhausted. I used my time to talk to my fellow commuters and become better informed on what many go through each day. It’s imperative for all decision-makers to better understand the populations they serve, and this is one immersion experience worth trying.

5,437 Miles
When I made the decision to study at Stanford’s Institute of Design in California, I chose to drive out West rather than hopping on a plane. That  long, long, five-day journey (each way) taught me so much:
  • I garnered a better understanding of how Greater Detroit is viewed by individuals across the country — both good and bad. This opened up rich conversations about our region beyond the headlines.
  • In the fields of California, I witnessed migrant workers loading fresh produce onto trains that would roll across the Mojave Desert and make its way to the Motor City. This made me think about how our work can incorporate local foods and community garden projects as part of the solution to end childhood hunger.
  • Lastly, I saw the impact of our Interstate system on towns around the near-defunct Route 66, which made me reflect on Detroit’s rich automotive history. It also begged the question of the consequences of progress, and what that will mean for Greater Detroit’s future. Questions we have no answer for yet.

As you gather this holiday season, I hope you are able to reflect not just on the joyous moments of this year, but on the ones that challenged and shaped you. 


VIDEO: Could you live on a $5/day food budget?

As humans, our own life experiences naturally influence our perception of others. We often think we have an understanding of someone else’s situation when in reality, we know very little about the circumstances of our friends, neighbors and community members.

To move closer to true understanding, we must make a conscious effort to seize opportunities that can help us gain new perspectives.

With this in mind, I have made a personal commitment to grow my understanding and build empathy through conversations, observations and immersion.

For example, as Thanksgiving approaches, I am more aware than ever of the role food plays in my everyday life. Recently, I wanted to see if I could subsist on a $5 a day food budget. Nationally, this is commonly known as the SNAP Challenge, which you can read about here. Notable politicians, including our own Congressman Sander Levin, have challenged themselves to walk a mile in others’ shoes by participating in similar efforts.

There have been both negative and positive responses to The Challenge. For me though, there is no controversy. It is an imperfect simulation, but it’s a positive step toward meaningful conversations. This is the true value of the exercise, and as I thought about it more, I decided to film my experience and share it with United Way leaders and volunteers.

The video below depicts a single day. I know my abbreviated experiment in no way compares with the stressors and barriers that 1 in 6 people in our community regularly face in just trying to put food on the table for their families. My intent was to build my own context around our work in ending childhood hunger. Sometimes, we need to step outside of our routines.

You’ve probably noted that my experiment was far from perfect. It’s been pointed out that an avocado would be too expensive to purchase in the first place, regardless that I had only eaten a quarter of it. What surprised me most, however, was the positive reaction I received when telling people what I was doing. The experience was seen as admirable somehow, and yet, the people who live this reality every day are often stigmatized and met with contempt by those of us who don’t. 

In sharing the experience, I’m pleased to say that the video inspired our Campaign Cabinet and many of our partner companies to take their own version of The Challenge. While it’s true that our own worldview may be limited by our personal experiences, with a little bit of effort, we can take steps toward reaching a better understanding of one another. I invite you to take The Challenge with us. Feel free to share photos or videos of your experience via Twitter at @mjjbrennan with the hashtag: #UWSEMFoodFor5.


10 Books: Design Thinking Journey

The 10 books that influenced my design journey over the past 2 years.

The 10 books that influenced my design thinking journey.

I have been on a long journey discovering the intersection of design thinking and social change. I often get asked, “what book should I read if I want to understand design thinking?” While there have been many books I have found helpful over the years, these are 10 books that have influenced me on my design thinking journey.

Thoughtless Acts?: Observations on Intuitive Design by Jane Fulton Suri

All design starts with empathy and one of the best paths to empathy is observation. Suri’s elegant nudge encourages and inspires every reader to draw upon his/her observation muscle in everyday life.

Strengthfinders 2.0 by Tom Rath

Helping individuals learn design is accelerated the more a person understands him or herself. Strengthfinder 2.0 is a brilliant tool to discover the strengths within oneself. As one colleague told me recently, “Until I took Strengthfinders, I never thought of empathy as a strength. All my life, I thought the deep empathy I have within me as a weakness.” Getting the right mix of strength on a design team helps the work soar. Strengthfinders combined with Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley are cornerstones of helping teams optimize performance.

Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon MacKenzie

A dear friend slid this across the table early on in my design thinking journey and I often think it is an example of the right gift at the right moment. For every imaginative person out there (that is you!), MacKenzie, 30 year creative director for Hallmark, delivers a quirky and delightful book that reminds the reader — ‘you are a creative being’. For the budding design thinker or veteran, Orbiting the Giant Hairball helps you navigate and reframe a world that doesn’t necessarily understand or value the creative and intuitive side of humanity.

Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs by Larry Keeley and Helen Walters

I keep returning to this book, and each time I learn something new. Keeley/Walters create a framework to help every design thinker look at creating a pathway to innovation through a much broader and sustainable lens. The authors bust the myth that innovation only rests in the products itself when, in fact, the innovation resided in the WAY the product came to be.

The Opposable Mind by Roger Martin

This is one of the first books I read on my design journey. It had a profound impact on me. Martin shows us the power of holding two opposable ideas and, in that tension, discovering the more powerful solution. The intersection of the analytical with the intuitive is where design finds its strength. Martin gives a reader insight into the need for both the analytical and the intuitive, not just one or the other.

Creative Confidence by Tom Kelley & David Kelley

The Kelley brothers get after one of the biggest obstacles facing individuals and organizations: unleashing creativity that is resident in each of us. This is the book I most often point someone to if they want to begin to wade into design thinking. I have come to realize what the Kelley brothers have dedicated their entire lives to: the answer often lies within us. We just need to have the confidence to release the creative capacity within.

Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time by Margaret Wheatley

This is my most dogeared, underlined, worn out book. I often think Wheatley is 50 years ahead of her time. Increasingly, nature has become my greatest teacher. And it was Wheatley who awakened in me the elegance and instruction that exists in living systems. When I am feeling stuck, confused or just a bit out of sync in a design process, I turn to the many writings of Meg Wheatley for inspiration, insight and provocation.

Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley

Tom has a way of taking the complex and making it easy to consume. One of the big barriers in the design journey is people think it is only for the “creatives”. Tom brings forward a framework where everyone can find themselves in the family picture of design. He calls out the ‘devil’s advocate’ and asks everyone to tap into their strengths and higher self. A great book to hand someone who is a bit skeptical of the design journey.

101 Design Methods by Vijay Kumar

Vijay Kumar has taken 30 years of development of methods at the Institute of Design at IIT in Chicago and put it into a brilliant framework. Vijay’s book is the perfect tool for someone who needs the concrete methods to understand there is a discipline and practice that sits behind design thinking. I return to this book for inspiration on new ways to tackle tough problems.

The Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde

When communicating an idea, it is often better to sketch it than write it. I took a class at Stanford d School on sketch note taking. This book was the workhorse guide. The simple nudge to use your sketching ability reminds us all that we have a creative muscle. And it is fun to do and often more effective in communicating your message.

These are books that had an impact on me. What books impacted you on your design journey?

What or who inspires you?

a quick selfie

A quick selfie with David Kelley, Perry Klebahn and Jeremy Utley at the d school at Stanford University.

Perhaps it’s a mentor, your children or a vision of a better future.

In my life, I’m continually challenged and inspired by new experiences, and I’m happy that my time at Stanford University’s Institute of Design served up many of those.

While many people in my Stanford program made a big impression on me, three in particular inspired me everyday. David Kelley, Perry Klebahn and Jeremy Utley are amazing change agents in the design-thinking world. Here are three of their many insightful teachings—they stuck to me like velcro and I hope they stay with you, too.

3. “Act to think.” 

Jeremy Utley from the d.School said this during our first session. So often in our daily lives we sit, process, plan, think, reflect, but we never quite get around to realizing, doing, and implementing. The latter are critical, of course, because we learn most effectively through doing.

Since returning from Stanford I have been on a mission to share what I have learned with my senior leadership team at United Way. I could spend weeks telling them what I learned or I could challenge them to Act to Think. So, with minimal instruction, I asked each member of the team to divvy up into pairs and lead their own design projects. I know it is frustrating for some at times – we are an organization of perpetual over-achievers and perfectionists – and this messy, unknown space isn’t always comfortable. And I am sure that there are those that would have preferred a long, healthy dose of training and planning before being thrown into the “design limelight” – but in just a few short weeks the team has gone from students to teachers.

We are extending these learnings beyond our four walls, as well, exploring powerful new intersections between social entrepreneurs to make an even greater impact on our communities. More on that project to come in future blog posts.

2.  “I want one pissed off customer and two delighted ones.”

Perry Klebahn, one of the co-leads of the Stanford program, said this after hearing my teammate and I describe our prototyping process among patients at the Stanford Hospital Cancer Center. One after another, patients told us they want to meet other patients with similar interests, during long hospital stays.  Yet, when we arranged opportunities to connect, our patients were no-shows. 

“You simply aren’t pushing the boundaries enough,” Perry said. 

We needed new insights, so we went back to the proverbial drawing board and interviewed a patient who had been sitting in a waiting room for 20 hours.  Based on this interview, we came up with an idea to connect like-minded patients via video, while they wait for their appointments.  To put it mildly the reviews were mixed, but the idea opened up a whole new frontier for the design team.

1.  “Fish don’t even know they are wet.”

When I met with David Kelley, the founder of IDEO and the d.School at Stanford, he shared this insight as we discussed the role of design thinking in problem solving. David said many organizations miss major growth opportunities because they miss the underlying source of a problem or opportunity—the real issue they should be tackling.

For example, Kodak invented the digital camera, but their metaphorical “water” was film: They missed the market opportunity of digital because they were swimming in film.  

Kelley says, “Design thinking gives us a way to reframe problems so we can discover new solutions.” In other words, design thinking helps us see not just the water we swim in, but the fishbowl as well.

Do you have a quote that inspires you? Share it in the comment section.

Embracing Failure: How We Learned a “Sexy Vegans of Stanford” Calendar Is a Bad Idea

Our instructors are pressing my classmates and me to embrace failure. “Failure supports learning,” they tell us. “Failure inspires insight. Failure yields clarity.” My classmates and I are working out what all of this means for our projects, our home organizations and our development as design thinkers.

Like many people, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy avoiding failure, and the anxiety and frustration that often follow. At Stanford, I’m being asked to reach a level of comfort with those feelings because setbacks are a crucial part of building “creative confidence” — the self-assurance supporting a person’s ability to invent and innovate. So, as I work with UWSEM staff and partners to further our exciting work, I’ll need to run toward the outstretched arms of failure and help to nurture our courage to produce and test new ideas.


Learning from Failure and Building Creative Confidence

A couple weeks ago, I led a team tasked with solving the hypothetical problem of redefining the Stanford dining experience for vegan students. The team broke into three smaller workgroups to develop three prototypes (in this case, an outline of a public relations strategy) to change perceptions of veganism on campus.

I can’t emphasize this enough: prototyping is a messy, iterative process. During the prototyping stage, we’re expected to fail early and often so we can usher in more meaningful, insightful and imaginative ideas.

Some of us sprinted toward a brick wall of failure and, I’m happy to report, lived to educate the rest of us. One group developed and tested a racy calendar mockup featuring “sexy vegans.”  After testing the idea with students, the group returned to the larger team humbled by some tough feedback. “Sexy wouldn’t work here,” students told them. “Students here just aren’t interested in that.”

Out of disappointment rose some sharp, student-centered ideas: “You have to relate to what people here care about—that’s doing well in school,” they said. “What if veganism helped us improve test scores?”

The students suggested a calendar focused on what they find meaningful—being smart and staying afloat in a demanding academic environment.

Inspired by Failure: Shaking Up the Routine

What can failure reveal about UWSEM’s approach to donation solicitation, staff development and UWSEM’s framing of enormous societal challenges? I’m about to find out.

Next week, I’ll fly back to Detroit for a few days to meet with UWSEM’s board of directors at a quarterly board meeting. What I’m learning at Stanford has inspired me to question the way we structure our work together. We’re gaining a greater, even more nuanced understanding of the problems facing metro Detroit; our approach to addressing these problems—including our board meetings—should reflect that.

During February’s meeting, UWSEM’s board will take part in a design thinking prototyping process with our Detroit-area community of donors, clients and volunteers. We’re involving people at both ends of the spectrum of community engagement and philanthropy—people who are highly engaged in local community work or philanthropy and people who aren’t yet involved. We want to understand community members’ lives and motivations, while forging stronger connections between our daily work—our routine board meetings, for example—and community needs. We also want to understand the next generation of donors and how we can design a donation and volunteer experience that will support them. I hope we can work together to develop even deeper insights about UWSEM’s role in Southeastern Michigan.

I know my plan could burst into flames, but I’m eager to tap into the creative potential of UWSEM’s leadership so we can better empathize and innovate as an organization. The potential rewards are game-changing, and they’re too powerful and important to ignore.

Using stories from his own life, David Kelley describes how to rediscover creative confidence