Category Archives: mission

World’s Largest LIVE UNITED Wristband on the Joe Louis Fist

Sometimes a picture says it all. “The Fist” is a memorial to boxer Joe Louis by Mexican-American sculptor Robert Graham that rests at Hart Plaza in Detroit. The sculpture was commissioned by Sports Illustrated magazine and dedicated on October 16, 1986. Depicting a 24-foot-long arm with a fisted hand suspended by a 24-foot-high pyramidal framework, the sculpture represents the power of Louis’ punch both inside and outside the ring. Because of his efforts to fight Jim Crow laws, the fist was symbolically aimed toward the South.

Last Friday, we launched this year’s United Way campaign with a torch lighting ceremony right across the street from The Fist. As I walked back to the office through the rain, I looked over and saw the sculpture wearing a “LIVE UNITED” wrist band. In a world that seems to be driven by matters on which opinions diverge, I thought this photo spoke to the need to find common ground even when we disagree.

The Importance Of Tradition: Lighting the Torch

Chris Dube inspects the United Way Torch in preparation for the lighting ceremony, Friday, Sept.14 at 7 a.m.

Chris and Paul Dube have had a role in the community that no one else can claim: The pair have been lighting the United Way Torch, which has resided at the base of Woodward and Jefferson Avenues, for more than 20 years.

It as 28 years ago when I saw my first torch lighting ceremony. Fresh out of college and 22 years old, I was just starting my new job with the United Foundation,  the precursor to United Way for Southeastern Michigan

In a world where things move faster than the click of a mouse, we have a tendency to jump to the next new thing, and as a result, we sometimes miss the importance of tradition.

The tradition of lighting the Torch first began in 1949.  Originally, the Torch was a wooden structure that had to be erected each year.

It was replaced with the current Torch, which was designed by sculptor Dario Bonuchhi and brought to reality by the architectural firm Giffles Associates and fabricator Darin and Armstrong. It was erected in 1969.

Lighting the Torch serves as a symbol of the concern and generosity of the people of this community. Metro-Detroiters have generously cared for their fellow residents. And throughout the years, the Torch has been a beacon. It’s overseen the changes taking place in our region and the transformation of United Way. Traditionally viewed as a fundraising organization, United Way for Southeastern Michigan has transitioned to a leadership role, mobilizing residents and organizations to make progress on the toughest issues we face.

For example, our efforts to increase the graduation rates in our lowest-performing high schools is on an upward trajectory. Early indications show that 80% of students in our network are on track to graduate.

We’ve made tremendous headway ensuring that children in our region are able to get the nutritious meals they need through a local and statewide effort called  “No Kid Hungry.” Our 2-1-1 call center, staffed with trained professionals, has assisted more than 300,000 residents get connected to essential resources 24/7/ 365 days a year.  This is only possible because of the generous support of individuals throughout the region who invest some of their money to ensure we have a chance to reach our Big Hairy Audacious Goal: to be one of the top 5 places to live and work by 2030.

I encourage you to be part of the change we are undertaking at United Way.  If you would like, you are welcome to join Sergio Marchionne, Mayor Dave Bing, Dan Gilbert and other leaders this Friday morning at 7 am as we light the Torch.

Moving our region upward cannot be accomplished alone. Rather, it will take all of us, with commitment just like the Dube brothers and their father (who lit the Torch before them), to make sure we are creating a spark that brings a light to those around us.

Hope to see you at the Torch lighting along with the Dube brothers and much help from our friends at DTE.

Where Does Your Food Come From?

Perspective: Some guy and a Tuna

As a sixteen-year-old dishwasher at one of Chuck Muer’s restaurants over 30 years ago, I had a defining experience that forever changed the way I think about food. With my water-soaked leather work boots moving quickly below my long apron, I swept around a corner in the back of the well lit kitchen. There I saw laid out on a long stainless steel table a whole fish the size of a small adult with shiny silver skin and black streaks, its mouth slightly open, and its eyes glaring out, black as the night. Never having seen a fish this size before, I blurted out, “What is THAT?”

The kitchen manager, who was standing in front of this fresh delivery said, “It is a tuna.”

“A TUNA?” I asked.

“Yeah Mike. It is a tuna fish,” he said.

He could see I had a puzzled look on my face. I literally was stunned. I said, “I thought tuna came in those little circular cans.”

He laughed and said, “No, tuna comes from a tuna.”

I could feel my brain short circuit a bit. The obvious seemed so disconnected from my experience. I only knew tuna from the can with the green Starkist label that sat on our pantry shelf. Of course, today it seems crazy I could have been so naive and disconnected. Yet that moment changed my relationship to food by creating a greater curiosity in me to understand where the food I am eating originates from and it forever solidified in my mind the difference between fresh versus processed.

In a meeting I had recently with Eric Davis, United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s Food Director, he described the need for the youth of our region to make this very connection. He said, “So many kids don’t know where even fruits and vegetables come from. Part of the work ahead is to get kids connected to the source of their food and to understand what quality food looks and tastes like.”

We have kicked off the “No Kid Hungry” campaign along with our partners Share Our Strength and the State of Michigan. Just as the name says, our work is to ensure that no kid goes hungry in Michigan. Moreover, not only do we need to ensure there is access to food, but that the quality of the food is high. In part, educating parents, caregivers, schools, and children about what one should expect from food and where food is coming from will strengthen the demand for quality. We want all children to have a sense and appreciation of where their food is coming from.

With 1 in 4 children in the region finding themselves hungry, we must and will make progress.  There is great work taking place right now as school ends to ensure “No Kid Goes Hungry” this summer.  To lern more about this work, click here.


What four minutes of today will you remember?  Take a look at this and then pass it on.  We can create pathways to ensure a brighter tomorrow.

Workplace of the Future: What is it?

One of my mentors is Jim Hackett, the CEO of Steelcase. Among the many things that Jim taught me is how space can be an accelerator of an organization’s mission. I am passionate about how work environments can change the way employees, organizations, and communities come together to solve problems. The United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s office space was meant to reflect the core tenets of our culture.

I vs. We: While we designed our environment to recognize that everyone has different work modes – some needing wide-open space and some requiring complete privacy – we asked everyone to contribute some of their “I” space in order to have more powerful “We” space. We ask residents in the community every day to give up some of their “I” – time, talent, or money – in order for us to have a stronger community (We). We felt our space should speak to that directly. The most impactful space people always comment on is the “We” space at United Way.

Transparent: In organizations and society, transparency is often missing. When an organization is stewarding individuals contributing time and money, we must be transparent. Our space is meant to model that. While we understand and accommodate the need for privacy, we didn’t design 90% of the organization around that. Rather, we created a space that fosters and promotes transparency.

Leverage the Informal: Within organizations, often the attention is placed on the formal processes, protocols, and structures when in fact the informal network creates as much value. We believe at United Way that the formal systems within our community are critical, but equally so are the informal systems. Our design is meant to support the formal systems, but to create a greater likelihood that the informal systems will have strength. For example, we thought about how to create intersections within the space to increase the chances that people from different areas of the organization would bump into each other, resulting in more communication and cross-functional teamwork.

Performance: We are measured on our results in the community. I often say I am not interested in employees being “at work” but rather being “on the work.” We designed the space so that no matter what type of work you were doing, there would be a location that would not only meet your requirements, but foster high productivity.

Talent: We are only as good as our talent. I wanted a space that would serve this generation well, but put us in a position to attract the next generation of leaders. Stellar talent leads to higher success, and space matters when trying to attract talent.

Our space continues to evolve as we learn how to better leverage it to help fulfill our mission. We are increasingly using our space as one large storyboard. That is, our space ought to help us tell the story of our mission.

There are so few tools in the toolbox of CEOs to affect the culture of the organization that the importance of space should not be ignored. Space is often viewed as an “employee storage system” versus as an accelerator of the organization’s mission. With the limited resources we must steward, I felt strongly that our space ought to play a vital role in helping Southeastern Michigan make progress on the toughest social issues.

There is a great article in the New York Times on office design that is worth the read. If you want to learn more about how space accelerates a mission, feel free to contact us at 313-226-9411.

Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 1: Our Mission to Empower Metro Detroit Communities

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Author’s Note: This post is the first part in an eight-part series on the strategic framework of the nonprofit organization – United Way for Southeastern Michigan. Click here to read the full series.

United Way for Southeastern Michigan was created by a merger of United Way Community Services and the United Way of Oakland on April 1, 2005. Previously, these latter two organizations had been serving the southeastern Michigan region since 1912. Now, the newly-formed United Way was tasked with operating more efficiently and effectively.

When I came aboard to lead the “new” United Way, one of the first things I did was to work with a handful of volunteers and community partners to develop a mission statement for the organization. Huddled around a conference-room table on the top floor of DTE, overlooking the city of Detroit and the wider metropolitan area, we developed the following:

“The mission of United Way for Southeastern Michigan is to mobilize the caring power of Detroit and Southeastern Michigan to improve communities and individual lives.”

I remember a moment when we felt confident in the language we had crafted, until I heard Steve Ewing, then CEO of MichCon, say, “There is one problem with this statement.  We don’t have anything about measurement.  How will we know we are successful?  I don’t think this mission should leave this room without that incorporated into it.”

We realized what Steve said would be the key to our future.  So, we decided to incorporate three words to the end — ‘in measurable ways.’  We paused after that, looking to one another, feeling as if we had crafted a mission that could stand the test of time.

This is how I think of our mission:

What do we uniquely do?

We mobilize individuals, organizations and networks.

What do we mobilize?

We mobilize the caring power of these individuals, organizations and networks.

Where do we mobilize this caring power?

In Detroit and Southeastern Michigan (Note: There was much discussion about whether to use Detroit or Southeastern Michigan in the mission. We concluded that Detroit’s importance to the region as a whole warranted its use in the mission.)

To what end?

To improve communities and lives.  (Note: We felt strongly that community and neighborhood economic success is not attainable without individual success.)

How will we know we have made progress?

By holding ourselves accountable in measurable ways against specific social outcomes. (Note: Steve Ewing was right.  The  Board meetings today always lift up  this aspect of our mission.  Are we making progress and how do we know?)

This mission believes that the region could and would work together in new ways to create a better life for individuals and families. We have an inherent belief is this ‘caring power,’ and with the right efforts, it can be focused to make progress on the toughest social issues. And uniquely, United Way is at its best when it brings together the public, private and nonprofit sectors toward a common outcome.

We thrive when there is strong diversity wrapped around this mission, and we each come as strong trustees of the whole, not just for our own self-interest.

There is a reason why the first word in our name is United.  It isn’t Divided Way. It is United Way. We believe that progress will be made when we lift up our interdependence and focus on issues we all share in common: a better life for ourselves, our neighbors and our fellow citizens.

Other blog posts on Building a Strong Nonprofit

Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 2: What’s a BHAG?
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 3: Core Values
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 4: Crafting a Purpose Statement
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 5: Our Theory Of Change
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 6: Strategic Anchors
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 7: Engagement Pyramid and Cycle
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 8: Board Roles