Tag Archives: United Way

My Journey to a New Way of Thinking

I haven’t written anything in a while because, as you’ll read, I’ve been busy making a huge transition.

Last fall, after nearly 30 years with the United Way—and nine years as CEO of the United Way for Southeastern Michigan (UWSEM)—I decided to step away from Detroit to develop new approaches to UWSEM’s work. A few weeks ago, I made my way across the country to join an invitation-only, ten-week program on design thinking at the Institute of Design at Stanford.

Designer and IDEO CEO Tim Brown defines design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s tool kit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements of business success.” The Stanford program is all about unconventional problem solving and helping non-designers to apply creative methodologies to huge, messy challenges.

I jumped at the opportunity to bring this perspective to UWSEM. After much discussion and reflection, the UWSEM board and I agreed that this was a worthwhile investment. I knew it meant taking a big risk with some heady implications for my team and for UWSEM as a whole. Thankfully, everyone involved—the board, my team, and my family—sees the same great potential for design thinking to advance UWSEM’s work for the benefit of the Greater Detroit area.


Participants from Ford, Victoria Secret, TripAdvisor, and Stanford Hospital join me for a quick photo at the conclusion of our two-day boot camp.

“We need to advance our work.”

As a way of perceiving the world and facing today’s challenges, design thinking fits in perfectly with the vision, mission, and values of UWSEM and it holds so much promise for nonprofits working in the trenches to benefit the communities we serve. I’ve long realized that doing right by Southeastern Michigan—including UWSEM’s community of clients, service users, and funders—will mean transforming our vision of Southeastern Michigan and thinking more creatively about its problems and potential. The UWSEM community and partner organizations have brought creativity and imagination to our work, but I hope we can go further to develop new ways of engaging and partnering with residents.

As we work together for social change in Southeastern Michigan, we need to put residents at the center instead of the institutions that serve them. We’ll need to combine empathy with a commitment to creative, solution-focused thinking if we’re going to turn around our failing schools and ensure that everyone in our community has basic needs—safe housing, healthy food, and quality health care.

“Acting to think, not thinking to act.” 

“Two hundred executives will arrive on Friday. You’re going to prepare for this work by teaching an intensive design thinking two-day bootcamp on Monday. Between now and then, you should be ready to present and lead your team.”

These were some of the first words I heard from my instructor during my first week at the d.school. Imagine, for a moment, that within three days of a ten-week program you’re told that you’re no longer a student, but the teacher to executives who came from all over the world to be part of this design bootcamp!

This program flips everything I’ve known about the education process on its head—no syllabus, no prescribed texts, no top-down instruction. I’m empowered to apply what I’ve learned and take action with the understanding that failure is welcome and should be used to inspire new solutions or insights. I’ll plan, think, and develop new skills while working with my classmates on challenging, hands-on projects. I’ll be “acting to think”—applying the principles of design thinking to large and complex projects—and not “thinking to act” —confining my experiences to the classroom, readings, and hypotheticals.

I’m transforming from CEO to student and teacher and I’m ready for all of the challenges and opportunities this change will bring. The prospect of what’s ahead is truly exciting.

Over the remainder of the program, I’ll explore the potential of new leadership strategies in mission-driven organizations and examine opportunities for design as an agent for transformation in Detroit. In the process, I want to share my journey through the Stanford design thinking program and reveal its potential for UWSEM’s growth and development.

Will you take this journey with me?



I said to Michael Tenbusch, who serves as United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s Chief Impact Officer, that we are going  to “turn up the heat” on our work in early childhood development.

He said that phrase reminded him of Ralph Bland, superintendent of Detroit Edison Public School Academy. Mike said, “Ralph has posted signs reading ‘212℉’ in his schools. At 211℉, you have really hot water. At 212℉, you have boiling water, which can create steam, which can move a locomotive.”

So often we give up on things much too soon. We miss the opportunity to see what that one extra effort, that one extra degree, will do to move one’s objective forward. I am reminded of Thomas Edison’s quote:

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

We all have many things going on in our work and lives. I found that the 212℉ anecdote prompted the question: Where in my life or work will turning up the heat a little bit more, that extra one degree, help me move a locomotive?

Start Small and Fail Early: Social Impact Design

Poster Hanging @ Menlo Innovations

Poster Hanging @ Menlo Innovations

Scale (“go big”) and success (“think ‘win’”) dominate the focus of many leaders and organizations. Understandably so, as each individual and organization are measured by tangible results. When I look at work that has a lasting impact and is much more sustainable, however, I find that “going big” and being successful weren’t the center of attention.

Recently, I had a few insights shared with me that I thought you might like as well:

Jim Hackett, CEO of Steelcase, was explaining to me how design thinking has played a role in the way an organization operates and develops new ways to produce value for customers. As he was counseling me on where to begin such a journey, he advised me, “Mike, start small. And try not to make the first prototype, your first attempt, too precious.”

Those words connected me to a conversation I had with my brother Tom Brennan of the Green Garage — a business enterprise and a community of people dedicated to Detroit’s sustainable future. He said to me, “Mike, it is far better to fail early and often than to fail late. Failing late is rarely good. And remember, small is big.”

When designing for success, creating room to test an idea or concept is far better than jumping right to a wholesale solution.  For example, our first attempt to improve early reading habits of parents with newborns didn’t fair well.  The design of the program was too costly and difficult to manage.  In the end, we had to close it down in order to re-design our approach.

We applied those early painful learnings to help us shape a new early childhood pilot with the Detroit Medical Center that links moms with resources in the community such as literacy development and parenting skills  to ensure short and long term success for the child.   We have learned already from this early pilot how to improve our approach and to strengthen the long term relationship with the parent(s).  For example, it is far better for the mom if we follow up with her 30 – 45 days after the leaving the hospital than 14 days or 90 days.  These insights give us an ability to alter the design to ensure success.  To see more about this innovative program, click below.

These insights on the power of small and failing early made me think of how new and long established organizations have embarked on creative paths to solving problems and imagining a different future.

In a recent article in Fast Company, small start ups throughout Detroit are described as central to the rebuilding of Detroit.  New frontiers are often started with small beginnings.  The New York Times article describes Dan Gilbert and his early beginning — small in scale — that ultimately led to a much larger vision and capacity of transforming Detroit into one of the best places to live and work.

I think the next time we talk about going to scale and delivering success, we need to think about how we can start small, fail early and not make our beginning too precious.  From that we will ultimately experience big wins and lasting impact.

Other Blog Posts on Social Impact Design:

Social Impact Design: A New Way

Social Impact Design: Design Thinking

Design + Social Impact: Why They Belong Together?

Job #1 : Design For Joy

Now, Near and Far: Tri-Zone Leaders

You Can Have Everything, Just Not All At Once

Dr. Syed Mohiuddin

He arrived at the United Way office for our meeting wearing a pair of silver and blue sneakers, a physician’s blue scrubs, and a zip-up sweatshirt. His dark eyes greeted mine with the energy of a spring being unleashed from its compression. Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, a physician doing his residency at Detroit Medical Center, is a thirty-year-old force of nature who has put his raw intellect, capacity, and passion for humanity to work for a greater good.

Syed came to meet with me prior to the start of his 3 p.m. shift in the ER to discuss the next steps of a group he chairs for United Way for Southeastern Michigan called Leadership Next. This group of next-generation leaders from throughout the region works to make progress on our targeted issues of education, income, and building a springboard into the safety net.

As the meeting was wrapping up, Syed asked me if there were things I wish I had done more or less of in my career.

I said, “I never regretted taking big risks. Sometimes we can overthink things we face and never take the necessary action. It is far better to stay bold than safe.”

Syed talked about the many dreams he has for his future profession in medicine and in the wider world. Syed could be anywhere in the world doing what he wants, but he has chosen to do his work in Detroit.

“The intersection of the hospital to the community and the many issues we face has been a perfect mix for me to be in. I never thought I would be practicing my profession and working in the community with an organization like United Way. I get to not only treat the patients who come to the hospital, but I can also work on the issues in the community that often create the conditions which lead people to come to the hospital,” he said.

As I listened to Syed, I thought what a beautiful human being he is to be working so incredibly hard to make a difference. Hearing about his dreams and aspirations reminded me of a lesson my wife and I were given before we had our first child 23 years ago.

We sat at a small kitchen table with the owner of a B&B in Maine. This was our last trip before we had children, as Joan was seven months pregnant. The owner looked at us as we shared the possibilities in our future and gave a little pearl of wisdom that my wife and I have repeated many times over throughout the years:

Always keep this thought in mind as you are striving for the next thing in your life: You can have everything; you just can’t have it all at once.”

Syed bounded out the elevator as quickly as he had arrived, heading to his ER shift. He was excited about linking his patients with United Way’s 211. As he left, I thought, if there ever were a person who might be able to get everything he wanted done all at once, it would be Syed. Regardless, this community is blessed to have Syed in full motion, creating a new future within the region.

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.

Are you the Egg or the Bacon on the plate? Profile in commitment

We all have heard the story about the difference between the egg and the bacon on your breakfast plate: The chicken participated, but the pig was committed.

I have never met another volunteer like Ken Whipple in my 28 years of working on a social mission. Ken, at age 77, seems 20 years his junior in both mind and body. He has an incredible curiosity, seeking knowledge like a puzzle master looking for the unique shape to complete the jigsaw. He has an easy style to him that is gracious but focused; intentional, not rigid; grounded and able to see the whole picture. He gets energy from having strong minds and talent in the room to advance difficult and complex work. But there is one thing that particularly stands out about Ken: his enthusiasm.

I recently told my wife that the first 50 years of my life were geared toward being a responsible adult who worked on serious issues. Hence, I am a serious guy. My goal for the next 50 years (God willing) is to bring more childlike qualities back into my life. Face serious issues, yes, but do it with qualities you see more in children: joy, laughter, play, and risk. When I watch Ken, I see a master at work, painting upon life’s canvas.

“I always wanted a logo with a lightning bolt in it,” Ken Whipple said to me. We were discussing the Agenda Results Committee (ARC) that Ken is chairing for the United Way. This group of volunteers works to bring our mission to life in the fullest and most complete manner.

Ken asked that T-shirts be made up for the committee that would include the new ARC logo and a newly adopted quote from Martin Luther King Jr.

The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

The T-shirts were a hit, so next came the baseball caps. We kidded about having an ARC tattoo to demonstrate a real commitment. Later, as we gathered for an early morning meeting, there was Ken with his sleeve rolled up getting his tattoo (albeit temporary) placed upon his arm. Then at the close of the meeting, Ken rolled up his sleeve, turned to the group, and with a big smile showed off his new tattoo. He made sure everyone left the room with their own tattoo of a lightning bolt as well. The work the group engages in is difficult, but having fun along the way has become a requirement, thanks to Ken. He naturally brings that to the table.

I remember visiting Ken at his home and walking into his study. Up on the wall he had a painting of a shore with waves rolling in and several people working to push a boat against the wind and water out to sea. Ken said, “You know what I like about that painting? It shows it takes everyone working together to make something happen.”

Our mission is fundamentally about that: getting everyone working together to make progress on issues we all care about. In order to do that, you need leaders who believe and who have the knack to bring others along. Ken is an incredibly talented human being who is using his gifts to make a community better. With him, I am confident great progress will continue to be made.

This past Saturday I received an email titled, “All in for ARC or what?” Below is the picture that accompanied the email. Clearly, Ken isn’t the Chicken on the plate.