This is one organization’s story of taking its mission and creating a strategic framework to help move everything forward in a clear, coherent manner. This is a work in progress versus being fully baked, but as with any journey it helps to pause and capture the story along the way.

Outlined below is the strategic framework that United Way for Southeastern Michigan uses to guide its leadership, mission, and resources. Attached to each frame is a short narrative to help provide some context.

Should you have thoughts on how we might improve this work, please do share, as our goal is to be the best at helping our region become one of the Top 5 places to live and work by 2030.


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.”

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What’s a BHAG?

Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great,” created the BHAG  (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) framework for organizations and leaders.  A BHAG is a clear, compelling goal that helps drive an organization’s vision.

When we began to explore a potential BHAG for the United Way for Southeastern Michigan, we knew it needed to drive us beyond our wildest expectations. The country, and particularly Southeastern Michigan, had just gone through the economic implosion of 2008. During that time, there wasn’t much hope for our city, region, or state. People were losing jobs by the thousands and leaving the state in similar numbers. The demand for help was escalating at a pace beyond capacity.

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Core Values

An organization’s core values are just that: the core of the organization’s essence.

These few essential tenets should serve as important guideposts in shaping culture, making hiring decisions, setting strategic direction and influencing the way an organization interacts with its stakeholders. Core values should be the few essential tenets that are non-negotiable in the organization – timeless and unchanging.

When we took our first step at articulating the values of the organization, we embarked on a “Mission to Mars” exercise.

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Crafting a Purpose Statement

Early in my career at United Way for Southeastern Michigan, I remember sitting in a strategic planning meeting when I heard the question, “Why does the organization exist?”

The conversation led to all kinds of insights — with topics ranging from improving communities to helping people directly.

Rob Pew, a former Board Member at the United Way in Grand Rapids and the CEO of Steelcase at the time, raised his hand and asked, “Why wouldn’t we be working on solving, not just improving?”

That insight has stuck with me since.

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Our Theory Of Change

I will never forget attending a national board meeting of United Way where Bill Gates Sr., father of the Microsoft founder and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, stood up and said, “I am the chairman of the largest foundation in the world. There is nothing we can accomplish alone.”

Social conditions rarely change because of a single program, plan, or organization. Change occurs when networks align to work on common issues. Think of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), advocates of seat belt laws, the green movement, supporters of anti-smoking laws, the Occupy movement – you can’t name the CEO of any of those. Change occurs not through a linear process or an industrial model. Rather, it occurs as it does in nature, through the wider ecosystem.

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Strategic Anchors

Leadership groups and boards of directors might use several filters when making decisions, but an organization’s strategic anchors are what I like to think of as its “major decision filter.” Strategic anchors can be an important tool for choosing which businesses or strategies to opt in or out of.

At United Way for Southeastern Michigan, we use four strategic anchors that have been developed within the past five years. This is how I think of each of them: Engagement, Resource Broker, System-Level Change and Results Driven.

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Engagement Pyramid and Cycle

Engagement = Relationship + Action

Both the private and nonprofit sectors work toward public engagement, whether it’s focused on customers, donors, or the community at large. However, few organizations do it very well.

Why? Because an organization’s entire ethos must be dedicated to public engagement if it is to take deep root. Leaders would have to make changes to people, culture, processes, and technology to achieve this, and many don’t want to do such “heavy lifting.” Also, many leaders don’t recognize that engagement can be a valuable tool for solving problems, and they often relegate it to a matter of programming.

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Board Roles

Countless books have been published about nonprofit governance and the role of the board. When creating or growing a board, most organizations use a demographic filter to ensure the right representation of industries, genders, races, etc. This is critical, and attention should be paid to it. But beyond that, what criteria do you have for people who join your board?

At United Way for Southeastern Michigan, we landed on three main attributes beyond the traditional demographic considerations that we use to select board members: passion, expertise, and resources.

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What is a “For Impact” Organization?

“Why is the nonprofit sector the only sector that gets described by what it is NOT, versus what it is for?” asked Doug Stewart, Executive Director of the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation.

“I am going to start using the term ‘for impact‘ to describe the sector and the organizations within it,” he said.

I think Doug is right. Too often, the third sector of the economy gets viewed more as a “recipient sector” than one that provides leadership and creates results. I see leaders and organizations in the “nonprofit” sector waking up each day to deliver results: to make an impact. I don’t think the purpose of the sector is served well by describing it in terms of deficiency. Rather, we could enhance the “nonprofit” sector’s important work by describing it in terms of its core essence: impact.

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What is a Leader?

I keep a copy of a frame of leadership that I came across long ago posted in the room where the management team of United Way for Southeastern Michigan meets each week. We keep these simple guideposts in a visible place because they are worth taking note of each day: Define, Identify, Balance and Shape.

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