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.
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3 thoughts

  1. Beautifully said! I agree that we have the opportunity to meet some pretty amazing people, but the best are the ones who are on the ground level making everlasting change.

    Best wishes on your new endeavors and know that you have left your mark in our work here at the United Way!

  2. THank you, Mike for sharing your thoughts as you transition. You’ve been an amazing leader in the United Way movement and I am enriched because I know you. I look forward to following you in your new path. Keep writing! It’s also a gift you have. My very best to you.
    Susan Gilmore

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