To Heal Divisions in This Country, We Need to Redefine Success

Nonprofits — along with many business and political leaders — have spent the past few years trying to heal the political, social, and economic divisions that were made more visible to all after the 2016 election.

Yet today people remain frustrated, marginalized, and worse off. The third federal government shutdown in a year and the roller-coaster stock market increased the need for nonprofits, in particular, to take a leadership role in reshaping how America works.

While many nonprofit, business, and political leaders are holding cross-cultural and community conversations to discuss what communities need, others continue to successfully exploit people’s fears for their own purposes.

One reason for the success of the latter group is the pocketbook concerns facing many American households. While U.S. gross domestic product is growing and unemployment is low, a lingering dissatisfaction reigns in many middle- and lower-income homes. At its heart, much of this discontent stems from people’s anxieties about the future of work and society.

I grew up in northwest Indiana in the 1960s and ’70s, when families could make a good living in local steel plants, oil refineries, and factories. Employees made a respectable, steady salary and believed that if they worked hard, they could provide for their families and find opportunities to advance.

Biggest Income Gap in Nearly a Century

That’s less and less the case. In the United States, the income gap is the largest since the 1920s, just before the Great Depression. Wages are stagnant, and we’re less economically mobile. Today, millennials have just a 50-50 chance of earning more than their parents did. In the 1940s, almost everyone was better off than the previous generation.

Reports about the future of work intensify concerns about jobs and mobility. While technology can create greater efficiencies, the World Economic Forum’s recently published “Future of Jobs” report says that in the next four years more than 75 million jobs may be lost as companies shift to greater automation. Today, machines or algorithms account for 29 percent of the total task hours worked in major industries. By 2022, they will handle 42 percent.

Where do people fit in as the world of work continues to change? It’s not simply a question of money but also dignity. Those Indiana steel workers possessed a strong sense of self-worth. They found purpose in what they did and believed they were powering their communities. With their job and personal security, they drove out bigots and fear-mongers who tried to sow racial and ethnic division. Today, we’re seeing a rise in ethno-nationalism and hate crimes. What will happen when more people lose work and the dignity it brings?

Solutions for All

To tackle these concerns, our society needs to redefine success. Instead of zeroing in on GDP growth rates or stock-market indexes alone, let’s focus on income inequality, access to good health care, and economic mobility. Let’s examine our education and training systems to make sure we are preparing young people — and all people — for the future of work. Let’s also not confine ourselves to standard thinking if new ideas and programs show promise, such as  advanced vocational training, guaranteed basic incomes, or opportunity zones – which were recently created to add incentives for private investment in economically distressed areas.

We must develop solutions that give all individuals greater opportunity, purpose, and self-worth. Critical to this effort will be a new success index that focuses on more than just macro-economic growth. It will weigh broad-based income distribution, personal economic and social mobility, and people’s sense of personal security and hope. Let’s call it the “Personal Prosperity and Satisfaction Index.” The Alice Projectwhich local United Ways use to find community data to address their most pressing social issues, can serve as one example.

A “we” culture once dominated U.S. society. Today, we have sunk into an “I” culture, placing too much value on what we earn or where we vacation –— and not whether more of us are happy, safe and prospering in strong communities. To defeat hate and build stronger communities, we must put people first. The dignity of work and equity must take top priority. And nonprofits must lead the way in restoring community connections by listening to people’s needs and pushing forward the best ideas.

It will take more than one election, one action, or one moment to solve this challenge. Solutions will come from a concerted and sustained effort to help more people succeed and an embrace of a new common good prepared to tackle the challenges of the 21st century.

Brian Gallagher is CEO of United Way Worldwide.

When You Invest in Your Community, You Invest in Yourself

“Givers gain.”

That phrase was racing through my mind as I put on my “Live United” t-shirt, scanned the conference room and listened to the Rappahannock United Way staff explain the logistics of the sort-a-thon. I was surrounded by Fredericksburg, Virginia, residents, all of whom were eager to sort children’s books, divvy up school supplies and create “kits” to help kids prepare for the school year ahead.

Once a month, United Way Worldwide employees can spend a day volunteering. It’s an opportunity for us to extend our support beyond helping the network from afar—to join the “boots on the ground.” I chose to lace my boots and contribute to my local United Way’s school readiness efforts. Rappahannock United Way is doing great work in the education space. When I heard about their sort-a-thon, I decided to contribute. I expected to give my time, and what I got was far more valuable.

The conference room was a bibliophile’s dream. There must have been a hundred books on tabletops, with volunteers organizing each. Nick, a Marine from nearby Marine Corps Base Quantico, drove 30 minutes to participate, and he was enjoying every second of it.

“I heard about the event from a volunteer coordinator on base,” said Nick. “I’m big into reading, and I like to support anything that has to do with youth and literature.”

Once the books were sorted and labeled, they were handed over to a crew of kit creators. Bags were filled with miscellaneous school items—from markers to notebooks—and given one book each before being set aside. It was a well-oiled assembly line of goodwill. I manned the supplies line, doling out cardboard paper for future coloring. To my right, a woman was talking about inspiring her sons to volunteer. Another woman, Geetha, commented on early learning.

“The beginning part of a child’s education is the most important,” said Geetha, a former nutritionist for Head Start. “Each month they don’t get the right education, they’re set back two months.”

All in all, the sort-a-thon was a hit, with dozens of people coming together to create hundreds of kits and set underprivileged children up for success. Personally, I was given a valuable reminder: Anything is possible when you combine your heart with hard work. Volunteering doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t have to be arduous, and you don’t need to be an expert. You just need to act.

One decision, one hour, one moment—you’ll get back tenfold what you give.

Connecting Employees to Community Service Opportunities is a Win All Around

BRIAN GALLAGHER,  

Did you know that millennials will be 50 percent of the workforce by 2020?  Or that 88 percent of millennials feel their job is more fulfilling when they are provided opportunities to make a positive impact on social or environmental issues?

These facts helped set the scene during United Way’s recent annual forum with corporate and foundation leaders to discuss how together we can support employees who want to feel ‘engaged’ at work and in the community.

And it’s not just millennials who want to give back.  A 2016 survey by Cone Communications found that 74 percent of employees find their work fulfilling when provided with opportunities to help their communities.  What’s more, 55 percent would choose to work for a socially responsible company, even if the salary is less!  For millennials, that figure is even higher.

These employees want to see purpose in what they do, and as part of their engagement they might volunteer their time, donate money, or advocate on issues important to them.

Businesses benefit, too.  In an increasingly competitive labor market, companies are pursuing effective employee engagement strategies to improve worker recruitment and retention, increase productivity and further engage targeted communities or demographics.

At this year’s forum, company representatives made it clear that the war for talent is driving the need for engagement options among all employees, but particularly millennials.  Younger workers want to contribute, and do so with their friends in an easy, digitally-connected, and impactful way.

United Way and ExxonMobil made a joint presentation showing how we worked together to increase millennial engagement in Houston.  ExxonMobil, a 65-year partner with United Way, had been experiencing low participation from its early career professionals.

To change that, the company used improved marketing and mentoring to reach out to their young professionals, but they also teamed up with United Way’s LINC initiative.  LINC (Lead, Impact, Network, Change) specifically works to engage millennials and turn them into lifelong contributors and young leaders.

The result for ExxonMobil was an increase in campaign participation, gifts and volunteer hours.

Another take away is that employees are increasingly inspired by issues rather than institutions.  This is an important insight for United Way.  Fortunately, while our work in education, income and health isn’t changing, by focusing on VeteransJobsRefugees, and Human Trafficking, our role and influence in society remains as timely and relevant as ever.

We are also heavily involved with Salesforce to create a digital employee engagement platform that will allow workers to create online profiles and find issues that motivate them.  The goal is to empower employees and make it easy for them to connect with each other – and friends – and make a difference.

Moving forward, we invite companies and organizations of all sizes to partner with us so we can learn from one another.  We may not have all of the answers right away, but the networking and sharing of promising practices could lead to valuable partnerships down the road.