Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Business

CEO Suzanne McCormick pushing United Way Suncoast into 21st century of philanthropy

It used to be so easy.

Across America and throughout the Tampa Bay area, thousands of companies long affiliated with their local United Ways would hand out forms and encourage new employees to designate a generous sum to be deducted from each paycheck. That money would fund United Way chapters long entrusted to distribute those dollars to well-vetted community programs best serving those most deserving or in need.

No muss.

No fuss.

But no more.

Once enjoying near-monopoly status in tapping Corporate America, today's United Ways are scrambling to reinvent themselves in light of changing workplace demographics. Better-informed employees are keen to personalize their philanthropic giving. Competition among charities for precious dollars is rising fast. And, frankly, the latest generation of new businesses and workers do not know United Way from Doris Day.

Such is the challenge facing Suzanne McCormick, who arrived last fall from Maine after running the United Way in Portland, to serve as the new CEO of United Way Suncoast, whose turf includes Hillsborough, Pinellas, Sarasota and DeSoto counties.

McCormick, 48, says it feels as if it's only two weeks, but she started her new job 13 months ago with a clear mission. Not only does she want to raise the profile of the local United Way as a philanthropic leader. She wants her organization to become a player at the economic development table of Tampa Bay, helping to tell companies considering expanding here that this is a community that cares about the less fortunate and, by doing so, is becoming a better place to live and work.

"How does the community care for one another? That may be more heart than head," McCormick said during a recent interview in her Tampa office overlooking the Howard Frankland Bridge that connects Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. "But people want to live where people care for one another."

A United Way priority is to raise the awareness of rising poverty, especially among low-income working households, across the greater metro area despite the so-called improvement in the postrecession economy.

The findings of a report known as ALICE (standing for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) are troubling. Just under half of Floridians who hold jobs still cannot meet the basic financial needs of their households. That amounts to 3.2 million Florida households, including 600,000 of them in the six counties in the Tampa Bay metro area.

The numbers are startling and serve as an effective wakeup tool for the United Way to emphasize the great demand for giving by those who can. McCormick says the United Ways across the state plan to update that ALICE report soon, so donors can see if there's any progress.

That's a big reason McCormick hopes to tune in to the economic development world here. First, it helps her to steer United Way resources if she better understands what kinds of jobs and wages are being created across Tampa Bay. Just as important, she sees the region's weak public transportation system and its so-far unsuccessful efforts to embrace better mass transit as a big stumbling block for the working poor.

"Transportation is a huge issue for people trying to get into — or get back into — the workforce," McCormick says. "It's an enormous issue in order to be successful."

Another landmark move by United Way Suncoast was its decision last fall to issue its first-ever list of the top 100 "most generous workplaces" based on employee giving ranked by individual companies.

McCormick says this list was in the works before she arrived, though she has embraced the idea of giving positive publicity to those who give and boosting the image of employers. So much so that the second annual list was issued a few weeks ago.

McCormick says it became clear shortly before the first list was released that it could have the opposite effect by putting a spotlight on area companies that failed to make the top 100 most generous rankings.

She says the staff discussed the matter and agreed to move forward. (Publix Super Markets ranked No. 1 on the most generous list both this year and last.)

"We were the first United Way in the country to do this, and now some others want to emulate us," McCormick says.

"Hopefully," she says with a smile, " it will be a little call to action."

• • •

McCormick is tall and prone to classic outfits, often with pearls. While she claims she is an introvert, she hides it well.

She grew up in Wilmington, N.C., later attending Duke University. She briefly pondered law school, as many Duke grads in the latter 1980s pursued legal or Wall Street careers. She changed her mind, discovering an idealistic streak after taking a course in social consciousness and, later, plucking a flier for the Peace Corps out of a wastebasket.

She soon found herself teaching in a remote village in Thailand where many locals had never seen a lanky American woman. Wherever she walked, McCormick says, she heard the Thai word "farang, farang!" which means foreigner.

After her Peace Corps stint, McCormick returned to the United States. She and husband Bill worked briefly in New York City before realizing they wanted a less urban experience.

That's when McCormick landed a job in Maine at the United Way in Portland where she would later serve as its CEO.

McCormick says she had not planned to return to the South after growing up in North Carolina. But she realized Maine lacked diversity and — not unlike Thailand — the locals wanted "foreigners" to prove themselves over many years before being accepted.

In Tampa Bay, McCormick says, the community actually embraces newcomers. She is excited about the area's diversity, and is pleased that her son, now in high school, and her middle school daughter will be exposed to a broader range of people.

At times she is daunted by the vast number of folks she wants to meet and get to know. She is struck by the pace of growth and change apparent here — far different from tradition-bound New England. She is grateful to many who have welcomed her, especially former Tampa Bay Rays executive Mark Fernandez, prominent political and business leader Alex Sink, and Carlton Fields Jorden Burt law firm CEO Gary Sasso, among others.

She is also excited about United Way Suncoast working with the ad firm 22squared — which handles Publix advertising, among other clients — to create a new campaign for her organization that will be launched in 2016. The United Way, McCormick says, needs to raise its profile in fast-changing times in philanthropy.

"I think we are so valuable for the infrastructure of this community," she explains. "Maybe that's not apparent yet, but I believe it and we can prove it. We are behind a lot of change that is not branded 'United Way.' We pull a lot of stuff together and help make a lot of things happen.

"That is what I want to make sure to say."

It's a good start.

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] Follow @venturetampabay.

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