United Way Suncoast emerges from pandemic with big goals, renewed purpose

CEO Jessica Muroff talks about tackling Tampa Bay unemployment, evictions and housing insecurity.
Jessica Muroff, shown here at United Way Suncoast's Tampa headquarters, joined the group as CEO in November 2019.
Jessica Muroff, shown here at United Way Suncoast's Tampa headquarters, joined the group as CEO in November 2019. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sept. 29, 2021

Four months after Jessica Muroff became CEO of United Way Suncoast, the coronavirus shut down the world. Any large-scale plans the organization had in the works had to take a pause.

Nearly two years later, Muroff is ready to think big again. In September, she led a virtual summit with United Way Suncoast partners and benefactors, laying out a strategic plan for how the nonprofit can push forward with a renewed sense of purpose. A few weeks later, she began detailing how the group will spend a $20 million, no-strings-attached grant from MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire philanthropist and former wife of Jeff Bezos.

What hasn’t changed is the group’s mission of increasing financial security and independence for all communities in the Tampa Bay region. If anything, Muroff said, it’s as relevant as ever.

“The pandemic has done one thing that I think is good in some ways,” she said. “So many families were already facing so many daunting challenges. This has just shined a spotlight on how many were suffering before this pandemic even started.”

Muroff came to United Way Suncoast from Girl Scouts of West Central Florida and Frameworks of Tampa Bay, two organizations where she also served as CEO. She succeeded Suzanne McCormick, who was recently named president and CEO of the YMCA of the USA. And she recently saw the departure of another key colleague, chief strategy and operations officer Bemetra Simmons, who was just tapped to lead the Tampa Bay Partnership. That network of connections, she said, will only help the United Way Suncoast going forward.

“We build great leaders, that’s for sure,” she said.

Related: Tampa Bay groups got $38M in MacKenzie Scott grants. How will they spend it?

Muroff recently discussed United Way Suncoast’s mission in the age of COVID-19, including its effect on local evictions and housing insecurity. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

How would you compare the mission that you’ve outlined for 2021 and 2022 to the mission that the group had before the pandemic?

One of the challenges we’ve had at United Way is that people know United Way — “Oh, I know United Way, I give to United Way” — but what we also hear is there’s a lack of clarity around what we do, and the impacts that we have. We do a lot of things, and we try to show the multifaceted ways we serve the community, from our partners with nonprofit organizations, which is at the core of everything we do, to our own programs that we lead. So the plan is really a road map to strengthening the “how” in our work versus changing our mission.

Do you personally get that question?

All the time. Yes.

And what’s your response?

Oh my goodness. (laughs) United Way Suncoast brings together the best organizations and individuals to tackle our community’s greatest challenges. And we do that in three focused areas: early learning, youth success and financial stability. Our focus is in supporting our ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) families, who are struggling to make ends meet, because we know that the more we can lift up all in our community, the more that we can have a thriving and vibrant community for everyone. There is not one thing that United Way does in a vacuum or by ourselves. It is always in partnership with others. As we are emerging from this pandemic, it could not be more important to convene and bring organizations and people together to tackle issues, because we’re stronger together, and we have to do things together.

In what areas would you say people are still struggling the most at this point in the pandemic?

The two biggest things are housing and employment. Really, the eviction crisis is Issue 1. That is something we have been actively working on. And then of course employment. We want to makes sure we’re giving reskilling or upskilling opportunities to help get residents in our communities the training that they need to get good-paying jobs.

What resources do you have at your disposal to help with the eviction crisis?

Getting community navigators to help residents and individuals access to resources. Every county does it in a different way. We’ve seen it firsthand in our neighborhood centers — it is so hard to navigate these websites and make sure that you have the paperwork and all the things that you need. We’re also providing legal assistance. We are partnering with Bay Area Legal Services and Gulf Coast Legal Services to make sure that they have attorneys and staff to support families if they are already starting the eviction process. Research shows that 80 percent of tenants with lawyers leave court without an eviction record stemming from the case, compared to 6 percent of unrepresented tenants. So we know there’s some opportunity.

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Obviously, housing prices in Tampa Bay have soared in the last year or two. How has that changed how United Way Suncoast approaches housing security?

When we did our community survey to help inform our strategic plan, the No. 1 issue and need that came up was the housing piece. So we know that this is a critical issue. It is a crisis. It really is about removing barriers and helping them. We’re not building affordable housing initiatives and projects ourselves. We’re supporting efforts from a public policy standpoint, and making sure we can build a more financially stable future for individuals, so they can afford to live there.