United Way of Greater Cincinnati tackling change and challenges in 2019

'We just need a different stream of consciousness'
Posted at 5:00 AM, Jan 08, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-08 11:47:33-05

CINCINNATI — It’s a New Year, but United Way of Greater Cincinnati remains under a community microscope.

The organization started 2019 doing the hard work of making itself more inclusive and equitable in its internal operations, board structure and the organizations it funds.

A local community group called BlackLed Change Cincinnati has vowed to make sure that work continues.

“It’s a 103-year-old institution that I think knows it needs to change,” said the Rev. Damon Lynch III, who is part of the BlackLed Change group. “United Way understands that after all the years of their service, the conditions in the black community really haven’t changed. So we all have to question why is that. What’s the missing component?”

Pastor Damon Lynch III

The controversy surrounding last year’s departure of Michael Johnson, United Way’s first-ever black CEO, laid bare internal divisions.

RELATED: United Way CEO on leave after ‘subtle threats’

However, the organization quietly began working on improving its diversity, equity and inclusion before Johnson was hired. United Way commissioned Madisonville-based Design Impact to do a case study that it called Black-Led Social Change Cincinnati, named after New York-based ABFE’s Black Social Change Funders Network.

The study, completed last spring, made a series of recommendations such as:

  • Mend the broken relationship between the black community and United Way by critically assessing where funding comes from in the first place and challenging donors.
  • Evaluate who is on United Way’s board and what communities and positions of power they represent.
  • Place a higher value on the work done by individuals and smaller organizations.
  • Make staffing decisions that demonstrate equity and inclusion.
  • Measure performance by equity and inclusion, not just fundraising.
  • Fully support black-led ideas as part of overall funding practices and not a separate program.
  • Be specific and transparent about the communities United Way serves.
  • Work on internal improvements at the same time and publicize progress.

“This wasn’t sparked by crisis,” said Jennifer Ingram, United Way’s director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. “There had been an intentionality and focus on diversity and inclusion and a foundational level awareness and engagement.”

Money troubles

Lynch said he and other members of BlackLed Change Cincinnati appreciate the work that went into United Way’s Black-led Social Change study and will make sure the organization follows the recommendations it contained.

To that end, BlackLed Cincinnati in December delivered a list of demands to United Way. The group wants United Way to:

  • Conduct a racial equity audit to examine programs, policies, structures, practices and culture of the organization.
  • Conduct a pay equity audit to break down pay by race, gender, age and role, with United Way pledging to take immediate steps to make change if the audit finds any staff members aren’t making a living wage.
  • Conduct a funding equity audit to examine practices around who receives funding, who leads those organizations, a list of nonprofits that receive funding and a list of any black-led organizations that get funding. The audit also would examine who manages United Way’s assets and how many money managers are black.
  • Diversify its board, senior leadership and staff.
  • Publicly release the entire Black-led Social Change study.
  • Restore funding to the Over the Rhine Senior Center.

Ingram noted that those audits already are in the works at United Way.

Jennifer Ingram

United Way’s board is taking a hard look at its size, composition and policies, said interim United Way CEO Ross Meyer, who has met with members of the BlackLed Change Cincinnati group.

“We’ve tried to structure our board for years to represent a lot of our key stakeholder groups,” Meyer said. “But there’s no question that our board historically has had a heavy business community representation, given the need to stay close to our corporate partners who are raising the money.”

Money is another tough topic at United Way these days.

The organization’s 2018 campaign closed out in November with just over $50 million in pledges. That’s roughly $12 million less than the organization raised in 2015, and it will impact funding for the more than 140 nonprofit organizations that get money from United Way each year.

A ‘road map’ for the future

Jena Bradley, United Way’s manager of community change, acknowledged that it’s a particularly difficult time for the organization to be short on funds.

“In an ideal world, would all of these things come to a head at the same time? No. But we have two options,” Bradley said. “We can either end up cracking under the pressure or we can become diamonds.”

The controversy surrounding Johnson’s departure after just a few months on the job was disappointing, said Derrick Braziel, co-founder and managing partner of MORTAR, a black-led organization that gets funding from United Way.

Still, Braziel said he respects how United Way’s willingness to help lead difficult community discussions around race and leadership. The fact that United Way doesn’t have as much money as it had hoped to raise doesn’t make the issue that much harder, he said.

“I honestly think that the issue is more a city-wide issue versus a resource allocation issue,” Braziel said. “You could have the best-resourced organization on the planet. But if we as a city haven’t dealt with some of these deep-rooted racial issues, none of that is going to matter.”

To that end, BlackLed Change Cincinnati has drafted a “road map” for the future that it has discussed among its members but hasn’t formally shared with United Way.

“The Road Map Ahead” calls for:

  • Implementation and resourcing of Community Economic Development with solutions “rooted in local knowledge and led by community members.”
  • Implementation and resourcing of a Community Education Plan, which would include community-based schools specifically designed to meet the educational needs of black children.
  • Implementation and resourcing of a Community Safety Plan, which would involve collaboration with the communities most impacted by violent crime and poverty.
  • Implementation and resourcing of a Community Energy Plan, designed to reduce the burden of energy costs on low-income households.

The road map concludes: “These plans and the many others that have and will come from the community are plans for self-sufficiency, wealth creation, and self-determination. They are part of the ‘next 400 years.’ … This is not an us vs. them proposition, we must live together as brothers and sisters and help this city and this nation live out the true meaning of its creed.”

Lynch said diversifying United Way leadership will be critical to moving forward in ways that help all of the region’s citizens.

Crafting solutions, building wealth

“I think we just need a different stream of consciousness in the room when decisions are being made,” he said. “Greater diversity on the board, which will bring a different consciousness about how funding is allocated and what it’s really going to take to build wealth and power in the black community.”

WCPO shared the draft road map with Meyer, who said United Way supports the idea of communities creating their own solutions.

“At this point, United Way is excited about and interested in listening to the community and learning about any ideas and solutions the community has for how we can make a greater impact on poverty in our community,” Meyer said. “We welcome the dialogue and conversation.”

Ross Meyer

Community-based work is much harder than simply providing social services, Lynch said. It takes community organizing and listening and empowering people to use their strengths to benefit their neighborhoods, he said.

“The community has to organize itself, and United Way can be a partner in that,” he said. “And then present real, substantial goals for what we want to achieve.”

Meanwhile, United Way’s current partners are waiting and watching to see how the organization handles the many challenges of 2019.

“I’ve been so encouraged,” Braziel said. “We’ll see where it goes.”

Read the full text of BlackLed Change Cincinnati's letter to United Way of Greater Cincinnati below:

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Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To reach Lucy, email Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.