United Way director relishes ‘servant-leader’ role
Updated: Sep 24, 2021
Wendy MacDermott has been the executive Director of the United Way in Saint John since 2011. Photo: Cindy Wilson/Telegraph-Journal
A self-professed fan of unconventional workplaces, Wendy MacDermott, executive director of the United Way serving Saint John, Kings and Charlotte Counties, has done a lot of work to bring people together.
When she moved back to New Brunswick from Saskatoon in 2008 she immediately landed a job with Vibrant Communities, a role she found particularly interesting because of the focus on poverty reduction.
Wendy’s job was bringing together the business community, non-profits and government with people who live in poverty. The goal was to have the groups work collaboratively on solving issues of poverty. When she felt she had taken things as far as she could, she didn’t have to look far to find her next challenge.
The United Way board of directors had started to create a new vision for an already strong brand. Wendy saw an opportunity to take a brand that had pedigree and history, an organization that was doing so many things right, and leverage the organizational strengths to really make a difference in the community. In 2011, Wendy officially took on the role of executive director.
I began my conversation with Wendy by asking her to tell me about how the United Way is changing and evolving.
A: We’ve been borrowing some ideas from the corporate world and looking at how we can strengthen the operations of our nonprofit.
In my first year we launched this bold strategic plan and it resonated. We started by looking closely at our governance – at the time our board had been around and operating in the same manner for a long time, so I took a board governance course at Dalhousie University.
Through that, we completely rebuilt our board. We spent about six months and looked at every aspect.
“What is the role of the chair? What is the role of this committee? Do we have everything contributing to our strategic plan?” And then we presented that back to the board. We went from a big board of 25 to a smaller board of 15.
Q: What challenges did the new board have to address?
A: All United Ways were created to be an umbrella or a confederated fundraiser. There are almost 3,000 charities in New Brunswick. We can’t be all things to everybody. We cannot possibly fund charities’ full budgets.
The world has changed quite a bit. Some of the models that were created worked well with 20 charities, but don’t work when you have 500 charities. So, that led to some of the changes that we’ve made over the last year.
Q: So, you’ve had to shift the focus?
A: Absolutely. We’ve focused on key areas we want to invest in because we think we can create significant change. That’s not to say other things aren’t important. They are very, very important. But we need to focus. If we’re going to create that fundamental change, it needs to be more directed and intentional.
We are now implementing the changes, mitigating the risk and trying to help people understand why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Q: How have the changes been received?
A: It’s really a leap of faith. It was one thing to get all the pieces set up and ready for these big changes, but now we actually have to live them and defend them over and over again. It’s definitely keeping us grounded in why are we doing this. We are doing this to make the best possible investments in our community to get the best possible outcomes.
Q: What are some of the things you’re excited about in terms of where you can see you are having real impact?
A: We’re helping the community understand that we have the highest domestic violence rate in Canada. No other city has more family violence than we do.
Q: That’s surprising, isn’t it?
A: It is. Unfortunately, we take the gold medal in a lot of social challenges. But I think there still are a lot of people in the community who don’t really realize what’s going on because you can’t see it.
There are tons of charities doing extremely good work. Everybody is working so hard.
But the needle is not moving. I think a testament to some of the hard work happening in the community – the most recent stats are actually not showing that poverty is getting worse.
It has plateaued. Given that those numbers covered the recession that we experienced and then through tough economic times, the fact that those numbers didn’t increase is actually impressive.
Q: How did you go about setting key priorities for the United Way?
A: We needed to figure out what the priorities are so we can invest in them – you can’t invest in priorities if we don’t know what they are. The Greater Saint John Community Foundation and the provincial government were asking that same question. So, we brought all of these groups together and said,“What if we created one set of social priorities instead of each of us having our own?”
From there, we actually see which pieces fit better with whose mandates and then we have a comprehensive community strategy. For us it became the benchmark for our investment strategy.
Q: What did you land on?
A: We’ve created five principles that we want to see in the groups we invest in – capacity building, making a measurable difference, flexibility, innovation and collaboration and partnerships.
We want to see evidence of these principles in anything we do as well as anything we’re connected to. I do a monthly report to our board framed around those five principles and how we are living them.
Q: How do you measure what is being accomplished in these areas?
A: We need to make a measurable difference, but very few charities are equipped to be able to actually measure this. They know in their gut they’re doing the right thing, but there may not be the stories or there may not be the numbers that support their gut feeling.
We’re investing in coaching support for nonprofits (in partnership with another local charity) to not only figure out what their outcomes are and how they measure them, but to make sure they have organizational alignment.
Q: Tell me a little bit about the United Way’s current campaign.
A: We are really framing it as a social investment strategy. It’s a comprehensive strategy.
It’s interconnected. We’re putting forward 24 organizations. Are we funding everything that’s important out there? No, we can’t. But we are very much focused on making a really big, profound difference.
Q: Who inspires you?
A: I have kids in this community and I want them to see a future for themselves here. I want the kids that they play with in our neighbourhood to have a future. I don’t want families to break down. I don’t want women to go through what they often do.
At our kick-off the other day, we asked people, ‘Why do you donate?’ And I heard stories like this: ‘I grew up in a family where my mom was abused and I don’t want anybody else to have to grow up in that situation.’ I’m inspired by these stories.
Q: How would you finish the following sentence: ‘A leader’s job is .. .?’
A: To create the environment and the atmosphere for others to be leaders. I really like the servant-leader role.
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As published in the February 21, 2015 Telegraph-Journal.