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Q&A with Jill Michal

Wednesday, August 8, 2012   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Amy Seasholtz
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By Felicia D'Ambrosio | Posted on Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

Photo by Albert Yee

Jill MichalIf you were to scan two lines down on Jill Michal's resume, you'd find she became CEO and President of the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania at just the second company she'd worked for out of college. At 39, Michal now leads the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, the corporation that resulted from the merger of six Delaware Valley United Ways that went into effect on July 1st.

Established in 1921 by members of the business community, United Way's mission is to improve people's lives by mobilizing the power of donors, volunteers, and advocates to bring measurable and lasting change in the areas of income, health and education. A holistic approach to helping those most in need means United Way spearheads a wide variety of programs, from teaching advocates how to lobby for legislative change, to partnering with boots-on-the-ground organizations providing services to children, families, and seniors.

We caught up with Jill Michal to talk about how financial crisis creates opportunities for new leaders, overseeing a massive merger, and why hip-hop impresario Jay-Z is the living realization of the United Way mission.

United Way is the charity beneficiary of the Made in America festival, produced by Shawn "Jay-Z” Carter and coming to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway this Labor Day weekend. That's quite a coup; how will aligning with this event help you further your mission?

Obviously, a big portion of this is a monetary benefit [as a portion of each ticket sold will go to United Way], but there's a big strategic part — connecting with the next generation of donors. Our traditional donor base has been in large corporations, but in the city of Philadelphia, fewer people work in a traditional workplace. Many donors have been brought up in families who have been giving to United Way their entire lives, but there are so many entrepreneurs, sole proprietors and small business owners who we can't connect with as readily. The festival is so visible, and relevant to our entire community — we'll be able to meet people where we are.

Jay-Z is arguably the most prominent figure in hip-hop, and he's not immune from criticism for things like his lyrics. Is there a risk of alienating current donors when aligning with a celebrity that younger potential donors can identify with?

There is risk in a lot of things. We talked about the risk of being connected with someone who may have had a history that some people question. But the reality is, we spent more time looking into it, and talking… and Jay-Z is really a story of redemption. His story communicates our message to all of the people we serve – that you can mistakes, and still come back from them. You can do things you regret, and still be redeemed. He is the vision we want to create: that you can be successful, that there are opportunities, even though you may not have had the most fortunate childhood. You may hear that some people are beyond saving, but we say: Don't give up on them. Every child, every person is worth investing in. Every one of us has some truly redeeming value, and we all need somebody to bring that out in us.

What was the driving force behind the recent merger of seven Delaware Valley United Ways?

The outcome of our merger will be to drive greater impact in our local community. We all see a vision of being able to do this better together. Nonprofit mergers are rarely for significant cost efficiency — nonprofits don't spend a lot of money on overhead, and we operate on slim margins. We're very experienced at making the most of limited income; this merger will help us do more with that income.

How did coming into the executive director/CEO role in 2008 affect the way you approached the job?

I became executive director just a month before the Lehman Brothers collapse… I was with the United Way for six years before, and had left Arthur Andersen just before Enron. The timing was good there, but not quite as good as coming in right before Lehman Brothers. So I had come into the role at the start of the recession — and that gave me some leeway to do things you couldn't do; when all is going fine and okay the way it is, there's no predisposition to disturbing that. The collapse allowed me, as a new leader, to have more free rein to do things differently — because you have to; it's a necessity.

It was the perfect time for me, with my background, to step up. If you are not familiar with what your resources are, your sources of funding, it's hard to know whether your ideas are actionable; can they be resourced and implemented?

On strictly financial terms, do you consider United Way to be a successful corporation?

We've always done great work and have terrific leadership. We've been able to fully define our mission, to be clear on priorities, and demonstrate results. In an era that doesn't seem to be ending anytime soon, social services need to do more, for more, with less. Thus, the focus on delivering results becomes nearly indispensable.

I think you can look forward to this organization. We are in growth mode; we will grow this year for the second consecutive year. We all temper that with the reality that anything in the black is a real positive.

We have requests for our time and charitable contributions made on us constantly. Given the need for all nonprofits to engage new donors and keep prior ones, how do you make United Way stand out?

It's an ongoing challenge — we raise most of our money in the workplace, and frankly, fewer people are employed. But what we do find is there are fewer donors, but they are giving more. Those who feel confident in their financial situation are willing to do more for others who aren't in that same situation. That level of real empathy is coming out in leaps and bounds the past couple years.

Before the recession, [unemployment and poverty] was all facts and figures and stats. Now, when you have a group of people and ask, who knows someone who's been unemployed for six months, almost everybody raises their hands. We see people who used to donate to food banks, going to food banks. It's getting very real for people, in a personal way that continues to drive philanthropy in the region. It's positive, and it matters.

As a young CEO who clearly has a demanding job, what do you like to do in your off time?

I have a five and a seven year old, so what I like to do is spend time with them. I take every vacation day I'm entitled to, and I enjoy that, spending time with my family.

Other than that, I do like to scrapbook… already there are things I don't remember otherwise. My daughter said the other day, "Tell me about when I was three…” and I could hardly remember. I just have to pull out that scrapbook — it's not like it was a hundred years ago. Just capturing memories, in all that's going on… it's hard to recreate them later. It's been something that is particularly meaningful to me.