2012 Columbus Smart Leaders: Janet Jackson, President & CEO, United Way of Central Ohio

Janet Jackson, President & CEO, United Way of Central Ohio

Give us an example of a business challenge you and/or your organization faced, as well as how you overcame it.

The economic downturn presented a significant challenge to United Way of Central Ohio. Our annual fundraising campaign decreased substantially from what had been record highs while at the same time the need for services increased as the impact of the downturn was felt by more of our friends and neighbors. It was clear to us that we needed to do things differently.

We took a very strategic approach and examined how we interact with our donors and committed to deepening our understanding of the community’s aspirations around the issues of education, income, health and home.

We re-organized our fundraising activities to engage more effectively with all of our corporate partners, and placed renewed emphasis on reaching out to businesses we did not have a relationship with, as well as individual donors.

Our commitment to supporting volunteerism was significantly increased to meet the needs of our supporters who were anxious to give their time to improve the community. Working with our partners, we now have volunteer opportunities posted on our website and through social media.

We have expanded the number and diversity of our affinity groups to engage more people. For example, we launched the Women’s Leadership Council to reach out to local women leaders; Pride Council and Pride Gives — the first United Way LGBT giving groups in the country; and GenNext, which mobilizes young volunteers. All of these efforts have helped us exceed our campaign goals for the past two years.

Our commitment to deep listening and developing an understanding of community aspirations, led United Way to hold small group conversations with hundreds of individuals across Central Ohio. This dialogue has been invaluable in its ability to inform our community impact work. We are now in the process of using this knowledge along with what we know from experts and research better target our investments on those areas that will have the greatest impact in Central Ohio.

In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?

There is no leadership or innovation without risk. One of my mentors and sheroes, Marian Wright Edelman, the founder and president of The Children’s Defense Fund, says this about taking risks:

“Don’t be afraid of failing. It’s the way you learn to do things right. It doesn’t matter how many times you fall down. What matters is how many times you get up.” I and United Way’s volunteer leadership are able to innovate because we are willing to take calculated risks to improve the way we do things.

We are continually seeking to learn from others and refine our efforts so that we continue to be effective in advancing the change necessary to improve lives and strengthen our community. In my time as president and CEO, we have transformed almost every aspect of our organization. Most significantly, we developed and focused on key strategies and helped our community set concrete, bold goals for our future.

How do you make a significant impact on the community and regional economy?

Our community and our economy are only as strong as the people and the families that make it up. When people don’t have the opportunities they need to succeed we all suffer. When people have access to the building blocks of a good life — education, income, health and home — they can build stable lives and help create a stronger community.

Through United Way, our donors, advocates and volunteers help provide the opportunities people need to succeed. I strongly believe this has a positive impact on our regional economy, and that the work United Way supports is crucial for our region’s future success.

Janet Jackson is the president and CEO of United Way of Central Ohio.