United Way of Central Ohio attacks poverty under its changed culture

“That’s been my belief and the way I’ve attempted to run the organization almost from the moment that I got here. But we just keep getting better at it,” she says.

Jackson also hopes this will bring nonprofits together more regularly.

“We too frequently use the term, ‘Yes, we collaborate.’ Well, what does that mean? Are the people doing the work really coming into a room? Are you sharing best practices? Are you learning from each other?” she says. “And that doesn’t happen just ordinarily.”

Behind the change

The United Way of Central Ohio had already started down this path when it teamed up with John Kotter of Kotter International, an authority on leadership and change, in 2015.

As one of eight United Ways to work with Kotter and his team, Jackson says it changed the culture of the mature, hierarchal organization — and that has been an important piece to this transformation.

When you know you need to change, how do you change? First, the organization had to get at least 51 percent of the employees to vote that it needed to change — without scaring them.

Then, Jackson says you create what Kotter calls a dual operating system.

“There is the hierarchical one that I still lead, and then there’s one that you would almost think of it as a startup company,” she says.

This Guiding Coalition, which consists of 12 individuals who applied to become members, has already disrupted the status quo.

With its Pitch to Ditch Poverty, only advertised on social media, 12 entities submitted pitches for reducing poverty. Four finalists pitched at an event where attendees voted with tokens they bought. The winner received her token money, along with a micro-grant.

“That night, well over half of the people that were there we had never seen before,” Jackson says.

United Way of Central Ohio has gone from risk averse to taking calculated risks. It has become more nimble and willing to innovate.

“We have embraced that if you fail, you don’t give up. You learn from the failure and you move on,” Jackson says.

You must understand that everything you invest in won’t succeed, despite strict accountability standards, she says. You may not meet every goal, every time.

Another lesson for the 90-person organization is, even though you hire people for certain jobs, talent and leadership are everywhere.

“As I prepare to step out of the role of CEO, I am so proud that in this organization there are many, many more voices that are at the table, sharing and leading. I’m very excited about it,” Jackson says.