Photography by Aaron K. Yoshino

Talk Story: Cindy Adams

President & CEO, Aloha United Way

January, 2017

Two years after taking the helm at AUW, Adams’ top priorities are greater transparency, enhanced metrics, and deeper relationships with the state and other nonprofits.

Q: The traditional separation between businesses and nonprofits has been changing.

A: There has been a progression because the kinds of issues that we’re struggling with affect the community on a large scale. They are really big and difficult to address: homelessness, education, active aging. These require everybody’s involvement, including businesses. It means doing employee campaigns, fundraising or corporate gifts. It’s an opportunity for companies to look at issues and determine what kind of impact they want to have in our community.

Q: You’ve been in your role now since the fall of 2014. How has the Aloha United Way evolved?

There were several projects already in play before my arrival, but one of the changes is to make sure there are more metrics associated with the programs. We are also trying to elevate an important philosophy: How do we bring agencies together to do what we call “collective impact”?  So, it’s not just one agency delivering a program and sending us reports. It is about bringing two or three agencies together to collaborate, so we’re leveraging the core competencies of each and attaining a greater sum than just the three of them working together. This is something we’ve certainly put more focus and discipline into.

We’ve also taken capacity building a bit further. This is based on a survey done a few years ago, asking the nonprofits: “Where is it you think that you need help?” It may be board development, financial planning, PR and marketing. And we help them.

Q: You are talking a lot about metrics. Is that a byproduct of your background in the private sector?

A: The answer is yes. I think donors are expecting nonprofits to think of themselves more like businesses, instead of charities. Business people expect nonprofits to be operationally efficient. And they expect them to be accountable, and that’s where the metrics play an important role.

Q: In terms of your goals as a leader, what are some areas where you’re particularly proud and some areas that need more work?

A: We have developed a much closer relationship with the agencies and with the nonprofit community.
We also have much more cross-departmental collaboration, so marketing, community impact and fundraising are talking more. Pulling all of those threads together allows us to move forward as a single organization. And it makes such a big difference because our communications are very consistent.

There are some areas where I would like to see improvement. One is working through the process of understanding what we think we need to do for the next five years. Looking ahead, I’d like to be able to say that we made a big difference in solving the homeless problem.

Q: Discuss the five-year mission. What are some of the big plans that may be in store?

A: We haven’t developed it yet. We embarked on that process two or three months ago. We have engaged a broad cross-section of stakeholders: nonprofits, donors, government and business donors. We have probably cast a wider net than ever before with this diverse group. We are still crafting it and we are excited to get the results.

Q: What are some for-profits you admire and what would you like to borrow from them?

A: The things I admire about really well-run companies are their PR and marketing.  It’s very robust, very consistent. I also admire their transparency. I think that’s really important – not just for stockholders, but for anybody in the community who interacts with them.

Q: Fundraising has come a long way since the Great Recession, but still has its challenges. Which of those challenges keep you up at night?

A: One is the changing donor demographic, the shift in the workplace, which for us is a big deal or has significant implications, because of our workplace campaigns. And so, it’s Baby Boomers retiring, Gen Xers moving up, Millennials coming into the workplace. And they all have different philosophies about nonprofits, community work, community giving – and what they feel their obligation or their commitment should be.

Q: Donors are requiring a bigger bang for their buck. How are you addressing these needs?

A: Donors now are requiring much more accountability for every dollar that they give or contribute. Here’s a really stark example of how we are addressing this need: For the $5 million coordinated statewide housing initiative for the homeless, we push out data every single week on our website. This is state money, it’s taxpayer money, and we wanted to be very transparent with how the money was being spent, who it was going to service, and we wanted to do that weekly. Annual reports are becoming a thing of the past.

Q: From a big picture perspective, can you give an update on the $5 million grant that you secured to combat homelessness?

A: By early December, we had dispersed about $2.25 million dollars and assisted over 1,000 households, which is over 3,000 individuals, including adults and children. And it’s a combination of prevention and intervention help that we are giving. What I mean by that is there’s a portion of the population who are at risk of becoming homeless because they’ve received eviction notices; we were able to pull those people back off the edge of homelessness.
The contract is due to expire in February and we have already asked for an extension. It has not yet been approved, but it’s in the state pipeline.

Q: Your partnership with the state on homelessness is something new. What’s in it for the stakeholders?

A: The benefit to the state is we had much of the infrastructure and process in place for the federal program, which we could leverage for the state grant. Contracting with AUW meant a single point of contact and a partner who is nimble and flexible. The benefits to the nonprofits that deliver services are that we were able to turn the request-for-proposal process around within weeks from issue to selection, we assumed most of the reporting responsibility, which alleviated their workload, and we are able to move funding out very quickly.

This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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