Photo: David Croxford

Talk Story with Cindy Adams

November, 2014

President and CEO, Aloha United Way


Adams joined AUW in September from the tech world, including stints in the Bay Area, New York, Boston and New Jersey. Most recently, she was a VP at CBI Polymers, a Hawaii company she helped move to Dallas. She was also the founding director of the Hawaii Meth Project.


The for-profit and nonprofit worlds often measure success differently. Coming to the AUW, is there anything that made your head swivel?
Even though the way you measure success might be different, there are still metrics. I would say the thing that swiveled for me was my heart, not my head. There’s no question that nonprofits are where I want to be, because this kind of investment and return on investment is very, very personal. It’s different than shareholder return on investment. This is investment in our keiki, in our elderly, in our families, in our community.

Nonprofits sometimes lack a business perspective. Is that a problem at AUW?
Do you mean discipline? I’m probably not the right person to speak to what it’s been historically. But I can make a generalization: Some larger nonprofits may have greater challenges moving away from the more traditional nonprofit models. Meaning that, today, every nonprofit must speak to what their outcomes and deliverables are, what have they accomplished. Otherwise, it’s very difficult to fundraise, to get money, particularly from the federal and state governments, because everything now is outcome-based. That’s true even with grants from foundations. Most everybody who donates money requires that you operate in a more rigorous, well-defined way, so they know you’re being good stewards of the money. At AUW, we certainly require that of our partner agencies. Everybody now wants to see that kind of discipline in a nonprofit.

For several years, fundraising at AUW was declining. Has that trend changed?
It did. The challenge was to understand how we could remain relevant for the community and the constituents we serve, our partner agencies and the people who receive services. As a result, there was a decline in giving. But when my predecessor, Kim Gennaula, came on board, she did a tremendous job talking with many CEOs to understand why their funding was pulled back. Every year, many of these CEOs were choosing to participate less in our workplace campaign, or to pull out completely. But Kim did a really good job of listening and implementing some key changes. That kind of turned the ship around. As a result, for the last three years, we’ve seen an increase in giving, particularly with the workplace campaign.
Having said that, we continue to look for additional funding streams. That’s definitely one area we want to focus on. We can provide tremendous value by seeking much larger federal grants that regular nonprofits might not qualify for – either because of the matching levels or from the collaboration perspective.

“Everybody in this state knows somebody who has received services that were a result of these donations to Aloha United Way.”

Is that different from what AUW has done before?
We’ve applied for grants before, but I don’t think we were looking specifically at very large grants that required matching funds and collaboration. That’s now a focus because the need for services in Hawaii has grown enormously, while state funding is going down and funding to many nonprofits is shrinking.

The AUW has had some very powerful chairs and has a reputation of being a board-run organization. Is that an asset or a problem?
I would say the organization is not board run. That’s my perspective, having met with the board. Today it’s very collaborative. The board expects the AUW leadership – myself and my executive team – to take the reins. It’s a tremendous board and very generous with their time, but their expectation is that we’re going to run AUW, and they’ll be there to support and advise us.

Is there an opening message you’d like to give the public as the new head of AUW?
I’d like to thank everybody – the employees, our leadership givers, the pacesetter companies – everybody in the community who participates and does this every single year. We greatly appreciate their generosity. We know that sometimes it’s very difficult for people to do this, but I want them to know that their donations are making a difference – for their families, for their neighbors and for their community. Often, we don’t know how this money helps people, and maybe there are one or two degrees of separation, but I guarantee that everybody in this state knows somebody who has received services that were a result of these donations to Aloha United Way.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

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