A former managing partner from the accounting firm Ernst & Young will be the new leader of the Greater Twin Cities United Way.
The United Way board of directors named John Wilgers president and CEO on Thursday. He takes over less than a year after the philanthropy unveiled its new streamlined mission in the wake of declining donations.
Wilgers, 60, is a certified public accountant who worked for Ernst & Young for 35 years, rising to managing partner of the Minneapolis office before his retirement in 2016.
Wilgers also has a long history with the Twin Cities United Way, serving as its board chairman in 2012 and as a donor and fundraiser. He and his wife, Trudy, led the organization’s centennial celebration committee in 2015.
“I really feel a personal obligation and responsibility to serve others,” Wilgers said. “United Way is one organization that has given me the opportunity and place to fulfill that responsibility. It will now become my full-time job. It’s a good fit. I am excited to get to work.”
Wilgers, who starts Monday, takes over the organization amid a critical transition.
United Way revenue, largely driven by workplace giving campaigns, has dropped from a record $101.9 million in fiscal year 2014 to $77 million in 2017. The trend seems to reflect a national shift in how people choose to give, with donors seeking more control of their dollars.
Faced with falling revenue, United Way’s leadership streamlined its mission to focus on programs that increase access to stable housing, healthy food, education and jobs. The work all falls under the umbrella “pathways toward prosperity and equity.”
While Wilgers already has history with United Way, his path to success may hinge on his ability to innovate and change the organization’s course, said Steve Boland, managing partner of Next in Nonprofits, which provides consultation and other services to charities.
“Who is going to be the person good at disruption and understanding their model has been losing ground year after year?” Boland said. “He seems to know the history of what got them here, but it’s still unclear if United Way can become something in the 21st century that adds values to donors. The competition is so high.”
A spokeswoman declined to release Wilgers’ salary but said it will be listed on the company’s federal tax filings made public each summer.
United Way will release its latest revenue numbers later this summer, after a routine audit is complete, spokeswoman Kelly Puspoki said.
“We are seeing quite positive momentum,” said Tim Welsh, chairman of the Greater Twin Cities United Way Board and a vice chairman at U.S. Bank.
Welsh said the United Way conducted an extensive search, using an outside search firm and interviewing a slate of finalists for two days before selecting Wilgers.
“He is an extraordinary leader and unbelievable collaborator,” Welsh said. “He knows and cares deeply about the organization.”
Wilgers, a Kansas native, has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and accounting from the University of Kansas. He spent his entire career with Ernst & Young, transferring from Kansas City to the Twin Cities office 14 years ago.
He has three grown children and lives in Minnetonka with his wife. He is also a member of the Minnesota Orchestra board of directors.
United Way’s interim CEO Trent Blain will now serve as senior vice president of marketing and engagement.
United Way’s last CEO, Sarah Caruso, retired in 2017 after nearly a decade at the helm. She made $403,786 in salary and benefits, according to the 2017 tax filings.