Sarah Caruso, a veteran business and nonprofit executive, has been chief executive officer of the Greater Twin Cities United Way since November 2009. Caruso and her board of business and community volunteers, and 180 nonprofit agencies funded by United Way, have tried to increase effectiveness during a several-year period of flat funding and increased client demand by focusing on basic needs: keeping people fed and sheltered — while also focusing on long-term initiatives to assist fragile families, get kids ready for kindergarten and school success, and help people achieve good health.
Q: What’s your purpose?
A: United Way collaborates with business, government and nonprofit organizations to build pathways out of poverty. We are a multifaceted organization that seeks to create community solutions to change the lives of those most in need in the nine-county region. We seek to address the disparity gaps in the areas of education, health and jobs through systems change. We do so by focusing on three areas: stabilizing families, helping kids succeed and empowering healthy lives.
Q: You were the first female brand manager of Wheaties, the flagship of Big G cereals at General Mills 25 years ago. What did you learn there?
A: I learned how to run a business — from a marketing, product and financial standpoint — and much more from many high-quality people
Q: What’s the difference between this job and running a business?
A: We have diverse stakeholders. We have 715,000 people in the metro area living in or near poverty, which is defined as having an annual income of $47,100 or less for a family of four. United Way stabilizes families in crisis by supporting basic needs, such as hunger, housing stability, earnings, helping kids succeed, programs that support early learning, literacy and out-of-school programs, access to health care and healthy behaviors. We help those most in need by measuring progress in 10 goals that address poverty’s root causes.
Q: What do your corporate and other funders expect?
A: I see a real desire to give with the head and the heart. The stories of the families struggling, the mother or father trying to achieve living-wage jobs and stability, and the gratitude they show is very meaningful to funders. At the same time, business leaders ask questions about scale and replicating success. They say “I’m thrilled this works for this family. Can we make it better and take it to 100 or 1,000 families?” We publish community results that show how we reduced hunger, provided housing services, helped increase earnings, supported early learning and “empowered healthy lives” for thousands of families in 2012 with our 180 partner nonprofit agencies [who deliver the services].
Q: Do you see more needy people going to the agencies you fund as the “income gap” widens between poor to working-class people and the affluent?
A: With the exception of a slight decrease between 2011 and 2012, the number of people in poverty in the metro area has steadily increased. In 2008, 8.6 percent or 237,516 people in the Twin Cities seven-county area lived in poverty. In 2012, the rate was 11.1 percent, or 319,487 people. The rate of children living in poverty has steadily increased during this time period. Between 2010 and 2012, United Way agency partners saw an increase of 10 percent of people living in poverty who seek their services. Most of that increase reflects new families who had not received services before.
Q: United Way is in the middle of its fall community campaign. Many of the agencies you fund also have their own campaigns. Does it get competitive?
A: In total, we’ll raise about $91 million or $92 million by Dec. 31. About $88 million will be through the community campaign. We also get some federal grants. We ask our agencies to run United Way campaigns and they raise about $1 million. We see ourselves as partners in collective impact and action. We try to put the interest of those with the greatest need in the center. We have strong business-community support. Fifteen companies and their foundations give us more than $1 million annually. General Mills generates $8.8 million. It’s remarkable.
Q: Those big companies generally have grown profits since the Great Recession of 2008-09, but they haven’t grown employment much. That can’t be good for your employee campaign.
A: Fundraising is not getting easier. We have in total over 1,000 campaigns involving small companies, younger donors, new donors. That’s more important every year. We’ve changed our communications strategy to be more “story specific,” so donors can see their own specific interests.
Q: Such as?
A: Such as the story of “Jeanne,” an elderly woman who, through a United Way-funded partner, DARTS, is able to continue living independently in her St. Paul apartment. There’s “Regina,” a single mom who, through the United Way-funded Project for Pride in Living, is studying to become a nurse and support her family in Minneapolis. There’s 8-year-old “Geno’’ who, with his mom, has received help from Perspectives of St. Louis Park, a United Way partner. He’s on track to read at grade level by third grade.
Q: Why should an informed person, who may want to donate directly to charities that fight poverty and advance struggling families, give through the United Way?
A: United Way is uniquely positioned to bring about innovative community solutions through stabilizing families … by providing a safety net in times of crisis and ensuring that people have what they need to meet basic needs. We build pathways out of poverty for children through education improvement and for adults through job training. We combine services that encircle troubled families with the support they need to meet and transcend multiple challenges. And we convene community partners to drive long-term change and ensure a healthy, thriving nonprofit sector.