Photo by Emily Pérez Long
President & CEO, United Way of Greater Chattanooga
What is the mission of your organization?
United Way of Greater Chattanooga’s mission is to unite people and resources in building a stronger, healthier community. We envision a community where all people achieve their full human potential through education, stability, and health and well-being.
What got you involved?
Twenty years ago, fresh out of college, I was working in a youth development program at a local middle school. I asked these resilient, tough girls who they had in their corner. After much silence and no answers, I vividly remember one of them looking at me and asking, “Miss Lesley, what if you’re the only one?” It was the stark moment of my personal why – my realization that no child or person should ever have just one mentor or guide to navigate the challenges of life.
What are the greatest challenges facing your nonprofit organization today?
The workplace campaign model of engagement is too transactional for modern times. We need year-round engagement for lasting community change. We need people to do more than give to United Way; we need them to engage, volunteer, advocate, and then be generous with our work. This kind of cultural and logistical shift in philanthropy will take time.
As a leader of a successful nonprofit organization, what skills do you think are most important for an individual in your role to guide an organization like yours?
Right off the bat, I would say that emotional intelligence and self-awareness are the most critical traits for someone in a leadership position. We need to be willing to constantly examine ourselves, learn from our shortcomings and mistakes, and then adjust our leadership styles accordingly. Ego can kill an organization, and it’s important that the work remains centered on the mission and not on the leader.
What do you foresee as the greatest changes that nonprofits will have to respond to in the coming years?
With limited resources and growing need, we should expect greater alignment and collaboration from both nonprofits and funders in the days to come. United Way sits in both roles, and in 2022, we will present a new but vetted and tested funding model to the whole community. As we all work together, I see a renewed desire to move the needle more quickly and sustainably.