Rob Reifsnyder began his career with United Way, and now he’s ending it after many years with the organization. Reifsnyder reflects on what brought him to the organization in the first place and how he plans to stay involved after retirement.
What first brought you to United Way?
My father was in the United Way. He was the president of the United Way in Philadelphia.
I grew up in the rebellious 1960s when many of us said, “Oh, I don’t want to do what my father does or I don’t want to go into the same career as my mother did,” because it was a rebellious time. I really didn’t consider United Way as a career opportunity in my early days.
As a young kid I wanted to be an astronaut and a baseball player, all the kinds of things that kids dream about. But a series of experiences when I was growing up, including some that involved my father, lead me over my college time to start to think about community service as a potential career, or at least as a starting job.
I went to Princeton University, and the organizations that were coming to career services at school were not community service organizations. They were companies like major banks and department store chains, so I was taking those kinds of interviews, and at the same time I was trying to think about how I could pursue community service.
One of my college roommates came back to the dorm one day and said, “Did you see that bulletin board notice about the United Way National Internship program?” I hadn’t, so I went to the career services and looked up the information and called my dad that night.
I said, “Dad, do you know anything about this National United Way internship?”
He said, “Yeah I know all about it.”
I asked if he’d mind if I tried for it, and he said he would be delighted. I said, “Do you mind if I ask you why you didn’t mention it to me?”
He said, “Well, I thought that if I mentioned it to you that you’d run in the opposite direction.”
I said, “Dad you’re right!” I applied for the internship, and I got in. There were 15 of us. I remember my first week of training, all the interns were out, and I said “I guess I’ll give this a shot and see if I like it.” And 43 years later, I guess I did.
How has the mission of United Way changed throughout your tenure?
The basic mission hasn’t changed. United Way has been about bringing people and organizations together to improve our community and to improve people’s lives. That’s been the basic mission of the United Way since we were formed in 1915.
We’ve changed in the way we focus. For many years, a primary purpose within that mission was to conduct an annual campaign and raise funds and then allocate those funds accountably and effectively to a group of good agencies that then work to improve people’s lives. In more recent years, we’ve come to focus on our community’s toughest problems, try to bring people and organizations together to hopefully develop solutions to those problems, and help to both set and then address goals related to those problems, usually around the building blocks of education financial stability and health in people’s lives.
So for example, we may have been more focused on raising funds and allocating them to agencies, that’s now one of the means to an end. When I say focus on community’s problems and setting goals, one example would be Success by Six.
Success by Six is a collaborative that United Way convenes. We convened it back in 2002 and 2003, that’s actually a movement to help move all of our communities children to success when they enter school. So, it’s about the first six years of life and getting children prepared for success as they enter school. Success by Six brings the community together around strategies that will get children prepared for success as they enter kindergarten.
One of those strategies is getting children, especially at risk children and lower income children, into quality preschools. That work is more scalable at the community level. Instead of just funding a quality preschool that will help 50 children, the work is around seeing if we can help 5,000 children that don’t have access to quality preschool get access to quality preschool and get ready for kindergarten.
Do you have any advice for our Greater Cincinnati community as we look ahead?
One of our biggest issues is the number of families and children in poverty. United Way has helped set a goal to help 10,000 families move from poverty towards self-sufficiency in the coming years.
If I had advice for the community it would be sustain, scale and unite. By sustain, I mean we often follow the shiny new penny. We decide to move on and we stop funding it and we move funding away from us that isn’t working so we can fund a new effort. Sustaining our goals and sustaining our efforts against big community issues is really important. We cannot work on something for three years and then decide it doesn’t work and give up. We cannot fund something for three years and then say, “Oh well, it’s time to move on.” We really have to think about how we sustain our efforts against our goal to fight families in poverty and children preparing for kindergarten. Sustaining oftentimes means scaling. If we see something that works in an agency, organization or an effort and it helps 50 children, how do we work towards making sure we’re actually able to help 500 children or 5,000 children? We sometimes have a tendency to forget about or not value some of the efforts that our community is working on that unites the community. I would urge our community to think about how we unite to work on this issue.
Do you have any advice or thoughts for your successor, Michael Johnson?
First of all, I think Michael Johnson will be great. He is passionate about the work. He’s a proven leader and has a great sense of humor. He wants to learn and he believes in the work we are trying to do in the community, so I’m very excited about Michael coming onboard, and I will support him in anyway that I can.
The three words that I said before are the same three words I would tell Michael as well. In addition to that, I would say remain flexible. The job that I do requires both passion and commitment, but within that passion and commitment, the flexibility knowing that we’re learning how to do this work. We’re learning to sometimes fail, and fail fast, but innovate again in order to get to the right solutions.
What your plans for the future?
My wife Gretchen and I are staying in this community. We love this community. We’ve now lived here longer than we’ve lived anywhere else. I’m going to be active as a volunteer, to continue to give back in ways that will be supportive of the community’s work. I’ll be doing some consulting with United Way Worldwide, which is the worldwide effort of United Way’s of around the world. They’ve asked me to help onboard new CEOs of major United Ways. That’s something that I’ll be looking forward to doing. I’m also going to do more of the things that I love to do. Hopefully more exercise, more running, more reading, more travel, and enjoying a lot of the things that I do now, but I want to do more of.