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Michael McKnight: Community Action

By July 8th, 2023No Comments16 min read
Home » Michael McKnight: Community Action

Not all social profit organizations have massive attention. Some are focused on the youth while others are dedicated to environmental issues. United Way of the Lower Mainland is an organization who is not only focused on one but three areas – the youth, the unfortunate, and the senior citizens. Michael McKnight, CEO of United Way of the Lower Mainland, shares how he faced the biggest challenge of changing the value proposition that people have with their organization from a workplace fundraiser to one that creates value in their community. Discover how they managed to remake the business model of the United Way and the feedback they got on their brand new marketing campaign.

Michael McKnight: Community Action

I’m joined by a special guest, Michael McKnight, who is the CEO of the United Way of the Lower Mainland in British Columbia and a lifelong leader in the not for profit sector. Welcome, Mike.

It’s great to be here.

You had a great career and expanded a number of organizations. You have been at the United Way now for several years. Tell me what is going on. What is new at the United Way?

Everything is new at the United Way. United Way of Canada will be 100 years old and like every other industry, philanthropy and United Way, in particular, is being disrupted by all forces and organizations. At United Way, it’s all about thinking what the next 100 years look like.

You have been a leader in Canada in pushing United Way to look at new models of the organization, of connecting with the community, of raising dollars. What has that experience been like?

It has been an interesting and challenging experience from the point of view of an organization that has been successful for 100 years, an organization that is well-known by name. An organization that is known for its primary interaction with people being in workplaces where they’re asked to give back to their community through a United Way campaign. Trust and brand recognition is fabulous. At the same time when disruption happens, that becomes some baggage. People still think of the United Way as your organization that comes and gives them pledge forms, which is not the most exciting brand. When you think about all of the competition for charitable dollars now, our challenge going forward is to think about changing that value proposition. That experience people have with our organization from one that they primarily know as a workplace fundraiser to one that creates value in their community. One that creates a community they’re both proud and love to live in. That is the big challenge that we’re facing.

You are the organization that originated the phrase, “I gave it the office,” and that is changing a lot.

We’re not going to be different unless we do things differently, think differently, and have different motivations or measures of success. Click To Tweet

It sarcastically is. Most people don’t know we’re also a Community Chest on Monopoly board. There are a number of names that the United Way had over the years and one was Community Chest. That is a neat historical connection.

Tell us about the first time you became a CEO and what that experience was like.

I was 33 years old and I got hired as CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been, from the point of view of I had no experience in the not for profit sector, in leadership, in fundraising, in any of the things that position required.

What were you doing before?

Before that I was managing grants and contributions program for the federal government. One of the organizations we funded and I managed was Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada. At the time, I had been there for a few years and a new federal government got elected. They announced they were going to undertake massive layoffs. Being one of the last people in, I figured I’d be one of the first people out. Having a mortgage and two kids at the time, I needed to find something else. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada, through a bit of a crisis situation, was looking for a new CEO. Their number one candidate turned it down and they turned to me. I landed there not knowing what I was doing, but several years later I left that organization that was in quite a good shape.

You have an outstanding reputation for the work you did there. What was it like walking up to the office that first day?

I’m not even sure I can remember. I had to pick up and move from Ottawa with two young kids. I didn’t know what to expect, although I remember early on bringing in my staff from around the country for an all-staff meeting, which included two older gentlemen. I remember after lunch looking over at this team and the two older gentlemen were fast asleep during our team meetings. I had no idea what I was doing there at that point in time. It was an organization who service the community and service the young boys and girls across the country. It was compelling that regardless of the challenges, it was fulfilling several year I spent there.

As you got to the end of your time with that organization, when was it time to start looking for something else or to identify your next challenge?

When I had done the annual routine one too many times and I was not looking forward to the annual routine coming again. This was based in Burlington, Ontario and I had a lifelong goal to move to Vancouver. I thought my kids were at the right age to appreciate the move. A few years in, I started looking for a position out in Vancouver and it took me a couple of years to find the right one. United Way allowed me to move my family out to the West Coast and I haven’t looked back since.

Now, more contemporary or present day, you’re talking about remaking the business model of the United Way of the Lower Mainland and needing to lead the movement across the country in order to do that. How does your Board respond to that challenge?

The Board has been completely supportive. They challenged me in the right places. I would say equally for them as others, the notion of change is difficult. Giving up on the things that had been successful for many years, despite a lot of evidence, is still a big leap for an organization whether it is the board, employees, donors, the organizations we fund. Maybe because we have been successful for many years it is even harder, but the headwinds are there. The evidence is there that United Way needs to change along with many other organizations in our society. They have given the senior management team and me a fair bit of latitude in letting us chart a new direction.

One of the things that are particularly unique in your situation is you have seen revenues increasing at the same time either calling for radical change in the business model. How have you balanced the good news of your total revenue against the need to drive that change?

United Way has always had a definition of success. It is based on its workplace fundraising model. That was always the first and still is, to be honest, the first question I get asked by people that I meet. It’s how did your campaign go? Our revenue is only partially based out on our campaign revenue. It used to be 80% plus and now it is 50%. The revenue growth is coming from other areas than the traditional workplace fundraising model. That has been tough for some people to accept that it wasn’t a matter of changing our marketing slogan, telling a different story. If we did those things, that same old revenue would come back. It took a while to accept it wasn’t going to come back in the same old way.

At the same time, you have had a brand new marketing campaign that rolled out. What was the feedback you got on that?

More money doesn't necessarily create more change. Click To Tweet

Anecdotally, people liked it. There were a lot of interesting ideas. It was a new look and feel for the United Way. It came out of Toronto. It was done by Taxi and they did a fabulous job. It didn’t get at what a new value proposition should mean for the United Way. It didn’t convince people that the work we do is broader than simply showing up with a speaker and a bunch of pledge forms to your office. We’re going to have to look beyond that notion of simply putting out an advertising campaign that has a different look and feel and get down to some true rebranding. We have to have people experience us in a different way, being more broad-based in our interaction with people, not as donors but as citizens in the community. How can we help people create the best community to live and work in? If we are engaging in that kind of work, not with a pledge form, then our brand will begin to change and align us with success in the next 100 years.

How has your team reacted to that? This is a different type of work you’re describing than what people would typically take on at a more traditional United Way.

Like in most places, there has been a bit of a mixed reaction. There are people that truly believed in that model and the old model. They are somewhat comfortable in that old model. Some found it difficult to see themselves in a different model. We’re working through that. There are many people who are excited about it. In most places, change is hard. If we put in place the right process to try to clearly explain the direction we’re going and to show people how they can be part of that, ultimately we’re going to be successful. It takes longer than some of us want sometimes. The staff have rallied around the new direction and had taken over from me that leadership. I was the one championing the new direction at the beginning. Sometimes I felt like I was pulling people along all the time, but now they have taken over and are pulling it along and I’m following, which is a nice place to get to.

That speaks to your experience as a leader to be able to loosen your control on the steering wheel and let the team drive such a big change in the organization.

It has been interesting. We went through one process in order to help change the culture of the organization, to help engage people where we assigned a group of staff that could become middle management. We asked them to come up with an organizational structure. They did a lot of research on organizations they thought we should model. They came back with a well-researched recommendation that would eliminate a number of senior management positions and consolidate them under a different title. We went with it and we shocked a few people when we went with that recommendation and didn’t rely on the senior management team to chart the path. It empowered people within the organization to chart the path as much as we did. To date, that has been a successful process and a successful decision.

I assume the person whose role was eliminated wasn’t the greatest cheerleader of that, but to empower your team like that is a significant departure from what we typically see in the sector.

If you want a different organization and you want a different culture, you have to do things differently. That is what I have to come back to with people on a regular basis. It’s that we’re not going to be different unless we do things differently, we think differently and we have different motivations or measures of success. That is the only way we’re going to get to a new organization. If we think we can keep the structure, culture, roles, responsibilities and reporting structures the same, we will never be different.

The board has been supportive in giving you and your team the space you need to make these changes or start these changes on the path. Is there something you wished the board asked you more about? Is there something you wished the board asked about that they often don’t?

It goes back to the measures of success. Traditionally, United Way branded ourselves with a thermometer on street corners. United Way was a success. That thermometer only measures money. It doesn’t measure the outcomes or the change we want to create in the community. If I want my board to have asked different questions along the way, it would have been more about what is the real purpose of the United Way? How do we measure up against that? Instead of it being what is easy to understand, define and measure being our workplace campaign. Money is a tool to achieve what we were created to achieve, but it is only one tool. More money doesn’t necessarily create more change. Many of the other assets we brought to bear as an organization was not as well understood. Our senior management team and I have to take responsibility for that, but that has been one of the toughest changes is to get people away from asking about the success of our workplace campaign.

What you see is something that speaks to educating the board and coming up with giving them the information they need in order to make the decisions that need to be made at the board table. What is something we could do better in terms of board engagement in your perspective?

Defining the role of governance versus the role of management is something that not every organization is good at. The board understands what decisions they should make and what decisions management should make. We have become insular in our own reflections on our organization. We think about what other United Ways do as opposed to think about what other organizations do. We think about what charities do as opposed to thinking also about what for-profits are doing. One of the biggest disruptions in the philanthropic sector comes from private sector businesses. One of the things we have to get better at, not from charitable boards, but the charitable staff is also looking at that landscape of for-profit competitors for both opportunities and challenges. The roles of boards and the information need to change a little bit, particularly if we’re competing in places we have never competed with before.

You have had two long tenures as CEO in the sector. How have you maintained that balance between what is the board’s role and what is the CEO or the senior management team’s role?

Very carefully. I have had different board members and different board chairs over the years having different definition of roles than I have. Clearly, to last a long time, you can’t get into conflictual situations. You have to avoid them as much as possible. I’m trying to understand the perspective of the individuals that I’m working with on the board, particularly the board chair has served me well in my several years of tenure at two organizations. I started out as a social worker in my career. Those are some of the best experience I had in terms of working with people, whether it’s staff or board. Being able to understand where my board members are coming from and allowing some space for them to operate differently than I might want to expect them to operate has suited me well over the years that I haven’t been fired yet.

I don’t think you are at any risk of that happening.

The notion of change is difficult, but when we put in place the right process, then ultimately we’re going to be successful. Click To Tweet

We’re all at risk of that happening. We never belong to your boards, we never know, especially since they turn over frequently. We’re all at risk. When you step up for leadership, you both get the advantages and opportunities, as well as the challenges and the risks.

That is a good reminder for all the CEOs and executive directors. What advice would you give to somebody who isn’t yet in the big chair and wants to move into organizational leadership? Let’s say they’re already in the sector. What do they need to be thinking about before they take on that first senior leadership position?

The responsibility that comes with it, that is no different than any other leadership position. Often in the sector, a lot of people depend on services that are provided by the work we do. That is a heavy weight to carry sometimes, particularly with some of the financial challenges most charities are facing now. I half joke on a regular basis when I say that I got into this business to help people, but much of what I do seems to stray from that. As with Big Brothers Big Sisters, it was about maintaining liability protection or liability insurance. It was about risk management. Here at United Way, it is about the technology that is coming into our world from all over the place. We’re now managing a partnership with Salesforce.

One of the things that I have observed going into senior leadership roles was that the thing that had made me successful in my last job almost got in the way of being successful as the CEO. It is not about being a good tactician, it is about being a good leader. What advice would you give to people stepping into the CEO role about how to have that larger picture of an organization?

Look around at what successful organizations are doing right now. There weren’t too many old school business leaders who thought the social purpose or corporate social responsibility played such a big role in the success of the company. It’s the same with the not for profit leaders. We have to look at where the opportunities lie that is outside of the traditional definition of what a charity does. Understanding how we can bring value to that is outside of what most of us thought we would be doing when we decided to get it to the charitable sector.

You’re in the midst of this transformation. What is one thing you’re looking forward to over the next few months?

The rebranding is the most exciting part for me. Taking an organization that has a 100-year-old brand that people understand in one way and trying to change that with a limited amount of resources. Nobody donates to the United Way to undertake a rebranding initiative. We need to think about how we can use the resources and assets that we have, including volunteers, partnerships and creating different value proposition out in the community. One of the things that have been exciting is the launch of our Social Purpose Institute that helps companies who wanted to find their social purpose, understand how to do it, how to implement it, how to measure it for its success. We have had 100 companies come through some level of training in that area so far. The exciting part for me is not the training they receive, but how they see us with a different value proposition. How would they see us bringing something different to their business than they have understood in the past? Doing that new kind of work for me is incredibly exciting. After many years, it keeps me looking forward to each day I go in and each project that we take on. That rebrand is incredibly exciting.

You have set a difficult but important path for yourself and for the organization. I appreciate that you took the time to share some of that with us here. Thanks for being a part of the show.

It’s my pleasure, Doug.

Thank you.

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About Michael McKnight

Experienced Chief Executive Officer with a demonstrated history of working in the not-for-profit industry. Strong business development professional skilled in Nonprofit Organizations, Fundraising, Public speaking, Leadership Development, Strategic Planning, and Program Development.