The Power of Sustained Investment and the Virtuous Circle
by Steve Waugh, Steelcase
I've enjoyed being a member of this year’s United Way Core Team, but when Jeff Ge asked me to author a blog post I hesitated for a moment. I think that’s because I’ve been blessed to never have need for United Way services, nor am I close to anyone who has, so I don’t have a traditional "United Way" story to share. But I have experienced the power of investment in our community - first as a volunteer framing houses for Habitat for Humanity and more recently as a board member at San Juan Diego Academy (a school serving immigrant Latino families in the Godfrey/Chicago drive corridor). These experiences have left a lasting impression on me – first when shaking hands with future owners of Habitat homes, and more recently handing-out diplomas to graduating 8th graders.
I believe the quote and picture at the start of this blog might be the most enduring thing Jim Hackett left us. And when I couple it with my experiences in our community you have the reason why I invest in the United Way. Now, I have purposefully substituted the word “invest” for “contribute”, and there’s a reason for that…
Jim’s quote and picture solidifies the reality that if we want something to be better we have to invest. If we want to be better professionally we have to invest the time and effort to advance our education, develop new skills or engage in different kinds of work. If we want our business to be better we have to invest capital to build Learning + Innovation Centers, or fund the operating costs to move into new vertical markets like higher education and health care. It's only through investing that we can be sure we are on the “getting better” line.
And the same is true in our communities. If we want our communities to be stronger we need to invest. I believe there is good reason to not only make that investment, but to make that investment through the United Way. To explain why let me introduce two concepts: the Power of Sustained Investment and the Virtuous Circle.
The Power of Sustained Investment
Over the past 20 years we’ve had a front row seat to the power of sustained investment. Can you imagine our downtown landscape and the vitality that exists today without the Van Andal Arena? Or without GVSU's downtown campus? Or without the Devos convention center? Or without the Hunting YWCA? These were the foundation for other sustained investments, whether the growth of Spectrum’s campus on the Medical Mile and today’s construction of Michigan State’s College of Medicine, or the confidence it gave entrepreneurs to risk their money to open restaurants, build downtown housing and yes, start some really good breweries!
In a similar way the United Way represents a sustained investment in the people of our community. Each year the United Way conducts an assessment of the agencies they fund to ensure those agencies will use the money they receive effectively (that is, generate good results) and efficiently (that is, with low administrative costs). An important component of this assessment is goal setting: the United Way asks each agency to define its outcomes – measureable results that demonstrate an agency has helped a targeted number of people, typically not served by another agency, “get better”.
The Virtuous Circle
The money we invest in the United Way thus funds a virtuous circle of benefits that improve our community. Through sustained investments in education, health care and income support the United Way ensures the least fortunate among us receive the support they need to do the one thing they most want to do – contribute. The support people receive from the United Way enables them to get on a path to a future where they are getting better, not worse.
And this is good for everyone in our community. Why? Because when people in our communities are educated and healthy they are positioned to contribute. When more people are contributing our communities get stronger. Stronger communities equate to stronger schools, stronger churches, stronger neighborhoods and stronger business. And when these organizations are stronger they are then able to support the individuals they serve…it becomes a virtuous circle.
But it’s more than painting fences – “getting better” requires investment.
In our retirement plans, to realize the power of compound annual growth requires sustained investment. No amount of time spent studying the stock market can replace 30 years of payroll deduction to your 401k, regardless of the investment vehicle you choose. The same is true with the United Way. The volunteer time we spend doing “hands-on work” is important. It’s how we connect with people and places in our community; it’s how we put faces and names to the reason we invest. But without our investment the ability for the United Way to fund sustained investments in people, and start virtuous circles improvement in our communities, slips by. When that happens we’re not getting better, which means…well, you know.
It’s the hope I’ve seen in the faces of people who are on the “getting better” path – and a lot of us have seen those faces - that I invest in the United Way. If today you are investing through payroll deduction, thank you. If not I hope you consider how your investment can provide more people in our community the opportunity to be “getting better."