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Reflections and Appreciations – A Message from UWBA CEO Kevin Zwick

February 16, 2024

The San Francisco skyline at dusk.

A headshot of UWBA CEO Kevin Zwick.

By: Kevin Zwick
CEO, United Way Bay Area

I remember it vividly – it was the first week of March 2020, and shelter-in-place orders were just beginning due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. There was so much confusion about what would come next, keeping people safe and healthy, managing our children’s education, and adapting nonprofit organizations to continue meeting the need in the face of new and uncertain conditions and unprecedented challenges. It was that week that a recruiter reached out with an exciting opportunity – would I be interested in learning more about the CEO position at United Way Bay Area (UWBA)?

As a long-standing nonprofit executive and affordable housing advocate, this was an exciting opportunity. After its previous CEO, Anne Wilson, retired following an illustrious 40-year tenure with the UWBA, the board was looking for someone who could help the organization develop and integrate a perspective on the affordable housing crisis with its’ anti-poverty mission and rebuild partnerships in the South Bay. As the CEO of a Silicon Valley-based affordable housing nonprofit, I felt that I had something to contribute and quickly met with the search committee and board.

However, I had spent two decades dedicated to the affordable housing movement and I wasn’t sure I was ready to move on and into a space where I didn’t know anyone on the board or staff. I just wasn’t certain. Until, that is, I met the entire staff in a virtual town hall as the last round of my interview process. Once I had the chance to see and interact with the people who would be my colleagues, I was all-in and ready for the challenge.

When I started, we were nearly four months into the pandemic that was raging; many were sheltered in place while many more front line and essential workers were at increased risk of infection. Making matters worse, that summer we also experienced horrible wildfires throughout the state that turned the sky dark red and made the air dangerous to breathe.

I remember a zoom meeting with our marketing, program, and technology departments on the day wildfires were breaking out in our region. They asked, “when are you going to tell us to stand up a relief fund to help?” I remember asking, “wait, can I do that?”. The response was a resounding “Yes, we’re United Way Bay Area – that’s what we’re here for – we know how to do that – we’re just waiting for you to give the green light!” That’s how the Greater Bay Area Central Coast Wildfire Relief Fund was started, which ended up helping over ten thousand individuals and households displaced or affected by the wildfires, while also providing operational support to our partners at the United Way of Santa Cruz County, United Way Monterey County, and United Way of the Wine Country.

It was an impactful start to the next three and a half years, and all the accomplishments the team at UWBA has made during that time. I am so proud of what our staff and board have done to center impact in our organization. This had led us to become more strategic, equitable, and regional in our approach to the work by:

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  • Updating our Mission Statement
  • Developing our DEI Action Plan 54 Action Steps in 10 key areas of the organization to embed racial equity, diversity, and inclusion and then throughout the organization’s work; more than 50% of which are in progress or have been completed as of last year
  • Launching a new Strategic Plan
  • Creating our first Housing Justice initiative to help connect our current anti-poverty programs and initiatives with future public policy and will building activities to create more affordable housing and prevent displacement and homelessness
  • Developing our first-ever Theory of Change
  • Publishing original research
  • Reinvesting in our volunteer leadership
  • Investing in our staff
  • Increasing our emphasis on systems change and advocacy Focusing on its importance in dismantling inequitible systems by tripling staff resources devoted to public policy
  • Addressing short and long-term financial uncertainties Paying down our line of credit to zero, reducing our ongoing office occupancy costs by over 60%, and fulfilling our promise to our dedicated retirees by fully funding our outstanding pension liabilities and transferring administration to more responsive operators

While these are all great accomplishments, I will mostly think back on the time spent with staff and supporters that showed the best of who we are and what makes this such a special organization. Moments like:

  • Celebrating our 100th anniversary with an amazing gala celebration full of friends, team members, volunteers, and supporters
  • Enjoying a summer Family Picnic for staff and board members
  • Bringing back UWBA’s famous “Souptacular” for our staff holiday gathering
  • Singing Happy Birthday on Zoom to our co-workers in varying degrees of tonality
  • Eating Boston’s famous cannoli from Mike’s Pastry, courtesy of our friends at United Way of Massachusetts Bay, thanks to the Warriors beating the Celtics in the 2022 NBA Finals
  • Hosting United Way Worldwide CEO Angela Williams for the day in our SF offices and sharing inspiration and visions for the future
  • Bonding over Zoom through karaoke, dance parties, costume parties, and birthday surprise meetings
  • Designing winning pumpkins for the Silicon Valley Council of Nonprofits Be our Guest competition
  • UWBA “Weekend Updates” with Tomás/Colin Jost and Jason/Michael Che
  • Remembering the life and impact of our beloved coworker, Lileen Shannon, SparkPoint Director, who dedicated over a decade of her life to our mission and left us too soon

In saying my last goodbyes as CEO of United Way Bay Area, I am firm in my belief that our best days are ahead. UWBA has turned the corner on its first 100 years and is poised to lead for our next century of impact and service. Our superpowers of convening, speaking with clarity, and reaching out to all in our community to get involved, will be needed more than ever as our country struggles against further division and our regions’ problems becoming more intractable.

While we have had challenges in rebuilding our operations and infrastructure, we are now in the best place we’ve been in over the past four years thanks to our hardworking teams. Yes, we’ve had challenges in meeting our potential and stated goals around inclusion and equity. But we are ever embracing the journey of being a learning organization, evolving in our support for one another along the way, and sharing our takeaways with our partners and stakeholders.

The future is uncertain. The pandemic’s harshest effects continue to fall unfairly on those with the most challenges. None the less, we are focusing our programs on the communities that have been the most racially and persistently marginalized, while also embracing innovative new ideas, such as Guaranteed Income.

Why do I feel so certain of our future? It’s because of our people. That starts with our staff, union partners, Leadership team, Executive Team, Board, Advisory Council, Ambassadors Council and all volunteer leaders. While the people who make up these different parts of our organization are top-notch and worthy of their own messages, I’ve been truly blessed to have five inspirational leaders whom I’ve had the privilege of managing directly, and therefore I see their brilliance up close every day. Sylvia Crater, who brings her 35+ years of service with UWBA to the role of being the most dedicated Executive Assistant one could wish to have. Brian Kataoka has done an amazing job stepping in as Chief Financial Officer (CFO) last summer, calling on his deep knowledge of nonprofit organizations to bring in new perspectives and resources to ensure our accounting, finance, and HR systems work for our staff.

Sara Brissenden-Smith, our Vice President of Equity and Strategy, has brought our organization together around the common goals in our DEI Action Plan and our Strategic Plan; she has challenged us all to live our values and encouraged us to expand what we believe is possible. Christopher Berini was my first hire to join us as Chief Advancement Officer and has devoted his considerable talents and expertise, and his deep empathy and caring for others, to UWBA, helping to support me and my vision for the organization. And, of course, Kelly Batson – the heart of UWBA and a trusted partner to all – has graciously agreed to temporarily step away from her Chief Impact Officer role to serve the organization as our Interim CEO while the board search continues. I want to thank each of you for the privilege of working with, and learning from, you.

What’s next for me? After a short trip to visit family in Taiwan, I’m looking forward to taking a little time to rest and reflect from the past 15 years of being a nonprofit CEO, practicing some self-care, and supporting my teenagers in their journeys. I’ll be opening myself up to new possibilities to have more impact for organizations and causes that I care about here in the Bay Area, including working to reverse our housing crisis and strengthen the organizations we ask so much of, while providing so few resources. While I won’t do that as the CEO of UWBA, I will do it as a supporter and cheerleader of our mission, programs, and people, knowing that the lessons you all have taught me, I will carry with me wherever I go.

Live United!