The story of the ogre

An ogre invades a village and starts throwing village babies into a nearby flowing stream. The townspeople panic, and they grab nets and go downstream to capture the babies as they're floating by before they go over the edge of a waterfall.

As they're frantically picking babies out of the stream, a couple of villagers look at each other and say, "Why don't we go back and slay that ogre?" While others use the nets, they go back and kill the ogre. And the village doesn’t have to spend so many resources on dipping the babies out of the stream.

And the wall came tumbling down …

TD Smyers, president and CEO of United Way of Tarrant County, is gesturing to a workspace at the organization’s headquarters at 1500 N. Main St. in Fort Worth.

“Up until about six months ago, there was a large blue wall right here in the middle of it. Resource Development was on that side. Community Development was on that side,” Smyers says.

“We took sledgehammers to it,” he said. “We put on hard hats and gloves, and we all beat the wall down.”

That addressed a section of the agency’s strategic plan referred to as Donor Centricity, where the donor is recognized as a customer.

“We're building horizontal workflow, where teams are built that handle donors and causes so that we can start building more of a team throughout both of them,” Smyers said.

The department is led by Leah King, United Way’s chief operating officer.

“Beneath her, now, we have heads of essentially Donor Relations and heads of Partner Relations. We put it under one leader at that level so it doesn't stovepipe again,” he said. “It doesn't start getting into that kind of tribal organization like it was before.”

The idea is to connect the donor resource all the way through execution of programs in the community.

“What a better donor experience that would be than the transactional way that we were traditionally structured,” Smyers said.

The falling wall is a visual symbol of the changes underway at the organization, which started as the Fort Worth Community Chest in 1922 and morphed into the United Way of Tarrant County of today.

Smyers joined United Way in November 2015 as executive vice president/chief operations officer and chief development officer after serving four years as regional CEO for the American Red Cross North Texas region. He retired from the U.S. Navy in 2011 as commanding officer of Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base.

He became head of United Way when President and CEO Tim McKinney retired at the end of June in 2017.

But change was already underway. The agency began working on a strategic plan with internal meetings in 2016 and took the meetings to the larger community last year. The result is what the agency calls System Change.

Smyers took over in a time of turmoil. Traditional revenue sources for United Way were declining. That led last year to a 31 percent reduction in its workforce.

“That told us symptomatically we needed to change. Philanthropy had changed, and our traditional organization needed to catch up with that change and then eventually lead it,” Smyers said recently.

A one-sheet summary of the strategic plan explains System Change: Simply put, Systems Change is taking our resources and applying them to broad processes that affect populations of people, rather than just a few.

In the traditional fundraising and allocation process, United Way collected money from employees of companies in the area and through individual donations. Social service agencies applied for to the agency for grants, which were awarded through an allocations process.

In an area where the population is increasing, the workforce is growing, and the primary fundraising effort is through corporate campaigns, one could reasonably expect that donations also would be increasing over time.

“It's not been happening. It's been going down since 1999,” Smyers said. “For us, it was going back and [realizing] that's a systemic problem. We've got to fix that."

The strategic plan is built on three pillars:

– Systems Change: Addressing the root causes of issues that affect entire populations through collaboration, leadership and scaled investment;

– Donor Centricity: Centering a culture of philanthropy around to donor as the customer, including 100 percent giving to the donor’s choice and options based on the issues that drive the donors.

– Public Philanthropy: Changing United Way’s core strength from transactional to relationship giving, where everyone invests in the community as they are willing and able.

Here’s an example:

Smyers might visit with the CEO of a company to develop a campaign and ask what the company’s corporate social strategy would want to support. The answer might be veterans and STEM.

“This is a real example,” he said. “Those are actually two very common things we get from companies that are big in the defense industry.

“Veterans, it's a no brainer. Kind of plays to their client base. STEM, because it contributes to a technically skilled, locally available workforce. That all makes sense.”

In the past, Smyers would roll out the list of United Way partner agencies and the things they do to see whether there was a fit for a prospective donor.

Now he asks how best to accomplish that to the benefit of the donor. The answer might be some new form of access, perhaps through middle school initiatives to better equip students to move into STEM fields of study – science, technology, engineering and math.

That’s not a threat to existing agencies, he said.

“The partner agencies look at me and go, ‘What am I, chopped liver?’ No. You're a partner. You're extremely important. That's just a different type of stakeholder, and the people who need you, the clients and the community, they're your customers. So our work is to approach the donor, make them our customer, and get you the resources,” Smyers said.


The concept is to work horizontally across issues instead of vertically in silos.

Smyers says the United Way traditionally had been very general in its approach and then tried to make it more specific some years back by focusing on education, income and health.

“The problem is, those aren't specific at all. Those aren't initiatives; they're bins of activities; they're categories,” Smyers said. “We decided that the next step to determine the ‘what we're about’ needed to be data driven.”

Needs assessments determine the verticals – issues that the nonprofit and social services sector is structured to address such as infant mortality and low birth weight, or domestic violence, or early childhood literacy.

“There are nonprofits structured to deal with those,” Smyers said. “We also know that there are horizontals out there, things that cut through all the issues, that are common to all of them. Things like mental illness, things like access to transit, poverty.”

Thanks to a $250,000 grant from the Sid Richardson Foundation, United Way has commissioned the University of North Texas Health Science Center to do a systemic needs analysis in the community to identify the verticals and the horizontals, “and then give us the information we need to prioritize, so we can go after them and attack them,” Smyers said.

“I'm not talking about merely treating the symptoms of the issues. I'm talking about ensuring the symptoms are treated by going after what's causing them and crushing it,” Smyers said.

Spoken like the naval aviator he is.

And the agency is also going to give the data away to anyone who wants to drill down into it.

The community outreach of the strategic planning consisted of a dozen 90-minute strategy sessions with CEOs, elected officials, millennial entrepreneurs, leaders of nonprofits and others – almost 100 in total – across all of Tarrant County.

There were some surprises.

One was that despite easy access to information, people wanted United Way to continue its traditional role of vetting nonprofits. It’s not that individuals can’t do that; it’s that they don’t want to.

“Make it frictionless for me," Smyers said the agency was told.

And there were what he called groundbreaking concepts: “If you want to change the systems that affect people, look at bringing in some big-muscle movements like shared databases that are HIPAA compliant that allow people to track somebody through the case management system that is now shared. You don't have to repeat this all the time, and you don't lose people through the cracks."


Gone are the days when employers would require new employees as part of their hiring paperwork to fill out a United Way pledge card. That raised money, but it didn’t necessarily move many needles.

But Smyers says that the concept of public philanthropy is a different creature.

“There's power in public philanthropy,” he said. “We don't call people who kick in 10 or 25 bucks some paycheck philanthropists. We should, because that's what they are.

“In the aggregate, it's powerful because it brings both resources in terms of revenue and resources in terms of hands to do the work, volunteerism and engagement to all of these organizations.”

People give to causes that are important to them and designating their gifts allows them to do that both specifically – to a social agency they support – or to a general area of need they support.

But no one designates their gifts to pay the rent or the electricity bill and those are needs that also much be met.

And that’s where private philanthropy comes in.

“We've moved that element of risk to another part of our revenue structure, the corporate side, where companies get it,” Smyers said. “They know. They've got to do the same thing. They know [they have] to keep the lights on, the doors open, and any other effort that's powerful, we're going to need to help that structure stay afloat.”

The result is a new society among corporations called Community Cornerstones. Many companies make some sort of match to their employees’ donations during fundraising campaigns.

Smyers said that companies that give the match without restrictions, so the money can be used in other allocations and to simply keep United Way operating, are recognized as Community Cornerstone companies. It’s worked at other United Way organizations in the United States.


He uses the words “big muscle movements” to refer to programs that can make systemic change in society.

“We categorized that need to collaborate and collectively attack root causes under systems change,” Smyers said.

Symptomatic treatment of social ills – giving somebody a cot, giving somebody some shelter – is funding dependency.

But coupling needed immediate support with going after the root causes of the issue at the same time is doing something differently.

“Now we're changing the system, changing the environment in which people suffer, making it different, making it better, making it go away,” Smyers said.

Systems change convenes collaborative leadership and then it brings the resources of public philanthropy to bear, not in nickel-and-dime stuff but scaled investment to making things change, he said.

“The funny thing is, scale investment costs more money because … you've got to make a bigger investment,” Smyers said.

“Systems change doesn't necessarily have to do that. … We need to get back to that thought process of let's establish collaborations where they need to exist and let's bring them together in a way that is instructive to the end."

He said United Way will not be saying things like for the next 10 years it is going to attack a specific social issue. He used human trafficking as an example.

“We're going to say, ‘We're going to attack human trafficking until we squash it. We're going to cut it in half in three years; in five years, we're going to end it. Those are the targets, but we're going to attack it until we squash it," he said

“That's a different change. It's an agile model that's focused on the end outcome, not on some period of time that we're going to throw ourselves against a brick wall and fight an issue. It's focused on solutions, and that's where we think an organization like United Way should go in a community. That's the role we think it should play,” Smyers said.

Every organization – whether it's government, private or the social sector – plays to its own self-interest.

“That’s just the reality,” he said. “Sometimes, when we get together in the social sector, we kind of ignore that. We say, ‘OK, we're going to do collective impact and we're going to achieve an end to homelessness. That means that we're going to have this organization established as a backbone, and then all of you are going to come together. You're going have to give a little bit of your time and energy, and maybe some of your resources, so that we can all get here.’

“But as we move more aggressively toward systems change, you can expect the metrics to change from the numbers of people we helped to the numbers of people who no longer need help,” Smyers said.

“We're out to crush social ills. What we want to achieve are more changes in the entire population or in the entire community. The new focus is on helping individuals while at the same time moving the needle for populations, for entire communities.”

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