A new direction for the United Way – Interview with nonprofit executive, Berneice Cox


A new direction for the United Way – Interview with nonprofit executive, Berneice Cox

Show Notes

How do you convince people to purchase something that doesn’t inherently impact them, but at the same time, changes the lives of others? In this episode, Berneice Cox, CEO of the United Way of the Big Bend, joins Michelle to share how strategic communications play an important role in getting people to invest in the wellbeing of their neighbors.


Learn more about the United Way of the Big Bend and their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.


When you’re in the business of marketing a product, you sell people something they want or need. But, when what you’re selling is community impact, and you have to convince people to care about someone else’s problem, the challenge is a lot greater. How do you get people to care — and persuade them to invest in their neighbors’ wellbeing?

The United Way of the Big Bend has been a massive force in charitable giving for more than thirty years, and their new president and CEO Berneice Cox wields the tools of communication with skill and power.

United Way’s secret sauce is a medley of education, storytelling, and reporting. Educate people about the profound human needs in our community, put a human face on that need by sharing the stories of real folks who are helped, and report measurable impacts with hard data.

Two years ago, the United Way of the Big Bend charted a new strategic direction focused on one central problem — poverty. More than half of the region’s residents qualify as poor or among the working poor — one emergency away from poverty. Now, besides everyday emergencies like a car breaking down or an unexpected medical bill, COVID-19 poses a universal crisis.

However great a threat COVID-19 is to the rest of us, to people in poverty, the threat is dire. If you’re an hourly worker, you can’t afford to miss a day of work, so you show up and put yourself at risk. If you depend on public transportation or live in a crowded household, social distancing is a little harder to pull off. If school is closed and your children depend on their school for two hot meals a day, you wonder how you’ll feed them. If you have no broadband internet at home and your children can’t do their schoolwork on a computer, you wonder how they’ll ever catch up.

In the midst of all this, enter Berneice Cox.

We spoke to Berneice before the COVID-19 outbreak about the United Way’s new strategic direction and how communication plays a role in achieving its goals. These insights are more important than ever, as now COVID-19 is pushing an increasingly big population to the brink of financial disaster. Many families are depending on the United Way and their partners for their next meal and other critical services, and to be able to provide those the United Way must successfully capture the hearts of donors and volunteers with their message.

Let’s take a listen.

Michelle: Berneice, thank you for being with us today.

Berneice: I’m so happy to be here Michelle, thank you.

Michelle: So let’s talk a little bit about non- profit communication because you know, to be effective, a non-profit has to share its value proposition, has to get people to care, has to touch those emotional triggers and get people invested in their mission. So United Way of the Big Bend, just a little over a year ago, underwent an entire new strategic direction. And you’ve had a lot to communicate to get people to understand that and to get them bought in. Talk to us about that a little bit.

Berneice: It was a major shift Michelle and the reason it was a major shift is because its United Way of the Big Bend, that’s Leon County and seven surrounding counties, and what we found through an ALICE report, and that’s Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, is that we have in the Big Bend area almost 53 percent of our neighbors are either living in poverty or they’re living paycheck to paycheck and they are close to poverty. Just one crisis away from being there. We have, so when you’re talking about that, you’re talking about one to two people, so it’s someone that you recreate with, its someone you go to church with, there’s many sitting there, they’re people that your work with and they don’t want to self identify and they don’t have to self identify. But we can reach out and educate and let the employers know that we have services available that can help them. But also, when they’re your neighbors, it’s a compelling story because it’s people that live with us, like I said, people that we know.

Michelle: Has that been enough communicating that statistic? Has that been enough to get people to say, “Well we’ve got to do something about this”?

I think what gets enough is people understanding that, yes. I was talking to someone today, it may not be enough. I think we actually have to have an intentional communications plan moving forward to identify those places where we can actually talk about it but also videos and social media, every which way we can touch every generation because every generation communicates differently and making sure we’re highlighting each of the generations in that communication.

I was talking to someone today though, who decided to give to United Way at a $10,000 level, for the first time and that decision was based on the fact we were lasered focused on poverty and those who are living paycheck to paycheck. This is someone who is an owner of a company, who knows that in his company he has folks that are in the ALICE population. They are working, they’re working hard, but he knows they are struggling and it’s not because they come to him, it’s because he understands they could not be living on that one salary. That it’d be very difficult to live on that one salary and he made that commitment based on the fact that he knows about our laser focus on poverty in the ALICE population.

Michelle: That’s very hopeful.

Berneice: It is hopeful. But I do know, I’m also realistic, I know there has to be more of that. More communication. The only way people will hear about the great things that United Way funds support is through our communication and the stories and there’s many of them out there.

Michelle: So let’s talk about that and the power of storytelling. I really think you were courageous in sharing your own personal story and that there was an earlier time in your life where you were in a situation where one bad event could put you in financial jeopardy and so many of our neighbors live that way. Talk to me about how you’re using stories to get people to become bought into your mission.

Berneice: Well it’s hard to tell your personal story. I certainly did not self identify when I was working a fulltime job and two part-time jobs to support my son. What I didn’t share, and I’m going to share with you today, is I was raised in poverty. I came from a family of seven, we didn’t think we were in poverty, I mean we as children didn’t think we were in poverty because we grew up on a farm and we had food to eat. Cousins gave me clothing, or I got hand me downs from my sisters because I was the last of seven and then I was the first generation. I was the first one in my family to graduate college and then I was proud, I was so, so, so happy that I could have done that and succeeded. And then I found myself, after going through a divorce, a single parent and having that feeling again. Where I was working a fulltime job, and like I said two part-time jobs and struggling to make ends meet. There was no savings, there was no buying a home, there was how do I pay my utility bills and my phone bills and make sure that my son has clothing, and food, and childcare. I understand, I don’t understand completely but I understand to know that some of the folks we are wanting to help go through. I’ve been there. Maybe not the same circumstances but I certainly know both poverty and I know ALICE. I know it intimately. And there are many people out there that do. There’s people that would surprise you. I know after sharing my story through a video about being a single mother and being in the ALICE population, I had four different people that you would have never thought were in those same situations talk to me and share their personal stories. I just think that’s critical in making sure that you know how this would help.

Michelle: We have a lot more in common with our neighbors than we might think. You know, those who are struggling to make ends meet and keep food on the table for a family.


Under the old model, people were used to being able to look at a list of charitable organizations, a long list, and select the one they wanted their funds to go to. But in that case, you provided a very small part of their budget potentially and weren’t having a big impact. What’s the new model and why is it more compelling for someone to give?

Berneice: Well in the old model, in Leon County, we had 38 certified agencies; they were more inclusive than the other counties but we had 38 agencies. And what we found in going through our strategic plan and really going through a rigorous review is that for some of those agencies we were only one to two percent of their budget and that was enough numbers to go, we aren’t really making an impact. Are we really changing lives? If you’re only one percent or two percent of the budget, you are not making a significant impact. With our new model, we are looking at the impact and we are not just one or two percent of these program’s budgets that we are supporting. We are also measuring those outcomes. We really want to see are we, I’m using the words “moving the needle”, but are we actually moving the needle. It’s not number served but are we transitioning folks out of poverty into an ALICE population would be a graduation for them. That would be a whole new different area. Can we move them into middle income? Can we eventually get there? And so looking at programs where we are able to have a more significant impact where we can actually use those dollars and really hope to see some of those outcomes and the measures that we want to see.

Michelle: And how soon do you think the community will get those impact reports? Will we be able to see the needle moving?

Berneice: Well, it’s not an overnight thing. I mean whenever you’re trying to measure how you are making an impact on poverty or the ALICE population. But the second year, we are in a multi-year funding, we fund for two years now. It’s the first time we’ve done this historically we’ve never done this before, so that second year we will get a real good read on that. And that will be the end of 2020 where we will get a better read on that. We won’t get the report out until early 2021, but that’ll give us more of an idea of where we are.

Michelle: So Berneice, among your many accomplishments, you are an expert communicator and we know that persuasion rhetoric is aided by logical arguments, appeals to emotion, and then ethos or credibility. How do you see each of those playing a role in communicating United Way’s new mission?

Berneice: What’s really important is that United Way of the Big Bend is a trusted leader. Our United Way of the Big Bend has been here for 77 years and folks know that when they invest in United Way, that they are investing in someone that they know has a record of really taking those dollars and investing in non-profits that are financially viable. That they know can sustain, has sustainability. That’s one of the areas where we do a rigorous review is the finances, to make sure it’s a non-profit that’s going to be there after we’ve given them the funds or allocated funds to them. I believe that that’s real important to have an organization you have trust and faith in. And then I think if you look historically at the support we’ve given the community and the help that we’ve given and we look at this new model and when you know you’ve had the large numbers that we’ve had, 53 percent, that’s staggering. That’s not something you gloss over, that is a staggering number. One in two folks that live in our community, and the seven counties that surround us, live in poverty or in the ALICE population. That requires action. That just requires action.

Michelle: Yeah.

Berneice: And United Way is ready to do it and already is doing it and ready to do it in a more significant way.

Michelle: Well and the fact that you’re so outcome-oriented and you’re going to be able to report quantifiable results for someone who is going to make a decision based on their head and then the storytelling component is you said when you can put a human face on it and understand the walk that our neighbors, some of our neighbors, are experiencing and really have that emotional appeal. You have the ability to hit all three of those.

Berneice: And you’re absolutely right and the investors that really make the decision with their head, I mean head heart, their heart’s included, but sometimes they really need that. And I’ve met with one who gives quite, quite a bit of money to United Way of the Big Bend and has for years and believes in it. But he is so excited to see those quantifiable measures, he is really looking forward to digesting that information.

Michelle: And then there’s the flip side, the emotional appeal. I don’t think anyone can hear Sarah McLachlan’s “Arms of an Angel” without tearing up and remembering the three thousand times you saw a shivering puppy but you know, as much as that has become a cliche ad, it was extremely effective. It’s raised more than, I think $110,000,000 since it first aired in 2007. So, you talk about storytelling, there is role to evoke the emotions of people that we have a problem in our community and can do something about it.

Berneice: And we have, unfortunately, we have a lot of those stories to tell. And I think with any organization that you want to do that and you want to do it better and there’s a commitment to do it better and maybe somehow creatively and differently. I think that’s really important.

Michelle: The model of United Way’s fundraising has for a long time been a workplace giving payroll deduction which has provided a really stable fundraising base. But younger people are a little bit different in how they give. I guess the good news is that Gen Zs and millennials are very philanthropic. They are very motivated to make sure their purchases, for instance, are contributing to a greater societal good. But they’ve been a little more resistant to contribute in the way that United Way has traditionally done it. How are you meeting the needs of those generations and getting them involved?

Berneice: I think you have to with technology. We just launched a text-to-give recently. I think that speaks to millennials and the Gen Zs. The stories I think will speak on how we actually allocate the funds and where the funds go. But anyway we can make it easier to give and also connect it to a story is really important. To connect it to a real-life story and to a real-life person. I have millennials, I have you know to sons who are millennials, and I understand how they give. And they give if their heart, they’re both heart, one’s heart and a head, one’s heart, but they both give if it’s easy for them to give. Its got to be a touch of a button, its got to be. So we are looking at other ways to make it easier to give.

Michelle: Berenice, thank you so much for making time to talk with me today.

Berneice: Thank you Michelle. Glad to be here.

It’s been a few weeks since that conversation, and now the world has changed. But Berneice’s biggest problem during this pandemic isn’t figuring out how her team will work remotely, it’s figuring out how she can have the greatest impact on the fragile community she serves in a crisis that none of us has a playbook for.

Along with the funding and programs organized by the United Way, this crisis has called for immediate action, so Berneice rolled up her sleeves and looked for the biggest points of impact.

  • That meant gathering a truckload of supplies for infants — from diapers to wipes to baby food — from Second Harvest of the Big Bend. Within 24 hours, her staff and volunteers – all safely socially distanced — sorted, organized, and distributed the critical supplies to UWBB-funded program partners who work directly with infants and their families.
  • It also meant working with Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna and Second Harvest to help make sure thousands of children in Leon County don’t go hungry while they are out of school. United Way of the Big Bend tapped its network of volunteers and connected with Publix to provide bags to hold the meals that were distributed to children and families.
  • It also meant finding new volunteers for Elder Care Services. Many of their regular volunteers are local seniors who need to stay home to limit the risk of exposure.
  • It meant raising her voice as part of a Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare initiative to urge people to stay at home and avoid the transmission.
    And it meant creating the Coronavirus Relief Fund at UWBB.org, to help meet the immediate needs of our vulnerable neighbors.

Now is a time for communities to come together and help those who need it most, but it’s also a time for leaders to rise and lead by example. Berneice practices what she preaches by reaching out to others to contribute time and resources while at the same time, putting in time and resources herself. Examples like these in the community give us hope and keep us moving forward as we fight this pandemic together.

Today, you’ve been talking community impact with my guest, CEO of the United Way of the Big Bend, Berneice Cox. To donate to the COVID-19 Emergency Relief fund or to learn more about the resources that are available to those in need during this crisis, please visit uwbb.org. If you want to read more about our conversation, visit sachsmedia.com/podcast, and make sure to subscribe for more episodes on communication breakthroughs in unexpected places.