Q&A with Brent Stewart, CEO and President, United Way of Greater Kansas City
Brent A. Stewart Sr. led the United Way of the Columbia-Willamette over the last four years. He is credited for revitalizing the organization's fund-raising capacity and credibility in the community.
On April 1, Brent took on the reins as CEO and President of the United Way of Greater Kansas City.With his reputation as a change agent throughout the United Way system, Brent bested 70+ candidates for the coveted position. He brings more than 20 years' experience in leading United Ways through transitions.
In a Q&A with Colors of Influence, Brent shares his perspective on the important role organizations such as United Way brings to communities.
Since implementing changes in the United Way of the Columbia-Willamette, the organization has a strong reputation in the community. In the four years that you have led the local United Way, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
I'm m ost proud of my achievement in bringing people together to accomplish a common goal. That common goal is to improve people’s lives in our community. In bringing people together, I am specifically referring to creating staff talent that’s needed to make that happen. Being able to attract good, committed, compassionate and skillful people to do the work of United Way has been key.
I’m also proud of our board and our volunteers. We have a board that is made up of some high-profile individuals who represent a lot of different perspectives throughout the community. Most of all, I’m most proud that our board is the most diverse board in the city, of any nonprofit board. Certainly, we can continue to improve, but the board certainly looks very different than when I found it.
You’ve been successful at building coalitions with local social service agencies, as well as revitalizing United Way workplace campaigns. What strategies are key to building strong community partnerships?
It’s really about partnering with groups in the community to develop a vision around community that is inspiring. A vision where people can see possibilities about what we can be as a community. When you’re able to do that, then collaborations and partnerships become natural. By creating that kind of vision together, people in the community aspire to realize that vision. I think that’s the pivotal piece in bringing groups together.
United Way ’s Community Impact model has focused the attention of the local organization to address interrelated issues. Why did this model work so well in our region?
The Community Impact Model answers the question that we sometimes get from our donors: What difference is the United Way making in our community? The Community Impact Model demonstrates results, accountability and transparency around our work. People understand the value and relevance of our work in the community.
If the community were to believe that United Way is only a fund-raising organization, many would use United Way as a “pass-through” organization. By giving to United Way, the community can achieve more than any one agency can achieve alone.
You’re known throughout the United Way system as a turnaround expert. What do you find most edifying about change management?
What attracts me to this particular work is the commitment it takes to be a better organization, always striving toward excellence. When I think of change, I think in terms of improvement, never change for change’s sake.
Under your leadership, United Way has made excellent strides in ensuring that the volunteer leadership reflects the community’s demographics. Why is an emphasis on diversity important for an organization like United Way?
We are a community-based organization that serves to improve the lives of all, everybody who makes up the community. In order for us to do that and be knowledgeable about challenges and issues of day-to-day life for people in our community, we have to make sure that diverse viewpoints are represented at the board table.
Early on in your career, what factors influenced your decision to build a career in United Way leadership?
The work of United Way is so well-aligned with my personal values, around giving back and lifting people up to achieve their full potential. I like to think that beyond my life with United Way, I will continue to serve the community. That’s what I am about, at the core of my soul. A lot of that has to do with the fact that I received so much as a kid, growing up in a nurturing community. I see the value in giving back.
United Way deals with a multitude of issues. I am interested in dealing with issues that go beyond the need of one particular population. From education issues to health care and needs of seniors and children, the work of United Way covers the whole community, touching a variety of issues.
What qualities make a successful leader?
The ability to listen, and the ability to respond and act based on what you heard.
What do you enjoy most about the work you do?
The people. It’s rewarding to work on mobilizing people to get involved in doing good work. It’s fulfilling to see the results and how people’s lives have changed – and changing – based on our work. Anytime I meet a person who has benefited from the services of United Way, it’s a testimony to our effectiveness as an organization. No matter how many times I hear success stories, it still gives me goosebumps to know that we’re making a real difference in the lives of others.
Why is leading the United Way of Greater Kansas City an excellent choice at this juncture in your career in nonprofit management?
When I decided to become a United Way president many years ago, I made a commitment to go as far as I could in the profession. United Way Greater Kansas City is a good career move: it’s a bigger market. Kansas City raises more dollars, which means there’s more resources to impact many more lives than we’re able to do here in Portland. Being able to impact more people makes the job at the United Way of Greater Kansas City very appealing.
What challenges are you looking forward to tackling at the United Way of Greater Kansas City?
(UWGKC) is a newly merged organization, so in many ways, it’s looking to build a brand in that geographic area. I look forward to the challenge of working with board and staff to create a vision for the United Way in that region. And hopefully, inspiring volunteers and staff to go on and do great things.
There will be the challenge of moving that United Way to the Community Impact Model. Getting the community to truly recognize the importance of the Community Impact Model is a challenge that I look forward to. That’s one of the things I have done in other United Ways.
What are some of the things you’ll miss about Portland?
I’ll miss everything about Portland. I’ll miss the wonderful relationships I’ve been able to develop in what seems to be a short period of time. I’ll miss the kindness and generosity of many people, in particular, Sho Dozono and his family. When I think of Portland, I will always think of Sho.
I’ll miss the microbreweries. I’m a big fan of beer, and I think Portland has more microbreweries than any other community in the country.
I’ll miss the unique feel of Portland. I remember when I first came here, I saw a “Keep Portland Weird!” bumper sticker. With that awareness, there’s a special feeling about Portland.
What lessons learned from running the United Way of the Columbia-Willamette, which covers four counties in two states, will you be taking to Greater Kansas City?
The rate and pace of change, which has everything to do with your success and what you create as a result. That’s what I learned here. I think we’ve done some good things here. We’ve had a burning platform that required us to move quicker on some things. Some of the transition may not have felt as good as I normally would have liked. In the beginning, there was an urgency to all of our work here. If I had to do it over again, I would plot the pace of change in a less urgent manner, as it could be very disruptive.
Spring 2008 Colors of Influence