COVID Recovery

United Way CEO aims to use $10 million
gift to ‘position people in a better place
for tomorrow’

The United Way of Greater Knoxville was one of the surprise recipients of a sizable donation from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott at the end of 2020. The nonprofit received a $10 million, unrestricted donation — larger than its annual allocations budget of about $6.5 million to $7 million. Matt Ryerson, president and CEO of the organization, talks about the gift and his priority list for how it should be spent.

Cityview: This gift was unexpected, correct? Tell us how you learned about it.

Ryerson: The first thing that happened was I got an email—just three or four sentences—telling me that someone was interested in our work at the United Way and considering making a significant contribution and would I be available for a phone call to discuss it. My first thought was, okay, was this some sort of a scam from a prince in Nigeria? So I sent it to our CFO who said it didn’t look like a scam and there was no harm in talking to them, so I scheduled a phone call. But I didn’t write down the time it was scheduled on my calendar. I was driving when my phone rang; it was an out-of-town number and I remembered the call. So I pulled into a McDonald’s and decided to order a hot fudge sundae in the drive thru lane while we talked. The woman who called must have known I was relatively cynical initially, but the more we talked, the more legitimate things sounded. It was an hour-long phone call in the McDonald’s parking lot. I kept thinking, ‘This isn’t the right place for this!’

A few weeks later, our CFO sent me a screen shot of the deposit. It was too good to be true. And it’s an unrestricted gift, which runs counter to the general trends in the philanthropic world. You always dream of the donor who believes in you and wants to invest in your work and get out of the way. That kind of endorsement is super exciting and empowering. And what I’m really excited about is they want to be updated. We want to show off the impact that gift is having in Knoxville. We’re anxious to put this money to work.

C: In 2019 your annual report said you had a $6.5 million allocations budget. How did you do in 2020?

Ryerson: 2020 was a great reflection of our community. In the spring when COVID-19 came home, we did a response fund drive strictly for COVID-19 work and received over $1.1 million in gifts. My internal fear was, come campaign season, I could lose that money, but it was the right thing to do. It turns out the spring campaign did not affect it at all; our goal was $8.5 million, and we have cleared $8.7 million with several thousand outstanding. And that speaks to the philanthropic spirit of this community. We earned the name Volunteers; there is something in the DNA of the people in East Tennessee and the people who are attracted here because of that spirit.

C: What are your priorities for the $10 million gift?

Ryerson: There are a couple areas we’ve been investing in and will prioritize going forward:

One is stable housing. The current moratorium on evictions and foreclosures will end, and when it does, we’ll see a spike in crisis housing situations. Prior to the receipt of the gift, we established House Knox to help people navigate the challenges of locating sustainable housing long term. It’s very complex when you’re simply buying a home; when you’re homeless, it’s way more so.

Two is access to food, an issue that spiked during COVID-19. We need to help people get access to the right kinds of foods. While we don’t experience much starvation here, we do have problems with people in need of stable good food rather than highly processed unhealthy foods; we can improve on that.

Third is accessibility to affordable child care. Many of the working poor have trouble getting ends to meet, and one of the greatest expenses, higher than housing even, is licensed child care. It’s going to be a major priority; we’re having conversations with some great partners about accessibility to affordable licensed child care, especially from birth to third grade. That’s when it’s so important that they be safe and secure, in a relational situation with some education components.

Suicides, drug overdoses and feelings of isolation have seen an extraordinary spike in 2020, so we see a need for more mental health supports. And transportation is a real key for people seeking financial stability, so that’s also on our list.

And finally, a lesson learned from 2020, we must accelerate our work in diversity equity and inclusion. People of color have way too often been left behind. We have designed that as an overarching theme in all of our work. It should be part of the DNA in everything we do.

That’s where it’s going to land, and it’s going to start very quickly.

C: So what’s the timeline on seeing this roll out?

Ryerson: A lot of the CARES Act money will carry us through the first quarter. Our goal is by April we can bridge the gap many people will experience so we don’t allow the benefits cliff to happen. We’re starting with diversity equity and inclusion; we’ve convened a diverse group of leaders to discuss that and how to use that money wisely.

I took this job in November of 2019 and many people I talk to sound sympathetic that I stepped into it just as a massive event changed our world. I have consistently tried to reframe that. When I got into the nonprofit world, I got into it to help people. The truth is if you ask any nonprofit person where they wanted to be in 2020, they wanted to be in the trenches. Is it hard? Yes. But when I lay my head down on the pillow at night, I know this is what I want. And I know I’m not alone in that.

The year 2020 was about COVID relief. I’m hoping 2021 is about COVID recovery. We want to position our people this year to be in a better place for tomorrow. I feel it in the air; we are creating hope and energy and excitement that we’re turning the corner.   

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