Barbara Couto Sipe in front of a backdrop patterned with United Way's logo

Meet United Way’s New President and CEO: Barbara Couto Sipe (Part 2)

Barbara Couto Sipe took the reins of United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg on June 16, returning to an organization for which she worked for 11 years. In this second of our two-part interview with her, she discusses some of the challenges and priorities as leader of one of the most impactful nonprofit organizations in the region. [If you missed part 1 of our interview, you can find it here.]

What would you say is the biggest challenge for you and United Way in the coming years?

Basic needs are increasing for people across this region, and our youth are struggling with unprecedented levels of violence, mental health issues and learning loss. In addition, our older adult population is increasing, requiring greater support and resources United Way and our partners need more donations, volunteers and advocates now more than ever to meet the high demand. Now is the time for communities to come together, for more public and private partnerships and for innovation. The time is now to create a positive vision for our region’s future and invest in the Steps to Success for a thriving Greater Richmond & Petersburg.

United Way will need to assess where our community really needs us to lean in and focus. That’s the first order of business. Our emails all say @YOURunitedway.org, which makes clear that this is your United Way. So, we really need to listen, to get input and organize. From there, we can quantify what the need is. And that’s when we can go out and raise awareness and engagement for big impact. That’s the approach I think is right for this moment in time.

United Way’s “Steps to Success”

There’s been a trend in recent years for companies, particularly larger companies, to take their giving programs inside, to conduct them on their own. Is that a concern?

You know, United Way was one of the first charitable organizations to partner with workplaces to build a culture of giving and volunteering. It’s been so successful and so important to large employers that they’ve created their own internal infrastructure. It’s helped employee morale. It’s helped with employee engagement. What do they say about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery? Meanwhile, I think we can support small businesses and mid-sized businesses that don’t have the capacity to do these kinds of campaigns themselves. There is a role United Way can play to build community engagement, connectedness and philanthropy to reach even more people through those small and mid-size businesses, all while partnering with large employers and key initiatives.

The other thing now is to leverage technology and media so we can reach people every day, all day long and cast an even wider net than ever before. How do we really start to think about encouraging and engaging people all year long and building more of that engagement with folks every day? I’ve always said United Way is the people’s foundation. It’s a place where we can all come together no matter who we are, no matter how much income we have.

By all accounts, you and your team at NextUp RVA were doing heroic work, making a profound difference in the lives of teenagers in Richmond Public Schools. Will it be difficult to leave that work, especially given all the success that you’ve seen?

NextUp RVA grew out of a creative process that involved Richmond’s schools, business leaders and the philanthropic community. They did the research that said, “we need to better coordinate and fund out-of-school time programs and doing so can have a direct impact on Richmond City youth.” My job was to come in and take that vision and build out the concept. And I did that with an incredible team of staff, volunteers, donors and out-of-school time partners. There are leaders within the organization that were a part of building our strategic vision that we have in place now, and that includes a dedicated board of directors who is committed and passionate. It was an incredible experience. There are so many passionate youth-development professionals, and our city’s teens are so smart. They continue to inspire me.

United Way is also focused on positive youth development and was at the ground floor of creating NextUp as well as raising money for many of the youth-development organizations I worked with. So, I’m really looking forward to advancing quality out-of-school time for all youth across the city AND across the region. Decades of research has proven that out-of-school time experiences are a critical part of youth development, academic success and life readiness.

[Click here for The Phil’s 2021 conversation with Barbara about NextUp.]
Barbara Couto Sipe meeting with an employee

And so, in many ways, your move to United Way can be the impetus for expanding the NextUp model?

That’s right. This is the part of United Way where we can be the convener in this space. NextUp demonstrated that when you give kids greater access to learning enrichments as part of school, they come to school more often. They’re more hopeful about their future. They’re more confident in their learning. They have more friends, they do better. But that’s just Richmond City. Chesterfield has Communities in Schools, which is running middle school programs after school, not exactly like NextUp, but very similar. So is the Henrico Education Foundation. So, United Way can bring all three of those partners together to actually talk about this from a regional perspective and lift it up. United Way can research the outcomes and the models and say, “look, we’re seeing middle-school expanded learning as an effective model in multiple places. This is something that needs to be lifted up as a priority strategy for improving youth outcomes.” That’s the kind of thing that a United Way can do that no one of those organizations can do by themselves.

Those are some longer-term strategies. What comes first?

We had an all-staff meeting so I could meet everyone, tell them a little bit about myself, tell them about my vision. I think the team has gone through a lot and I’ve been there. I’ve been an employee when there’s been a change in leadership. It can be scary and also exciting. So, I just want to let them know that I’m ready to support them and to lead with focus, optimism, quality and results, and we’ll go from there.

For more information about the United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg, including ways to donate and volunteer, visit https://www.yourunitedway.org.

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