Chicago Tribune Executive Profile: Wendy DuBoe

Featured in the August 19, 2013 edition of Chicago Tribune’s Business section.

After years of decline at United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, CEO Wendy DuBoe gathered some of her staff recently to celebrate some good news.

The organization received a $1.3 million government grant last month, its largest to date, from the Illinois Department of Public Health to help enroll patients this fall into new health exchanges called for in the Affordable Care Act.

Even with the seven-figure grant, DuBoe and her team were planning how to make the most of the money – because the original request had been for $2.2 million.

DuBoe, 48, is no stranger to making do with limited resources. She peppers her staff with questions and ideas about how to find ways to work with other social service providers that received grant money, so the agencies can cover as much ground as possible.

In the decade since DuBoe joined United Way, the umbrella charitable organization known for its annual workplace fundraising campaigns has weathered one fiscal blow after another as donors lost jobs during the financial crisis or sought more direct ways to help charities. A pay scandal involving a United Way chapter in North Carolina in 2008 didn’t help, nor did several other financial scandals involving the brand during the past few decades.

The number of corporate partners involved with the Chicago organization has dropped to about 1,100 from more than 1,500 before 2008. Since 2008, employee head count has shrunk from 129 to 110, a 15 percent drop.

Undaunted, DuBoe, a former pompom girl and Mensa member from Morton Grove, is counting wins like the public health grant and a few promising new corporate relationships as she tries to make good on the promises behind Live United 2020, a bold service and fundraising initiative unveiled in 2009.

Her charge: to serve 350,000 people by improving area schools, job programs and public health, while raising annual revenue to about $75 million from about $50 million today.

And though revenue from its traditional workplace campaigns has been steadily declining for years, there are pockets of recent growth, she said.

“Some of our payroll deduction accounts are growing like gangbusters,” she said.

She’s realistic, though, about the long-term downward trend.

Total revenue, including money raised through United Way campaigns but that goes directly to other charities through employee designations, fell to $51.9 million in June 2012, down nearly 10 percent since 2009. Officials expect roughly flat revenue for the fiscal year that ended in June.

“Philanthropy has changed,” DuBoe said, nodding to the proliferation of targeted charities that appeal to specific, passionate donor bases. “We still have a very strong workplace philanthropy business going, but we’re broadening to work with other companies and individual donors.”

New focus

Case in point: The agency has begun rolling out in full the Live United 2020 campaign, an initiative aimed at narrowing the types of charities it funds and targeting key geographic areas with a network of services.

The first such effort is in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood on the Southwest Side, where United Way has spent about $300,000 in the past year. In addition to money, the organization is using networking power to help community groups there access potential new funding sources. It has also spent considerable resources figuring out how to measure results – another key demand from the donor community.

In March, Mesirow Financial announced it was partnering with United Way to provide funding and volunteers in Brighton Park, where 93 to 98 percent of schoolchildren qualify for federal free and reduced-price lunches.

“The relationship (with United Way) has been an amazing catalyst for change in our neighborhood,” said Patrick Brosnan, executive director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. “It has put us in front of corporate donors we didn’t have access to before.”

Another funding and service blitz, in a low-income suburban community, could begin as early as next month, though an official announcement probably won’t happen for several months, DuBoe said.

By 2020, the organization hopes to target at least eight more city neighborhoods and suburban communities with similar efforts geared to school improvements, job opportunities and community health, she said.

Simply having a household name in philanthropy circles and playing intermediary between donors and social service agencies is no longer enough, said Daniel Borochoff, president and founder of Chicago-based CharityWatch.

“They need to focus on adding value,” he said.

To be sure, Borochoff said, United Way is still a major philanthropic force, particularly given cutbacks in government spending on social services.

“There’s no question this is a big challenge, and we’re fortunate she likes big challenges,” said Ellen Costello, the recently retired president of BMO Financial Corp. who remains chair of the local United Way board.

Difficult times

It was Costello who agreed to lead the board last year after ITW Chairman David Speer stepped down from the chairman’s post as he battled cancer. (He died in November.)

That came on the heels of another unsettling departure.

Then-CEO Laura Thrall suffered a brain aneurysm in August 2011. Citing a need to focus on her recovery, she resigned in December of that year. Today she is CEO of CureSearch for Children’s Cancer, a Bethesda, Md., nonprofit.

At the time, DuBoe was elevated from chief operating officer to interim CEO while the board conducted a search for a successor. Costello helped lead that search.

“Wendy was doing a great job as interim CEO, but we wanted to do a very thoughtful search,” she said. The board engaged recruiting firm Russell Reynolds and interviewed several candidates before naming DuBoe chief executive officer in April 2012.

While she lacked the sheer number of years in the nonprofit world of some of her competitors (her resume includes stints at Ameritech and public relations firm FleishmanHillard), she had built credibility inside the organization since officially joining in 2004, Costello said. Her calming executive presence in the wake of the departures also played a role.

“She just did a great job understanding the needs of the employees. She was incredible throughout the whole thing,” Costello recalled.

Another board member who also helped lead the search, McDonald’s Corp. Chairman Andrew McKenna, said DuBoe most clearly understands the organization’s mission as it struggles to find its footing.

“We’ve lost some major companies” to mergers that took headquarters out of the area, another reason for the downtrend, McKenna said. “Wendy’s been a good leader through a tough environment, and she has extraordinary people skills.”

She regularly invites small groups of corporate partners to the organization’s gleaming new offices in the CNA building on South Wabash Avenue to hear about progress on the Live United effort. The 28,000-square-foot space looks on to the iconic Metropolitan Tower and out to Lake Michigan.

DuBoe says the organization negotiated good terms for the space in part because it was able to commit to a 15-year lease (paid with proceeds from the sale of its previous home in the West Loop for about $5.3 million) and partly because it was a high-profile tenant.

The new space exemplifies the kind of change DuBoe hopes to achieve. Open workspaces stress collaboration – and the best views go to the fundraising staff.

“We are really reinventing how United Way is delivering on our mission,” DuBoe said. “We are looking for very targeted results and creative ideas on how to generate those results.”

As in the Brighton Park model, the organization aims to build networks of care in underserved communities. By focusing on schools and community centers, the goal is to target specific communities and blanket them with one-stop services ranging from education to job training to health care.

“We’re changing from being a broad, arms-length funder to one that’s more direct, providing measurably ‘on-the-ground’ impact,” DuBoe said.

In an interview, Thrall said she and DuBoe “counterbalanced” each other.

“I was high energy, high stress, and she was intense but analytical. She thinks things through,” Thrall said.

Family ties

That deep, analytical thinking started early for DuBoe, who grew up in a large extended family headed by Russian immigrant grandparents. Her older brother, Robert, is a city planner who also lives in the Chicago area.

“Rob and Wendy apparently fought like cats and dogs when they were young, but that’s weird for me to imagine, because now they’re very close,” said Eileen Figel, DuBoe’s sister-in-law. Figel works as a consultant in community and economic development, so she and DuBoe often talk about work, and the family frequently gathers for Sunday night dinners.

“She’s very close to our kids. Each time one of them turns 13, Wendy plans a big trip for just the two of them to anywhere the kids want to go,” Figel said. The most recent trip was this summer, to a national park in Utah. She has a really cool relationship with them, a combination of joking around but also probing, serious conversations.”

Duboe’s family always emphasized education. Many of her relatives attended Northwestern University, though DuBoe struck out on a different path at the University of Michigan.

She immediately placed out of entry-level math and science courses and was taking an advanced genetics class when she realized she might not want to be a physician, which was her original plan.

“It was the beginning of a realization that I might be interested in a subject matter, but that might not be what I wanted to do in my life. I wasn’t actually visualizing being a physician,” she said. “My family encouraged me to take a lot of classes and try a lot of things. I’m where I am now, doing what I should be doing, because I spent a lot of time exploring.”

That exploration continued after undergraduate school – she earned a master’s degree in economics and international relations at Johns Hopkins and also studied at the London School of Economics – and into her career.

After about three years at the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, she joined Ameritech International as a research manager. Two years later, she was promoted to director of business development.

She left the company in 1999, declining to relocate overseas, and didn’t have another job in hand. Single and a good saver, she said, she was unafraid to make the leap out of a regular paycheck while she contemplated her next step.

About six months later, she landed at FleishmanHillard but spent only a year there managing investor relations clients.

Her calling was clearly toward the nonprofit world. She spent almost two years at The Aspen Institute, then joined United Way in 2004 as it was merging dozens of local chapters.

“People now ask me if I have an MBA or an MSW,” a master’s in social work, DuBoe said. “It’s funny – my degree from Hopkins was in broad international affairs and economics, and economics is very helpful for my job now. Only an economist would think this way, but we’re trying to do a lot of problem solving at micro and macro levels. We are creating results for people’s lives in meaningful ways.”

Family: A brother, Robert, and parents Burton and Eileen. Has a large extended family in the Chicago suburbs. Grew up in Morton Grove and lives in the Ravenswood neighborhood.

Workout time: Exercises at least three days a week at a South Loop gym.

Downtime: Reads historical biographies and spends time with family. “I have no time for it now, but for a while, I was a ‘Word Mole’ junkie.”

Early jobs: Drugstore cashier and shoe department restocker at Marshalls. “I knew early on I wasn’t cut out for retail. I found the monotony demoralizing.”

Green thumb: Keeps orchids in her office and advises one-quarter cup of water once a week

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