Leslie Ann Howard, the face of the innovative United Way of Dane County for the last 25 years, announced Monday that she plans to retire at the end of next year.
As president and chief executive officer, Howard built a national reputation by transforming the Madison organization from an agency that simply collected donations for charitable groups to one that pulled together government and business representatives to research the best ways to attack root causes of the community’s worst problems, then set goals for measurable progress and publicly evaluate the level of success and failure.
“Leslie was the first one to figure it out,” Brian Lachance, chief of staff for United Way Worldwide in Alexandria, Virginia. “It’s now our model.”
Howard, 59, plans to stay with the agency through the end of 2015, helping guide current programs and launch news ones while assisting with the transition to a new leader who is to be chosen after a nationwide search.
She said she has lost none of her enthusiasm for finding ways to reduce Dane County homelessness, race-based achievement disparities in schools, criminal recidivism, late diagnosis and treatment of health issues, and unnecessary loss of independence for the elderly and disabled.
But as a matter of good planning, Howard has been working with the agency board of directors for a long time on a succession plan, and the organization is in good shape, so it feels like the right time to see what’s next, Howard said.
“I’m a change agent,” she said. “I was able to make change here — otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to stay this long. I think that there’s another chapter for me, too. I don’t know what that is yet. I’ll have time to think about that later.”
When Howard joined the agency 33 years ago, the practice for United Way was to collect money and distribute it to nonprofit groups serving needy populations.
“I never felt we deserved to be held in as high esteem as we were back then,” Howard said. “Now I feel like our aspirations meet what people expect of us.”
In the 1990s, the agency began collaborating with other organizations on a project called “Schools of Hope” that recruited hundreds of tutors in an effort to reduce the gap between the success rates of white students and minorities.
It led Howard to apply collaborative techniques to other community problems and publicly establish ambitious goals.
“It wasn’t enough to say we have these 300 people we’re serving,” Howard said. “It’s now about how are we going to reduce the rate of homelessness, to reduce the racial achievement gap, to reduce crime.”
The problems haven’t gone away, especially as the effects of the recession have dragged on, but there has been progress, Howard and her supporters said.
The agency led a “housing first” effort to find not just emergency shelter, but places to live for homeless families, along with aggressive case management and assistance in obtaining jobs. Another initiative with Madison Urban Ministry helped reduce crime by working with recently released prisoners so they would be less likely to re-offend, she said.
“She was clearly one of our key partners,” said former Madison police chief Noble Wray, who now serves as interim president of the Urban League of Greater Madison.
Howard’s United Way was ahead of its time, creating greater awareness of the roles of things like mental illness and childhood trauma in driving crime rates, Wray said.
Howard said she also focused on developing leaders of non-profit groups so the organizations could evolve from being low-cost extensions of government to becoming advocates for addressing underlying social ills.
Dora Zuniga, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County and a former director of Centro Hispano, said Howard mentored her and many others to become stronger leaders.
“The position of being president of United Way is not an easy job,” Zuniga said. “She gets people who wouldn’t be in the same room together otherwise to pull together. You have Republicans, you have Democrats, you have progressives and you have conservatives. She’s got them all. They trust her because she holds herself accountable.”
Financially, United Way of Dane County was the fifth-fastest growing chapter in the country from 2002 to 2012 among chapters with budgets between $15 million and $20 million, said Kyle Rouse, a spokesman for United Way Worldwide.
The Dane County agency collected $22 million in donations for this year, compared to $5.5 million for 1989, said local spokeswoman Sarah Listug.