WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Suzanne McCormick has spent nearly two decades leading non-profit organizations that serve local communities in Maine and Florida. At the end of July, when the Wilmington native becomes the U.S. President for United Way Worldwide, her focus will expand to agencies and communities from coast to coast, and everywhere in-between.
“One of the keys to our success is how we work together,” she says about the network of agencies. “My job is to help support United Ways of all sizes in serving their communities, particularly thinking about ways we can work smarter together and we can do more in our communities.”
For the past five years, Suzanne worked as President/CEO of United Way Suncoast in Tampa, Florida. Prior to that, she served as the President/CEO of the United Way of Greater Portland in Maine for more than four-and-a-half years. In her new job, she will work with more than 1,100 United Way organizations across the country.
“To be a United Way, you have to agree to certain membership criteria,” Suzanne said in describing part of what her new job duties will include. “That’s everything from how you use the United Way brand, to what kind of financial oversight you put in place, how you approach diversity, equity and inclusion. My job is to make sure that those local United Ways meet those membership certifications and really, my job is to partner and help support them to be the best local United Way they can be.”
Born in Iowa, Suzanne was in the third grade when her parents moved to Wilmington so her father could begin a private medical practice. Her mother still lives in the area, along with other family members. Suzanne remembers having an interest in current events, and learning about politics when her father ran for New Hanover County School Board. Suzanne points to a situation that arose during her senior year at New Hanover High School, as editor of the yearbook, that fueled what she calls “her passion for social justice”. She talks about it at 7:00 of the podcast.
“In our final edition of the yearbook, we had a summer addition put in,” she says. “When one of the pictures was finally blown up so we could see it in the yearbook, and we had been rushed for the proof, there was a terrible racial slur that had been written on the back. It started a race riot at New Hanover High School. I felt an enormous sense of responsibility, and I definitely know that was the beginning of my passion around social justice, which then did take shape at Duke (University).”
After graduating from Duke, Suzanne decided to volunteer with the Peace Corps and spent the next two years in a rural village in a remote part of Thailand. Comparing it to her formal education, she calls the experience “a Master’s (degree) in teaching humility”. She has said in other interviews she came back to her home country as “a humbled American”. That part of our conversation begins at 11:00 of the podcast.
“In the Peace Corps, I fell in love with the idea of service,” she declares. “Once I was there, I knew it was my purpose and my calling. Leaving my Peace Corps assignment, many of my close friends made the decision to continue to stay overseas and do work overseas. When I came back to the U.S. I was so struck by how much we have, how much we don’t appreciate necessarily, and felt even more committed to service. But I felt there is so much need in the United States, it felt like it would be easier to do aid work in other countries than it would to do it in the U.S. That’s when I made a commitment to really help folks in my country.”
Suzanne and her husband Bill moved to Maine, where she began her career with the United Way of Greater Portland. She moved her way up in the organization, before taking a high-level leadership position with the Red Cross in the same community. Less than a year later, she became the CEO when her boss landed a national-level job. After six years in that role, and two years heading up another service organization, Suzanne accepted the President/CEO role in 2010 with the United Way in Portland.
“We were very happy in Maine, we were not looking to leave,” she says about getting the opportunity in 2014 to become the President/CEO of the United Way Suncoast in Tampa, Florida. “But I got a call one day. The call was strategically placed on a snowy day in winter. I went home that night and said to my family ‘what do you guys think about moving to Florida?’ My kids, who were fifth grade and seventh grade, went ‘yeah, let’s go to Florida!’. The move to Florida also gave Suzanne’s children a new opportunity, which she discusses at about 19:45 of the podcast.
Leaving her position in Florida means more travel for the new U.S. President of United Way Worldwide. It also means new initiatives, which include continuing to modernize the 132-year old agency to meet today’s digital demands.
“Back in the old days we’d go in (to workplaces) and hand out a bunch of paper pledge cards, and we’d have people sign them, we’d collect them, and we’d go and process those donations,” Suzanne said. “These days people want to give through technology. So, one of our big initiatives right now is to get more of our local United Ways really leveraging the use of technology to engage communities, not only to support financially, but also to get connected to volunteer opportunities and causes that they care about.”
You can hear my full interview with Suzanne McCormick, the new U.S. President for United Way Worldwide, by clicking on any of the links below.
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