New United Way leader seeking new collaborations (Statesman)

David C. Smith, the founder and longtime executive director of the Hill Country Ride for AIDS and a veteran of the nonprofit sector for more than 20 years, began his job as the new chief executive of the United Way for Greater Austin last week. Smith replacesDebbie Bresette, who stepped down in November after eight years in the role.

Smith spoke with the American-Statesman about his goals at United Way and the challenges he faces.

What are your main goals? Early childhood development and helping people out of poverty have been big focuses in recent years. Do you plan to continue that?

“That is so much of who we are, we want to enhance that in any way possible.

“What I think we’re also all excited about, certainly what I’m excited about, are the opportunities to broaden that by collaboration and working with the larger community on a different level — the other nonprofits, thought leaders, corporate presences in Austin, government leaders, government agencies, the main and big philanthropists in town. Anybody we can pull into the fold here who cares about these issues, who wants to make Austin a better place for everybody.”

United Way was trying new models of public-private type partnerships last year through the federal “Pay for Success” program. Is that something you’re hoping to continue?

“Definitely. Public-private partnerships, that is the direction that so many areas are going in. … I see part of our role as being a bridge, sort of, that the rest of the community understands that not everybody gets to live the way that we get to live.

“We can be the bridge to that information and education. But also then build a bridge that gives everyone an equal opportunity here and does end the cycle of poverty. So I think those big issues are only going to be met by public-private partnerships and also by pulling together different nonprofits working together.”

And obviously connections and partnerships are a big reason United Way selected you.

“Yeah, yeah. The things that I’ve done previously have really focused on collaboration and pulling people together who otherwise probably wouldn’t have worked together, and in fact may have been competitive in either grant stuff or any kind of funding.

“And I think we showed that, by working together, everybody is better off.”

What are some of the biggest challenges you see going forward?

“Some of the challenges will be the perception still in some people’s mind of how United Way used to be, and the challenges around some of that news that’s now like 20-something years old. But some of that is still stuck in people’s head about compensation and the issues around that.

“… This is an organization with so much heart and so much invested in Austin for over 90 years, and we’re not going anywhere. … So I think just the (perception) that we are stodgy or stale, it’s anything but that, and will only go more in that direction of … almost feeling like a startup, in being so innovative in how we can address some of these issues and being nimble in how we approach them.”

What challenges does population growth present to your mission?

“Well, Austin is the greatest city in the world, and that’s why we live here. We love it. I’ve been here 22 years and have seen it change so much. And with all that growth comes new challenges beyond the headaches of new traffic.

“There’s a huge increase in the need for services, and while Austin is on every list of best place to live, and growing and thriving, there are more and more people getting left behind in that picture. … I still love (Austin), I think it’s great, and so I want to make sure that the community comes together (and) doesn’t leave behind the people who have moved here hoping for a better life.”