United Way for Southeastern Michigan – Creating Long-Term Partnerships to Serve the Community

Through innovation and commitment, Ford enables United Way to reach families in need

DETROIT — In 1949, the United Way and Ford Motor Company launched a collaboration that transformed the way companies donate and charitable organizations receive donations.

Macomb mother hugging a child on right and left
Macomb family in United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

Ford's partnership with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan began 70 years ago when the automaker helped organize the nonprofit's first Detroit fundraising campaign. In addition to giving as a corporation, Ford President and CEO Henry Ford II and UAW President Walter Reuther encouraged employees to invest in their communities and in people in need. To facilitate their vision, the pair came up with an innovative idea: payroll deduction.

Now, it's commonplace for businesses to use employee payroll deduction to make charitable donations to the United Way and other nonprofits. The method increases giving and reduces administrative costs.

In Southeast Michigan alone, United Way partners with more than 600 companies through employee campaigns, sponsorships, corporate gifts or volunteer activities, said Chris Perry, chief development and marketing officer for United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

In the 1950s, William Clay Ford Sr. became the first member of the Alexis de Tocqueville Society, a United Way's affinity group that requires members to donate a minimum of $10,000.

More recently Executive Chairman Bill Ford and his wife, Lisa, chaired the group. They have grown it to more than 550 members from 300, putting the United Way for Southeastern Michigan in the top 10 among United Way Alexis de Tocqueville Society donors.

"Ford has been there since day one," said Vickie Winn, regional United Way director of public relations. "They represent our mantra: Give, Advocate and Volunteer."

Meeting needs

United Way for Southeastern Michigan funds and partners with a coalition of charitable organizations to support initiatives that help people meet basic needs, increase their economic mobility and support children's education. The organization also works in partnership with communities, universities and government entities to help identify challenges impacting the lives of those in underserviced communities throughout Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties.

Chris Perry headshot
Chris Perry

Right now, 1.7 million, or 44%, of households in Southeast Michigan cannot afford food, health care, transportation, child care, and technology, according to the Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed (ALICE ) report commissioned by Michigan Association of United Ways.

Those numbers increased over the last six years as low wages, reduced work hours, deteriorated savings and a significant increase in cost of living made stability in Michigan households more precarious, Perry said.

In the past seven decades, Ford employees and the Ford Motor Company Fund have donated more than $550 million and hundreds of hours in volunteer service to the organization.

"Think about the impact of that money. We are working to put programs in place, equip people with the skills for a better life and ensure that children are ready and prepared to succeed at school," Perry said.

With investments from Ford and Ford Fund, United Way piloted a school breakfast program that now serves more than 3,500 students; developed Meet up and Eat up summer meals program, which provides about 1.5 million meals to kids during the summer when school is out; and supported development of the organization's 211 call center, which receives more than 250,000 calls annually from residents seeking housing and utility assistance, mental health referrals, child care and more.

Mother and two children in a chair reading a book with snow outside
Utility assistance programs help families stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

"If they are calling us, they are in crisis mode. They are trying to decide whether to pay their utility bill or put food on the table. United Way connects individuals to services nearest them to help them meet their needs," Perry said.

Collaborative leadership

One of the United Way's fundraising approaches is through Campaign Cabinets, where about 34 senior executives collaborate to develop strategies in giving and volunteer opportunities.

Joe Hinrichs, president, Automotive at Ford, began chairing the Campaign Cabinet and overall campaign in 2018.

Perry stressed that the chairman's role is not a figurehead position, as the cabinet meets about eight times a year. Between those meetings, Hinrichs leads the regional United Way on strategies and approaches.

"One societal challenge is income disparity and what happens to people when they don't have appropriate resources to care for themselves and their families. But that is something Ford and its employees can help with," Hinrichs said Oct. 3 at the United Way Campaign Kickoff. "We're here to celebrate our campaign and to recognize the needs of our community and the honor it is to be able to help make it better, one dollar, one volunteer hour, one idea at a time."

Under Hinrichs' leadership, United Way began setting annual volunteer goals in addition to financial goals for its annual Community Giving Campaign. In the 2018-2019 campaign, United Way exceeded its goal by raising more than $47 million locally and securing 36,000 volunteer hours. Fundraising included $2.5 million from auctioning a Ford GT Gulf Vin #001..

"He recognized that putting people in the community also helps meet needs. We need money and we need time," Perry said.

To learn more about United Way for Southeastern Michigan visit https://unitedwaysem.org.

Five children at a table while adult female reads a book to them
The United Way Early Learning Center is an avenue through which people may become licensed child care providers.