United Way Chief Departs
Dr. Bruce Willson reflects on 13-plus years
After 13-plus years, Dr. Bruce Willson hangs up his hat as president and CEO of United Way of Northwest Louisiana.
Willson worked at Louisiana Tech as a fundraiser for the College of Engineering and Science when he heard about the opening at United Way in Shreveport. The board interviewed him, liked what they heard and hired him in April 2008. That was just when the national economy headed into what has been called the Great Recession, and Willson found out just how challenging his new position would be.
He explained that the business model for United Way for many years had been like the collective funding arm of area non-profits to help them fulfill their missions to serve their communities. As the years passed, Willson said the number of non-profits in this area grew sharply, and they were bringing new fundraising techniques and abilities to the table. More non-profits meant the size of the available pool of money was shrinking.
Willson said United Way had to reevaluate its mission. “We reached out with 11 other United Ways in the state of Louisiana, and we commissioned Rutgers University in New Jersey along with the United Way of northern New Jersey to do an economic study of Louisiana, and specifically, the working poor.”
That study, called ALICE for Asset Limited Income Constrained Employees, concluded that around 60% of the population was not making a living wage. While they might be making more than the federal government’s so-called poverty level, heads of households were working multiple jobs. They had to make difficult decisions about how to deal with the unexpected expenses associated with everyday life. “For instance, if their car broke down, do they fix the car or do they buy school clothes for their kids?” he said. “If they need medical prescriptions, do they spend the money there, or do they cut back on what they’re eating?” Those facts gave United Way its new purpose, Willson said.
“We said, we will continue to give money to non-profits, but only those non-profit programs that they run that are addressing that segment of the population, the ALICE population.”
The new programs that grew out of that new mission statement revolved around education, financial stability, health and essential needs.
They resurrected a defunct helpline system called 2-1-1. “We realized that there was no place for people to turn to when they had a human service need. We invested resources and along with other United Ways in the state started the [2-1-1] dialing code back up. It’s called a referral service. People call in, and they get a referral to get help. We have a robust one; in fact, it is the go-to one in the state of Louisiana when we get into disaster and other needs.”
To assist children entering school for the first time, Willson said they discovered a program created by singer Dolly Parton called Imagination Library. It provided books to children from birth to 5 years, one a month, that were age-appropriate. “The idea was that if you could get a book into a home, that book would be read to a child and would give them a greater chance of success once they entered school,” he explained. Subsequent studies indicated that idea proved correct.
“Last year we sent out over 40,000 books. We spend about $10,000 a month providing those books,” Willson noted. Sponsoring partners like AEP/ SWEPCO and Atmos Energy and others have underwritten the costs of those efforts.
About six years ago, the city of Shreveport approached Willson with a joint venture called Bank on Shreveport to help people get checking accounts or re-establish one. To date, Willson said, they opened approximately 5,500 bank accounts.
That partnership led to the creation of the Financial Empowerment Center. “We have qualified financial counsellors who meet with anybody to help them no matter what their financial issue is,” Willson explained. “To date we’ve seen bout 350 clients, either virtually or in person. We’ve conducted about 1,100 counseling sessions. We have helped them increase their savings by about $440-$1,000. We’ve helped them decrease their debt by $430-$1,000. We’ve increased their credit scores by 35 points on average. That is one of the things I am most proud of that we have done as an agency. Instead of just taking money and throwing it at a problem, we are helping people who want to be helped climb out of a hole. If you can get out of a hole economically, you’ve got a good shot at climbing out of poverty, period.”
United Way also assists those in need with finding and acquiring prescription drugs.
“As I look back over the 13-plus years, I stand amazed. I’m not the guy that has done this, but I have been able to assemble a great team of people who are producing extraordinary results,” Willson said.
His advice for the next guy to wear the president and CEO hat is direct. “I’d say, if you’re a person that just wants to make a name for yourself, don’t apply. If you’re a person that wants to carve out an empire, this is not the place to do that. But if you’re a person who wants to work with great people and achieve results and really help the folks you serve, then apply.”
Willson and his wife, KK, plan to move closer to their “three independent” children, who have married and scattered to Pennsylvania, Colorado and Georgia. The final destination is not confirmed, but he’s planning on spending quality time with his kids and grandkids when he’s not finding another outlet for his penchant for helping out in the non-profit sector.
He’s officially leaving in the first quarter of 2022. Still, in the meantime, he said, “I want to make sure to invite everybody to come to the United Way centennial celebration, which is August 26 from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Sam’s Town Casino. We’ll have an open bar. It will be a carnival theme, and we’ll have lots of stuff to do.”