The greater good

Brown County United Way strives to secure stability for all

Posted on May 30, 2019 :: Cover Story
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Take a peek at Robyn Davis’ resume, and at first glance it may come across as a patchwork stitched together using few common threads. Viewed as a whole, though, it becomes a full work that has led her to a life filled with rich experiences and opportunities.

Davis stepped into the role of president and CEO of the Brown County United Way two years ago. The path that brought her there was anything but predictable.

Born and raised in New York City, Davis overcame poverty to attain her undergraduate degree at Long Island’s Hofstra University before earning her juris doctorate at George Washington University.

 

Davis’ early career followed a natural progression. She began working as a staff attorney at legal services in Rhode Island and then became a prosecutor at the state attorney general’s office. That led to private practice and ultimately a stint as associate justice for the City of Providence Housing Court.

A shift in Davis’ personal life brought an early end to her legal career and set her on a new journey. Growing up, Davis had little spiritual background, but she came into a relationship with Christ as an adult and wanted to learn more about God and his word. She connected with a bible teacher who became her spiritual mentor, and Davis left her career to become her mentor’s assistant.

The decades that followed would bring experiences varied and diverse.

“One day I was on the bench, and the next day I was typing up sermon notes,” she says. “I look at my resume, and I go, ‘Wait, I don’t remember all the stuff I did. Oh, yeah!’”

A winding path

Davis and her mentor traveled throughout the country in the mid-1990s, finally landing in Detroit. When her mentor later moved to Florida, Davis chose to remain in Michigan.

Retail became the next iteration of Davis’ career. Finding herself unemployed, she began working for a Christmas specialty store. Mere weeks in, Davis became manager. This led to a retail position, and eventual manager role, with Saks Fifth Avenue.

Davis’ mentor and her husband returned to Michigan, settling in Mackinaw City. Davis joined the pair, serving the community of Jamaican men and women working in the city’s tourism industry.

In 2002, Davis’ mentor and husband decided to move to Green Bay to start a church. They ended up changing their minds, but Davis chose to go anyway. The decision altered her path and led her to where she is today.

Upon arriving in Green Bay, Davis rejoined the legal field, working as a paralegal for a local attorney through 2008. The experience helped her determine her interest in the profession had waned. 

Since 2006, Davis had served on the board of Freedom House Ministries, a Green Bay nonprofit that provides emergency shelter, support and service to homeless families. She was working two part-time jobs, as an administrative assistant and church secretary, when the organization’s board recruited her as president in 2009.

Her first reaction? “Wow, that’s really flattering. I don’t want to do that.” Davis wrestled with the idea and prayed on it before finally saying yes.

“Unbeknownst to me, that was perhaps the worst possible time to become a nonprofit leader because 2008 was the economic downturn,” she says.

By fall of 2009, granters were cutting back, forcing Davis and Freedom House to reduce staff and implement two rounds of reorganization. She calls the time difficult and excruciating.

In 2011 and 2012, Freedom House’s outlook began to improve. When Marion House, a Green Bay group home for teen moms, closed in 2014, it transferred its building and assets to Freedom House, allowing the nonprofit to expand its operations to the city’s west side.

With Freedom House moving in a positive direction, Davis began to ponder what she would do next. She wanted to ensure she maintained passion and vision for her work. “As a leader, I always thought about, I don’t want to stay too long at the fair,” she says.

In the fall of 2016, Greg Maass, president and CEO of the BCUW at the time, announced his plans to retire. A friend sent Davis a note encouraging her to apply for the role. Davis’ first reaction was one that had become characteristic for her: a quick “no thank you.”

A conversation with her friend and colleague Laurie Radke, president and CEO of the Greater Green Bay Chamber, began to change Davis’ mind. Radke reminded her of the journey she took before accepting the role at Freedom House.

Davis decided to go for it and at the end of 2016 embarked on a four-month selection process, becoming part of a nationwide search that included 150 candidates. She emerged on top and became president and CEO of the BCUW in May 2017 — she recently celebrated her two-year anniversary with the organization.

Compassion and a passion for wanting to help, especially women and families struggling with poverty, have guided Davis throughout her career, from her time in legal services to her ministry work to her nonprofit leadership. Each of her diverse experiences has helped shape her current role.

Dennis Buehler, president and CEO of the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation, works closely with Davis and the Brown County United Way. He says he and Davis share a common passion for the community.

“The wealth of experience she brings is so critical to the success of the United Way,” Buehler says.

Prosperity barriers

Davis says her experiences walking alongside families served at Freedom House and understanding their struggles inform her United Way work.

“I believe there’s a lot of credibility that comes with the fact that I spent eight years on the front line,” she says.

That background, along with tools such as the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) report, shapes Davis’ leadership strategy. United Way organizations, corporations, nonprofits and foundations in 19 states, including Wisconsin, use ALICE to compile data about the cost of living in every county, providing an in-depth look at financial hardship.

ALICE, which was released in 2016 and updated in 2018, helped confirm what many already knew, Davis says. Though the economy has recovered since the Great Recession, many families and individuals still struggle. Barriers such as transportation, affordable housing, child care and health care can get in the way of attaining stability, she says.

“It isn’t that they don’t want to work. It’s because there’s something that they cannot overcome on their own to get to that next step,” Davis says.

The ALICE report found that in Brown County, one in three households struggles to make ends meet. Around 11 percent face traditional poverty, and 20-plus percent represent ALICE — households that are employed, but still struggle financially.

ALICE can touch any race, gender or ethnicity, Davis says. It affects every demographic, including students, young adults just out of college dealing with debt, seniors, veterans and young families struggling to pay child care costs.

Basic needs serve as the foundation of stability, Davis says. These include the pillars of financial well-being, health, education and connection to community and family. These help people progress down life’s path. If you pull out one of the pillars, the whole structure collapses, she says. 

“All of those are important to the individual and to the family thriving, and ultimately to our community,” says Davis, who herself was a first-generation college graduate.

Compounding the difficulty, as people begin to increase earnings, they sometimes encounter the benefits cliff. Some families who are employed make too much, even by as little as $100, and stop qualifying for services such as BadgerCare. The benefits stop, but the struggles don’t.

“Almost immediately, you get the job and those benefits stop, and you haven’t even gotten your first paycheck yet. So, that’s the benefits cliff,” Davis says.

Often, this is how people end up at pantries or feeding programs, she continues. Though they’re making more, people may end up feeling worse off than they were before and give up, not because they’re lazy but because they can’t make it work.

United Way campaign chairs often speak to company leaders. Davis says it can prove enlightening when they start to realize they have ALICE working for them.

“In their minds, they are paying a good wage, but if you start to think about what it costs for housing and all of these other factors, you realize it’s not stretching as far as (you) thought it did,” she says.

Stability for all

The BCUW, which employs 12, has created a 2018-2028 strategic plan with the goal of setting 10,000 individuals on a path to stability in 10 years. It’s taking a targeted approach to reach this objective.

Davis says three spheres of influence drive community and transformational change, and these guide BCUW’s work. These include providing grants to programs that offer direct services, systems change and nonpartisan advocacy on the local, county, state and federal level.

In addition to focusing on those areas, the nonprofit has undergone organizational restructuring. Since taking her role in 2017, Davis says the BCUW has worked to become more agile. It’s made changes in staff responsibilities, retooled strategies and refreshed its grant structure.

The BCUW isn’t alone in addressing community issues. The organization works closely with other groups such as the Greater Green Bay Chamber and Greater Green Bay Community Foundation. It’s a valuable and unique relationship, Davis says.

“It’s really great when she and I can come together and share our top initiatives and what we’re focusing on and how we’re trying to move the community forward,” the chamber’s Radke says. “We certainly are a community that has heart, and we care about the individual, and we want to make sure that there’s an opportunity for all.”

The community foundation’s Buehler says the three organizations work together to respond to the needs of the community as defined by the community using tools such as the Leading Indicators for Excellence (LIFE) Study. Completed in 2011 and again in 2016, the LIFE Study surveyed 800 community leaders and 1,500 scientifically selected households to gather their thoughts about aspects of life in the county.

“We appreciate each other’s work, we respect each other’s work and we try to complement in any way we can because we certainly know that the stronger we are together, the stronger our community as a whole is going to be,” he says.

A great challenge lies before Davis and the organization she leads, from the scope of the task of moving 10,000 onto a path of stability in 10 years to adjusting to changing donor habits and attitudes. Her objective, she says, is to let people know the United Way is always there and always working.

A lifetime of work and experiences has led up to this, and with the help of the community and other organizations, Davis is ready to meet the challenge.

“My voice by itself, maybe somebody isn’t going to listen to me, but if there’s a group of us that are all singing the same song or sharing the same message, then there will be a greater impact than me by myself,” she says.

Commitment to community

Brown County United Way President and CEO Robyn Davis’ service to the community doesn’t stop with her role leading the high-profile nonprofit.

Accepting a position on the Green Bay Packers board of directors was just one more unexpected turn in Davis’ life. The Packers, she says, hold a unique position in the community and league.

A part of the board’s class of 2018, Davis serves on its community services committee, which is where the Packers look at giving back and how they’re impacting the community. The organization saw that many families were struggling. The Titletown District had just opened, and a lot of people couldn’t access it simply because they couldn’t get there.

She says the appointment is a tremendous opportunity that still leaves her in awe. Nevertheless, though, the role affords her no special perks or free tickets, and she reminds curious questioners she has nothing to do with football operations.

“(Typically) that resolves about 95 percent of the conversation, because I can’t talk to you about Aaron or his contract or anything,” she says with a laugh.

Davis also co-chairs the Greater Green Bay Chamber’s strategic task force on diversity and inclusiveness. A large part of its focus has been promoting and raising awareness about CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion. This national movement includes a CEO-driven commitment to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

At a chamber breakfast dedicated to the topic of diversity and inclusion, Davis shared her experiences living in Brown County as a woman of color. She knows moving the needle on people’s unconscious biases is a long process, but conversations such as the ones at this event can help.

“When I started unpacking some of the things I shared, people were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we had no idea,’” she says. “There are other people living experiences that are not like yours, and it’s not because that’s what they chose.”

 

Brown County United Way

Headquarters: Green Bay

What it does: Unites people, ideas and resources to create community solutions that strengthen every person and community in Brown County.

Number of employees: 12

browncountyunitedway.org