Unit­ed Way for South­east Michi­gan (UWSEM): lessons from a $27.1 mil­lion cor­po­rate gift

Exhibited by
Tammy Zonker
October 08, 2014
Medium of Communication
Target Audience
Corporations and major gift.
Type of Charity
Community & social services, education, healthcare.
Country of Origin
Date of first appearance
December 2010

SOFII’s view

This award-winning initiative from United Way shows that partnerships between a charity and a commercial organisation work best when the donor can get as close to the cause as possible through visits, meeting with beneficiaries and can see the change that they are making. 

Creator / originator

Tammy Zonker, consultant and fundraising practitioner, Fundraising Transformed

Summary / objectives

To secure human and financial investment from top corporate leaders to support United Way for Southeast Michigan’s (UWSEM) transformational goal of making Greater Detroit a top five city to work and live by 2030. 

Tammy Zonker had the privilege of leading the team effort, which included UWSEM CEO Michael Brennan, UWSEM vice-president of education initiatives Michael Tenbusch and campaign cabinet volunteer chair person Jeffrey Bergeron, managing partner at Ernst & Young to secure an investment of $27.1 million from General Motors to UWSEM’s educational turn-around initiatives. The gift was cultivated in 2010, during the General Motors bankruptcy and announced in a press conference in December 2010, following General Motors’ return to the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and exit from bankruptcy in November of that same year.

 This gift is the largest gift in 40+year history of the General Motors Foundation and the largest gift to a single initiative for United Way Worldwide. In addition to this transformational financial investment, General Motors launched an employee volunteer programme called GM Cares as part of their on-going commitment to investing in Greater Detroit.

 The strategy behind the solicitation was based on a white paper published by McKinsey & Company Shaping the Future, emphasizing the importance of creating shared values and solving business problems through philanthropy. The two underlying business problems address by the philanthropic investment opportunity  include:

1. Competition for talent retention and acquisition (millennial engagement and volunteerism drives employee affinity and loyalty).

2. Growing expectation from consumers that big business will be part of solving social problems. (Mitigating consumer resentment from government bailout.)

 Note, while these strategies informed the business case for investment, they would have been ineffective without the authentic and extraordinary leadership and compassion of General Motors’ North American president Mark Reuss, who championed this gift to fulfilment, and the General Motor Foundation president, Vivian Pickard, who facilitated the investment and volunteer engagement through the foundation’s resources.


United Way for Southeast Michigan (UWSEM) was, and is, going through a transformational time by shifting from a traditional United Way fundraising model of raising and distributing money (to agencies) with a vision to become an organisation with its own impact. They created a Jim Collins inspired Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal (BHAG) to become a ‘top five city to live and work in by 2030’.  To accomplish this BHAG, UWSEM took aim at four community pain points:

Kindergarten readiness

1. Problem: less than half of Greater Detroit children arrive at kindergarten able to meet a basic ready-to-learn standard.

2. Strategy: develop early learning centres in low-income communities to engage both families and informal day-care providers (family, friends and neighbours) in early childhood development activities, including reading to children for a minimum of 20 minutes per day, five days per week.

3. Measurable outcome target: increase kindergarten readiness to 80 per cent or greater by 2018.

High school graduation rates

1. Problem: less than 40 per cent of Greater Detroit youth graduate from high school. In 2010 Detroit public schools reported a 28 per cent graduation rate. United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan identified 1200 high school ‘drop-out factories’ – Greater Detroit is home to 30 of them.

2. Strategy: collaborate with the nation’s best turn-around specialists/consultants, teachers unions, high school administrators and community leaders to scale the success. UWSEM lead/funded in five Detroit public schools, which produced 82 per cent graduation rates in a two-year time period.

3. Measurable outcome target: increase high school graduation rates to 80 per cent or greater (within turn-around schools) to 80 per cent or greater by 2018.

Increase access to nutritious food

1. Problem:  one in five Detroiters are ‘food insufficient’, meaning they only know where one of three meals will come from each day.

2. Solution: increase access to nutritious foods through increased collaboration with area food banks, client-choice food pantries, urban gardens, advocacy and community engagement.

3. Measurable outcome target: triple the amount of nutritious food distributed to low-income individuals and families by 2016.

Move 16,000 families from a negative net worth to a positive net worth

1. Problem: one in five Macomb County homes were in foreclosure in 2009.  Unemployment reached a historical high of 29 per cent that same year.  A great majority of Detroit’s poverty stricken families don’t have a bank, relying on predatory payday loan and cash advance services, therefore, strengthening the cycle of poverty.

2. Solution: collaboration with agency partners, community leaders, and financial institutions for job skill development, financial literacy, banking solutions for individuals and families living in poverty.

3. Measurable outcome target: 16,000 families move from negative to positive net worth.

 UWSEM had piloted the high school turn-around approach in five Greater Detroit schools for two years with seed money from A T & T, Skillman Foundation and Excellent Schools Detroit.  The General Motors Investment enabled UWSEM to add seven additional schools to the turn-around effort with funding for five years, which is the length of time required to complete the school transformation.

Special characteristics

Key to the success of this donor journey was engaging the prospective donor in the workplace through hands-on experiences via site tours, testimonials from young people in the programme and school leaders driving the change funded through UWSEM.

The first-hand experience coupled with the very transparent measurable outcomes being tracked were an enticing ‘head-and-heart’ combination with a compelling call to action.

General Motors and the General Motors Foundation was awarded the coveted Summit award for community impact by United Way Worldwide President Brian Gallagher http://www.gm.com/company/aboutGM/gm_foundation/ed...

Influence / impact

In autumn 2014, UWSEM’s website reports that the 12 schools in the turn-around initiative are achieving an 82 per cent graduation rate.  www.uwsem.org

In addition, GM Cares has grown significantly by harnessing the skilled and caring power of the General Motors employees: http://www.gm.com/company/aboutGM/teamgm_cares.htm...


$27.1 million investment in United Way for Southeast Michigan education turn-around initiative


The strategic process and tactical steps used in cultivating this gift can be applied to any corporate investment strategy. 

Transforming corporate philanthropy. Click on image to access the complete slide presentation in PDF.
United Way for Southeast Michigan’s Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal was to transform Greater Detroit from tragedy to a ‘top five city’.
Shaping the future PDF doc. Click on image to access the white paper that formed the basis of the fundraising.
Insights from transformational corporate partnership. Click on image to access document in PDF.