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The story behind the Philly United Way’s 37 layoffs

Philadelphia’s skyline rises from the south. October 16, 2018 Category: FeaturedMediumPeople
How do you transform one of the most recognizable brands in philanthropy to focus more deeply on a new mission? It starts with 37 calls at 37 desks telling their occupants they’ve been let go.

On Monday, the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey (UWGPSNJ) cut nearly a third of its nearly 100-person staff.

The layoffs were part of an ongoing organizational restructuring that will result in increased focus on its newly narrowed mission of ending intergenerational poverty in Philadelphia, said Bill Golderer, who took on the org’s president and CEO role in March, in an interview on Tuesday.

“This is a bold and painful step,” he said. However, to be clear: “This is not a cost-cutting exercise.”

A former manager-level employee who was let go and requested anonymity said the entire staff had been alerted during a meeting on Friday that a “restructuring” would be happening on Monday without details of why, who might be affected or the scale of change.

The former employee described a Monday scene of staffers waiting to receive individual calls at their desks asking them to come to a meeting room; if they got the call, it meant they were being let go.

“It was a really awkward moment because the first person got called down and it was like, ‘It was nice working with you all,'” said the source during a Tuesday morning interview. “No one was working yesterday. People who were left employed were just waiting for [the news] to drop.”

Those who did get the call were given time to collect their things and say goodbye as well as given resources for finding new jobs, the former manager said.

Golderer said this United Way chapter’s desire to refine its mission and fund only measurable poverty interventions (specifically those related to literacy, career development, economic self-sufficiency and community development) was “the reason I came to this organization in the first place.”

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He said he also asked the board early on if there had been discussion about whether the existing organizational structure was “fit” for its vision. A committee was hired to compare UWGPSNJ to impactful organizations around the country making meaningful progress on similarly intractable social problems. Upon learning others’ best practices, Golderer knew changes needed to be made.

More specifics on what roles were eliminated this week were not shared.

Yesterday’s layoffs were the “first step in a transformational metamorphosis in a United Way that is going to be built for a purpose the board has adopted,” he said — that is, squashing a 25.7 percent poverty rate in Philadelphia.

Going forward, there will be less of a focus on corporate volunteer programs — and indeed, the number of volunteer-related staff positions has been “dramatically reduced” — and more on building up the community organizations UWGPSNJ funds.

“There needs to be a much wider front door built for people who want to get involved” beyond those working at corporate entities, Golderer said.

Full details of what that actually looks like won’t be released for another three to five months and may involve hiring for newly created roles.

This is a pivotal moment for the local branch. A year from now, if the funder is influencing measurable change in reducing poverty in the region, it will be considered a success. In the meantime, 37 people are left without jobs.

“Those of us who were let go have no idea what the organizational structure will look like going forward,” said the former manager. It’s “a great unknown, what this thing is turning into. … It certainly doesn’t seem like a United Way.”

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