Solutions for today’s era: What we heard at the Detroit Economic Club


United Way Worldwide President and CEO Brian Gallagher (center) speaks with United Way for Southeastern Michigan President and CEO Dr. Herman Gray (left) and moderator Rochelle Riley (right) at the Detroit Economic Club.

“Can you tell us how United Way is changing the way it operates in the digital age?”  “You said United Way is a network of local organizations, how do they work together to make a bigger impact in our communities?”

The questions at the Detroit Economic Club last week came fast and furious.  The questioners wanted answers.  But these questions weren’t being posed by business executives or government officials.  They came from local high school students.

These teenagers, with decades in front of them, have the most at stake.  While many communities today are growing stronger, others are riven by social and economic divides.  Take, for example, the U.S. high school graduation rate.  It reached a record high last year, but the achievement gap between incomes and races remains too wide.

It will take new solutions to narrow this gap and address other challenges facing our communities.  Today’s challenges are different than in the past, and a city like Detroit reflects them more than most.  Where a Detroiter could once count on a job on the factory floor as a ticket to the middle class, that certainty is gone.  The jobs of tomorrow will be different, requiring new types of training and education.

This topic was one of many we discussed at the Detroit Economic Club.  Once the students let us off the hook, we sat down for a moderated conversation with 300 business and community leaders about how businesses can work with non-profit organizations to drive real change in places like Detroit.


We discussed the nature of change happening in communities today.  We dived into the ways in which United Way operates in Detroit and around the world.  One key theme emerged: we need to work together to advance the common good.

Whereas once community members could turn to business for a job, government for a safety net and non-profits to fill in the gaps, that model no longer applies.  Globalization, digital technology and demographic change are a few of the forces that have upended that traditional model.  Solving today’s complex challenges requires business, non-profits and government to form cross-sector partnerships that create new, lasting solutions that benefit all. 

One great example can be found in the Motor City, where for years United Way for Southeastern Michigan (UWSEM) partnered with AT&T and General Motors to focus on high school turnaround efforts.  Others can be found worldwide, from job training initiatives in Cincinnati to support for refugees in Europe.

At the Economic Club, we pledged to carry on our efforts to work with anyone committed to making a positive impact in our communities.  Communities like Detroit have proud histories, and while their future may not look exactly like their past, with concerted action and new partnerships, each of them can have a bright future.

We want those students who asked questions to have bright futures, too.  We want them to continue to stay engaged in their communities, think creatively, and join all of us in making a positive impact.  They are our future, and it’s up to us to work together to give each and every one of them the opportunities they deserve.

Brian Gallagher is the President and Chief Executive Officer of United Way Worldwide. Dr. Herman Gray is the President and Chief Executive Officer of United Way for Southeastern Michigan.