is not the first executive to cross the street from for-profit to
nonprofit, but he’s the latest and most high-profile exec in O.C. to do
so in many years. He’s setting a fresh direction and attitude about
charitable giving locally, as the new president and CEO of Orange County United Way. After a 25-year career in real estate development, including the last 11 years as head of the Irvine Company’s
mammoth apartment division, Gardner was named United Way chief in July.
True to his leadership style, he is touring all 82 agencies that United
Way funded to the tune of $4.5 million last year. He stopped long
enough to answer 10 questions from OC METRO.
1. OC METRO: Why did you seek the post of president/CEO of Orange County United Way?
Max Gardner: Initially, I didn’t! I was on the board serving as vice chair when the previous CEO left, and I agreed to serve in the interim. As part of the search process, we conducted a series of listening sessions with the community on how United Way was performing and what was needed from our new CEO. It was then I saw the real potential for this organization. After a great deal of discussion with, and encouragement from, family and friends, I asked the search committee to consider me. Also, it turns out I’m not very good at retirement!
2. OCM: What has surprised you most in your first 90 days on the job?
Gardner: The strength and quality of the nonprofit agencies doing great work in our community; this may be the best-kept secret in Orange County! There are numerous organizations doing solid and effective work improving lives and strengthening our community, and doing it with very limited resources.
3. OCM: If you can change or correct one impression about Orange County United Way in the community, what would that be?
Gardner: Many people mistakenly believe we are exclusively a fundraising organization, when actually we are a mission-driven organization focused on improving lives and helping our neighbors become self-sufficient. We know that the building blocks to a self-sufficient life are education, income and health, and with donations entrusted in United Way, we research, support and implement programs and long-term initiatives that will help to strengthen these. We are constantly looking to identify additional areas of need in our community, define a plan to address those needs and develop the resources necessary to create positive, long-term change.
4. OCM: As the head of the largest funder of nonprofits in O.C., how are you getting your hands around the issues facing agencies and organizations countywide?
Gardner: The old-fashioned way: I’m pounding the pavement, getting out of the office and meeting the people and leaders in our community we’re working to strengthen. I have personally committed that in my first year I will visit every agency we support, to learn first-hand about their programs and the needs facing the people they serve. I have also been meeting with leaders of other large Orange County nonprofits, funders, corporations and institutions, as well as elected officials, to better understand the landscape of need and resources, and to explore collaboration opportunities in our community. Although I am making progress, I still have a long way to go. It has been a hectic, enlightening and fun experience. My wife says I’m busier now than I’ve been in the last 15 years!
5. OCM: It’s a tough economy, and things don’t seem to be improving. How would you describe the morale and attitude of nonprofits right now?
Gardner: The road to economic recovery is proving to be a long one, and many of our agencies are feeling the strain. Even so, I would describe the morale and attitude as cautiously optimistic. Despite the tough times, national statistics are showing that people are still willing to help their neighbors in need. Here at United Way, our support increased last year, despite the challenges of the market.
6. OCM: What is the biggest challenge facing nonprofits?
Gardner: The dynamic and uncertain landscape of public funding is extremely challenging for nonprofits. Much of the support for health and human services comes from the government, and we all know the status of government budgets. The concern regarding possible cutbacks to public funding exacerbates an already challenging situation, making it difficult for nonprofits to plan or commit, and underscoring the need for other nontraditional partners and the corporate world to step forward and help.
7. OCM: Does corporate O.C. give enough?
Gardner: Yes and no. There are many businesses that recognize the tremendous need and are great corporate citizens, and that encourage their employees to be charitable as well. But not every organization follows that path. While they may recognize how important it is to support our community, they may not know exactly how to address the changing needs or be confident that their dollars are being put to the best use. This is a part of the service and value that United Way can provide. We’re here to serve our partners, including local businesses, in achieving their philanthropic objectives to support the community in which we live.
8. OCM: What is the key to unlocking bigger corporate donations?
Gardner: While every business has different objectives and motivations for giving, there are some consistent themes: They want to clearly understand the need, the strategy to address the issue, how the results will be measured, and how it will benefit the community and their organization. They may also want opportunities for their employees to volunteer, and they may be looking for positive public relations impact. Finally, they must have confidence that their investment will be efficiently invested in our community with the greatest potential impact. It is incumbent upon us to develop the trust and confidence of business leaders necessary to earn their support.
9. OCM: What inspires you to work harder?
Gardner: The people – those we help, those we support and those who work with us. When you see the faces and the difference we can make in our neighbors’ lives, it truly warms your heart. I spent 30 years in the real estate industry thinking I was building communities. Turns out I was only building the physical part, the sticks and bricks. Now I am focused on the entire community, particularly the people and families.
10. OCM: Are you optimistic about the future of nonprofits in O.C.?
Gardner: I am the eternal optimist, but in this area I am cautiously optimistic. All signs indicate that things are going to get worse before they get better. This is a time for all of us to really pause and think about the difference we can make in our community. The more we work together, the better and stronger Orange County will be for all of its residents, in every city and neighborhood, at every socioeconomic level.