Service Is in Ellyn Grady’s DNA, Just as Philanthropy Is in this Community

Ellyn Grady, who retired form United Way of Central Alabama in 2019, poses for a picture inside an O’Henry’s Coffees location in Homewood.

Ellyn Grady, retired Senior Vice President of Resource Development at United Way of Central Alabama (UWCA), grew up in central Pennsylvania and came from a lineage of people who dedicated themselves to serving others. Most of the women in her family volunteered in their communities answering a wide variety of needs.

She said that, during the Great Depression, her grandmother earned a reputation as particularly kind and generous to travelers who rode the rails from town to town looking for whatever type of work might be available on any given day.

“Service is in my DNA,” Grady said.

After getting her bachelor’s degree from Furman University in 1971, Grady became a special education teacher in Kershaw County Public Schools in Camden, South Carolina. Then in 1975, she and her husband Robert moved to Virginia, where she went to work in the Office of Adult and Community Education for Fairfax County Public Schools. She also served as a mentor and instructor at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria.

The Grady Family made the move to Birmingham in 1988.

Concerned that career opportunities in the new environment might be scarce for someone with her service-oriented background, Grady immediately enrolled in the Master of Public Administration program at UAB. The advanced degree, she reasoned, would help her achieve her goals of working in the nonprofit sector. Soon after the move, her husband was diagnosed with leukemia and passed away.

She was hired as a grant writer at UWCA in 1990 while pursuing her master’s. That job was in what was then called the Planning and Agency Relations Department.

Quickly, Grady began taking on more responsibilities at United Way and moved up in the department, which managed the allocation process for UWCA’s partner agencies, as well as program audits, new program funding and agency admission.

In 1991, Grady was named Assistant Planning Director and then Associate Planning Director one year later. One of her major accomplishments was helping UWCA transition its allocation model so that partner agencies were given more flexibility in how they use their allocated funds.

Through her work at United Way, Grady said, she found Birmingham and central Alabama to be a warm and caring community – a great place to live and raise her two children. She found a gracious and generous community that was happy to share its wealth and time.

After spending almost seven years in agency relations at UWCA, Grady went on to become Executive Director at one of those long-standing partner agencies: Girls Inc. of Central Alabama, which conducts a variety of enrichment, educational and intervention programs that inspire girls to be strong, smart and bold, leading productive and successful lives.

Leading Girls Inc. was the opportunity of a lifetime, Grady said.

Eight years later, when Dan Dunne, then Executive Director of UWCA, asked her to come back to United Way to lead a complete revamp of the agency review process, she agreed.

Upon Grady’s return, she found that she was spending much of her energy managing campaign fundraising, which introduced her to a new side of the organization. And she liked it.

Following Dunne’s retirement in 2008, Drew Langloh took over as CEO and asked Grady whether she wanted to specialize in fundraising or in allocations. She chose fundraising. It was “the harder option,” she said.

Though working directly on Resource Development was inherently challenging, Grady said she found a deeper appreciation for the generosity of people in Central Alabama.

Jim and Sallie Johnson are two individuals Grady said are emblematic of what people are willing to give. In the early 2000s, Sallie was on a Visiting Allocation Team helping determine funding needs for the United Community Center (UCC) in Southwest Birmingham. She was struck by the services the center provided for the surrounding neighborhoods and the value it represented to many individuals.

So, in 2019, when the Johnsons learned that the UCC wanted to build a community pavilion, they provided the funds through their own James Milton and Sallie R. Johnson Foundation to have it built. And many others pitched in, as well. Those included volunteers from Engineers of the South, Bhate, the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees and UWCA affinity groups, including the Tocqueville Society.

“People think generosity only has to do with financial resources, but people [in Greater Birmingham] are generous with their time, their hearts for mission, their talents and their rolodex,” Grady said.

Now retired from United Way, Grady’s 30-year career at UWCA opened her eyes to the philanthropic spirit of this community and people’s genuine desire to help those in need. That continues to fuel her work as an instructor in UAB’s Department of Political Science and Public Administration, where she has taught since 1995. Now leading classes focused on agency administration, marketing and nonprofit management, she’s passing along her years of wisdom and that inherited love of service to many of the those who staff Central Alabama’s nonprofits today and in the future.