It’s been a big year for women in leadership at United Way of Central Alabama (UWCA) with Mallie Ireland serving as Board Chair and Jill Deer chairing the Pacesetter Campaign. Ireland attributes this to women’s inherent nature as agents of change.
“Women absolutely make things happen,” she said, “particularly when we band together. There’s an undeniable strength, and we really make a difference.”
Throughout UWCA’s nearly century-long history, women have played a vital role in the organization.
“It started with the Women’s Division,” said Ireland. “Women would literally go door to door asking for donations. It’s always fun to talk to the ladies at the 50-year donor luncheons because they’re still so excited about the volunteer work they did decades ago!” Ireland noted, however, that it was still quite a few years before women started taking on major leadership roles at United Way.
Alice McSpadden Williams broke all-new ground in 1992 when she became UWCA’s first female Board Chair. She was a tireless advocate, volunteer and organizer for United Way for decades before and after her tenure. And although she passed away in November of this year, her legacy of passion for community service, and her faithful commitment to United Way, live on through the countless people she helped and those she inspired to follow in her footsteps. Frequent visitors to the UWCA building are reminded of her immeasurable spirit and good works, as our largest meeting room on the fifth floor is named in her honor.
“Over the years, [female involvement in UWCA] has become more serious,” Ireland said. “In the beginning, it was something housewives did on the side, but now we’ve got real movers and shakers – strong business community members, community volunteers, financial gurus and doctors who want to get involved and serve. United Way is great at bringing women together.”
A new chapter of female involvement came with the founding of DIVAS (Developing Initiatives and Values Among Sisters) in 2004, a leadership society designed to both recognize Leadership Donors and encourage more women to join those ranks and provide them with the opportunity to connect with other civic-minded women of all ages and backgrounds.
Jill Deer credits DIVAS as the origin of her involvement with United Way.
“I really admired how they came together for the community,” said Deer. “They were all leaders I recognized, doing these incredible things for Central Alabama, and I wanted to get to know them better. Their passion made it easy to get excited about United Way, so my involvement just grew from there.”
As DIVAS evolved, the group decided a new name might better reflect its mission. In 2015, they settled on Women United, the name of United Way Worldwide’s women’s group, which has a presence in more than 165 communities across six continents. Today, UWCA’s Women United has more than 150 members spanning generations.
To Women United founder Eleanor Griffin, the generational intersection is one of the most rewarding aspects of the group. “My biggest satisfaction in working with Women United for over 10 years is seeing not only the increase in new leadership givers, but the energy and spirit of the young leaders continuing to grow the program,” Griffin said. “We began as mentors to the next generation, but it’s turned out we’ve learned much more from them, and had great fun doing so!”
Jill Deer noted the importance of inclusion in guiding United Way’s mission. “The benefit of having women in leadership positions isn’t that we have different skills than men,” she said. “Rather, we’ve had different experiences, and that brings a different thought process to the table. And you get better results when you have different viewpoints.”
“And when you combine that with a desire to fulfill a task,” added Ireland, “it’s powerful.”