United Way CEO Visits—And Shares Some Provocative Insights

The man who integrated national and international affiliates into United Way Worldwide sees up close how societies are developing and changing around the globe. And he has some provocative insights and questions about how it’s all going.

On Tuesday, the global nonprofit’s CEO, Brian Gallagher, got an Austin audience thinking about the big trends and patterns. He spoke to a packed Union Theater as part of the VIP Distinguished Speaker Series sponsored by the Undergraduate Business Council.

Gallager asked: Has the United States peaked as a country? Can civil society loosen up smoothly in China? Can the income and opportunity gaps not just in the Arab world, but also in London, Los Angeles, and New York be closed in time to prevent social unrest?

Education is a key issue for local United Ways right now, and in several U.S. cities, they’ve made real progress toward increasing graduation rates. But the progress isn’t happening widely or quickly enough, Gallagher said, and his organization is having frank talks about how to accelerate it.

“If education in American doesn’t dramatically improve in the next 10 years,” he said, “we’re dead.”

One out of every four young people in the United States is Hispanic, and the dropout rate for Hispanics is still around 18 percent nationally.

Gallagher challenged ordinary citizens to organize. “The only way they get up to the game is when enough people get organized and step up,” he said. “We’ve got to get people involved in this process, because the narrative in this country is too polarized and too dominated by political leaders.”

The CEO was frank about his own background. The son of immigrants (a father from Ireland and a mother from Scotland), Gallagher described his home environment as angry and violent. Safety nets—from government food stamps to charity counseling services—helped him grow up and get a chance at a different life.

His story underscores, he said, why governments and business alone can’t provide young people opportunity. Nonprofits and community organizations need to “get much more aggressive in the right way” about joining in the discussion of what should be included in the social contract, he said.

In China—where United Way just last week signed an agreement with the China Charity Federation—Gallagher sees hope of building a robust middle class. It took three full years to negotiate the contract, but his nonprofit has calculated that Chinese society will open up the same way its economy did.

Photo by Jeff Heimsath


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