Interview: Brian Gallagher

The president of US-based United Way Worldwide thinks UK charities could be better connected with corporates and government to achieve common goals

Brian Gallagher
Brian Gallagher

Brian Gallagher is president and chief executive of US-based United Way Worldwide, the world’s largest privately funded charity, and spends a lot of time travelling the globe to visit nearly 1,800 branches, spread across 41 countries, that raise $5.3bn (£3.2bn) a year.

He has just visited United Way London, which was launched in 2012 and is run by the London Voluntary Service Council. Like all branches, it is essentially a franchise organisation that raises money from local businesses for work related to United Way’s three main concerns of education, health and financial stability.

London has chosen to focus on youth unemployment. It has a corporate partnership with Costas Wholesale and is working with other American companies in London that it says it cannot name because of commercial sensitivity. It aims to raise £400,000 in cash and in-kind donations in the next 18 months, and says it is on track to do that.

Gallagher is adamant that United Way branches do not compete with other charities. Instead, he says, they help them to be more effective. "Mostly, we provide support to other non-profits," he says. "London has great non-profits doing fantastic work, but very few that then try to knit together groups of non-profits connected with government and corporates to achieve a common goal."

Gallagher says the UK voluntary sector is very sophisticated and has led the way with social finance and social impact bonds, which are now spreading to the US and elsewhere. But he says it is also disconnected from other sectors.

"A lot of collective planning goes on, studies by think tanks and academics, but there is not enough collective implementation of the plans," he says. "The opportunity for the UK sector, I think, is how to translate the findings to implement social programmes that connect the work of government, non-profits and business. It feels disconnected at times, and a little crowded."

"We have a proven track record in creating a collective approach among large and complex organisations. We don’t come into London, Mumbai or Bogotá and say ‘this is what you have to do’. We say ‘let us share our experiences and what we are learning about how we create a collective plan between government, non-profits and business’."

United Way is described in its promotional materials as a movement that aims to improve lives by "mobilising the caring power of communities around the world to advance the common good". It was started in Denver, Colorado, in 1887 when a local woman, a priest, two ministers and a rabbi got together to address the city’s welfare problems. They created an organisation that collected funds for local charities, coordinated local services, referred people to health and welfare agencies and made emergency grants.

Gallagher compares the organisation to McDonald’s or Starbucks. "We all agree to operate a certain way – they are volunteer-run, locally run, transparent and signed up to the same governance and a code of ethics," he says. "They all agree that our purpose is to improve the condition of people’s lives." Decisions are made locally about how each United Way pursues the three key objectives.

Gallagher began his career with United Way as a management trainee in 1981 after graduating with a degree in social work from Ball State University, Indiana. He served as an adviser to the White House health and human services transition team in 2008 and was appointed to the committee on faith-based and neighbourhood initiatives in 2010. He is also a member of the World Economic Forum and helps to lead its NGO advisory group.

Gallagher believes charities need to move beyond protesting against public funding cuts and take a more proactive response by asking: "What is the role of government going forward? What does the safety net look like? Let’s define it again." He says he sees different debates about the role of government in the voluntary sector around the world.

In China, for example, the government is trying to encourage charitable giving with tax incentives and the newly wealthy are setting up private foundations because there is a lack of charities to give to, he says. He says the US has a more robust philanthropic community than other countries because historically it is religious and individualistic.

Since the economic downturn and the banking crisis of 2008, developed countries, such as the UK and the US, have been struggling to keep their middle classes, says Gallagher; and developing nations, such as China and Mexico, are creating a middle class and lifting millions out of poverty. The challenge for charities, he says, is how to step in and halt the growing divide between the very wealthy and the very poor.

Brian Gallagher CV

2009: Chief executive and president, United Way Worldwide

2002: Chief executive and president, United Way America

1982-2002: Positions at United Way affiliates, including vice-president of donor relations in Providence and president of the Ohio branch

1981: Management trainee, United Way, Atlanta, Georgia

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