Mark Furst, President and Chief Executive Officer of United Way of Central Maryland, will be leaving his post after 12 years of inspirational and transformative leadership at the end of October to join the Kennedy Krieger Institute as Senior Vice President of External Relations.
During his tenure, Mark has made United Way of Central Maryland financially stronger and shifted the organization’s programmatic focus to family stability while improving the public’s perception of and affinity for United Way.
Prior to joining the organization in 2004, he worked for over 25 years in banking, primarily in executive positions at M&T Bank and its predecessors. He has been recognized three times as an “Influential Marylander” by The Daily Record and was named one of Baltimore Business Journal’s “Power 20: The Next Generation.”
We recently asked Mark about his time with United Way of Central Maryland, his accomplishments, and the positive impact that the organization has made on lives and communities under his leadership.
You’ve done much to change the focus and direction of UWCM, and many times we’ve heard you and others within the organization say, “We’re not your grandfather’s United Way.” What has changed most during your tenure?
I was incredibly honored to take the helm of an 85-year old organization that has adapted time and time again to address our community’s needs. United Way of Central Maryland had become primarily known for its ability and expertise in mass fundraising. Sure, we were part of a safety net for the community, but not in a proactive way. Resources were spread over such a large field that we couldn’t provide strong, data-based evidence of what we were yielding, and it was difficult to show return on investment to our donors. When I became president and CEO, I emphasized that our focus needed to be crystal clear, and that success must be measured, very simply, in terms of helping more people.
United Way’s work and allocation of resources are now quite intentional and sustainable. Many of the human service program models we’ve implemented in recent years have proven successful in other United Way cities, and we’ve adapted them locally. We also recognize that what’s needed most and what we can do best may be different in each of the six jurisdictions we serve.
Our focus is now on investing deeper into services for families in high need communities who are struggling, and providing the building blocks they need for stable lives: health, education, housing and employment. We carefully analyze practices and programs that are working and making a real difference in people’s lives, and invest in those. We’re now able to utilize our resources for sustainable change, and to ensure that donor dollars are being used in the most effective way possible.
And I believe we are better listeners and collaborators and partners. We are working more and more with area schools and faith communities, health and police departments, state and local government, foundations and other nonprofits. We saw this collaboration in action after the unrest in Baltimore City in 2015, when so many groups worked with us to quickly raise almost $600,000 for the communities that were impacted the most.
Affinity groups created under your leadership—such as Emerging Leaders United and Leaders United—and new initiatives such as Project Homeless Connect are driving great change for the organization and those it serves. Tell us a little about these.
I’m especially proud of these groups, which also include Women United and our leadership donors in the Tocqueville Society. They are channeling their passion and compassion to help others, and I’m glad that they trust us to be a connection to that.
Baltimore Project Homeless Connect, an annual event in which we match people in need with thousands of really caring volunteers and effective, much-needed services, is truly a metaphor for what United Way does 365 days a year—through our programs, fundraising, grant making, our 2-1-1 Maryland United Way Helpline and more. It’s a very powerful way for people to participate in and learn about our work and see the life-changing results it brings.
What are you most proud of having accomplished during your time with United Way of Central Maryland?
When I came to United Way, I perceived that our organization needed to foster greater trust in the community. It was tough to hear feedback that we were perceived as arrogant and bureaucratic. When people are giving charitable dollars, they want to make sure their money is well stewarded and really helping people who need it.
Our credo is that best way to engender trust is through transparency—by being clear and focused about what we do best, by demonstrating that we know where work needs to be done, and by doing it with excellence and in accordance with best practices.
I’m most proud of the fact that we’ve become a truly trusted partner among donors, nonprofits, businesses, government agencies, organizations, funders and grantmakers. We’ve come remarkably far and helped a lot of people along the way.
You came to United Way of Central Maryland with an extensive background in the financial industry. How have your years here changed your worldview?
My work in the banking field served me greatly at United Way. At our heart, we’re a business in service to others, and we have to operate like a business. We need to spend money wisely and make the right investments at the right time. As they say, “There is no mission without a margin.”
But I also recognize that our return on our investment is not measured only in dollars and cents, but also in the quality of the lives we touch. United Way has changed me in that I have much greater empathy for the struggles faced by so many people in poverty, and how difficult it is to escape the gravitational pull of multigenerational poverty.
I’ve also learned that many in the business sector often underestimate their impact on the community. People working in the corporate or business sectors frequently say to me, “I’d like a career change—to work where I can help people, like you do.” I tell them that they are helping—by running a strong business and generating tax revenues, serving as board members and volunteers, through their charitable contributions, by hiring people who need jobs and as a result of their community outreach efforts. They’re already making a huge difference and improving our communities. I am very pro-business!
Not only are you moving on to a new and exciting position, but United Way of Central Maryland will also soon be moving to new office space in South Baltimore’s Montgomery Park. What does this move signal to donors and to those United Way serves?
The move will result in a significant financial savings for United Way of Central Maryland, which means we can bring more life-stabilizing programs into the areas we serve. And a new location with free and ample parking will make it easier to convene our partners and guests. Look for a sign everyone will see from I-95, too!
You stated in a recent Baltimore Business Journal interview that you wouldn’t be leaving if United Way of Central Maryland wasn’t “on a good vector.” In what ways is the organization poised to continue its forward motion following your departure?
We know and have quantifiable evidence that our programs are working. We’re improving lives—in the areas of housing, education, access to healthy food and so much more. We’re making a demonstrable impact in targeted, high need areas. One of many, many examples would be our programs at Benjamin Franklin High School in the south Baltimore’s Brooklyn neighborhood, where we partnered to open the city’s first United Way Family Center. Our on-site childcare center has enabled teen mothers to return to school, obtain their critically important high school diplomas, and become better parents at the same time. Our sustained investments at Ben Franklin have also been credited with a significant decrease in teacher turnover—because students who have the support they need and are in stable families mean less stress for their teachers.
Will you be taking any time off between positions, and if so, what are your plans?
I’m taking all of Saturday and Sunday off. I’m just going to dive right into my new position at Kennedy Krieger. Until then, I will continue to give United Way of Central Maryland 100 percent to ensure a smooth transition to its next leader.
What is one piece of advice you would you give your successor?
Ask your colleagues and coworkers what they think the organization should do, and heed the advice, recommendations and wisdom of our terrific team. I’m blessed to have worked side by side with a fantastic group of professionals who have driven our work—and inspired me—to the point where this organization is viewed and respected as a trusted liaison between donors and those in need. My departure is a great opportunity for the next president to grow and expand United Way of Central Maryland to continue our life-changing work, and to help even more people.
Are there any other thoughts you’d like to share?
I’ve worked with and come to know some of the most caring people around: our donors. Sometimes that’s donor who can afford to donate $10,000, but more often, it is someone for whom a gift of $3 per week is a true sacrifice. I thank each and every one of them. Everything we do we owe to their trust in us. Because of their generosity, United Way of Central Maryland is increasingly in a position to help people in need.
For more than 90 years, United Way of Central Maryland has been improving lives in the communities it serves: Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Carroll County, Harford County and Howard County, Maryland.
United Way of Central Maryland is a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization! | Tax ID: 52-0591543