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United Way CEO tackles 'good' challenge: dispersing big donation

Leader handles a pair of curveballs — one positive, one negative, with a core value front-and-center: transparency.

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  • | 8:00 a.m. August 12, 2021
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Mark Wemple. Jessica Muroff was named CEO of United Way Suncoast in October 2019.
Mark Wemple. Jessica Muroff was named CEO of United Way Suncoast in October 2019.
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When Jessica Muroff took on the CEO role at United Way Suncoast, she had no way to know she would be mired in a global pandemic in four months.

Her focus as the organization’s newly minted leader was determining the challenges and opportunities it faced. Soon after joining the nonprofit, she presented the board with an 18-month strategy for growth. Then, two months later, there was a small wrench in her plan: the pandemic.

Within two days of COVID-19, United Way Suncoast, which covers DeSoto, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota counties, was 100% working remotely. In quick succession, it launched the COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund and raised almost $1.6 million. 

Still, it wasn’t the easiest path forward and Muroff was at the helm of it all. Her upbeat and enthusiastic nature darkens as she talks about the onset of COVID-19. “It was a lot to manage all at the same time and having to bring our team together in big ways,” she admits before brightening again. “One of the things I noticed we needed to really strengthen as an organization was our culture. How we came together to respond in COVID-19 made all the difference in really transforming the organization.” 

One of Muroff’s core values is transparency. If employees understand what’s going on — the results, the work, the finances — they’re more likely to be invested. And they’ll be even more engaged if they themselves are connected to the planning process. 

That’s why Muroff facilitated a process to encourage employees to create their own code that dictates company culture. The aptly named causeway code establishes key behaviors for employees — or what Muroff calls guideposts — like assuming positivity, being present, keeping an open mind and being accountable. 

“When you have that guidepost, that helps you when you’re not only responding to change in our community and our environment but also having to change the way that we approach [things,]” Muroff says. 

Other tweaks she’s made to the culture have been more literal, like a daily huddle meeting. When United Way first went fully remote, Muroff instituted two huddles a day — one at the beginning of the workday and one at its close. With the physical watercooler gone, this served as a substitute. 

But now, employees crave the built-in connection. Since United Way Suncoast serves five counties, feeling part of a bigger team connects everyone to the organization’s mission on a daily basis. At the end of each meeting, one person shares something they’re happy about, something that’s hard and something they’re hoping for — a practice Muroff says employees have come to love. 

Coming to United Way was a big change for Muroff herself. For four years, she ran the Girls Scouts of West Central Florida, a role she calls “the most fun job I have ever had in my life and probably will ever have.” But she joined United Way because she was ready to make a deeper community impact and improve and elevate other organizations. She chose the adjustment. 

She’s already had multiple curveballs thrown at her since coming on board — one of the negative variety, like COVID-19, and one of the “so-good-you-almost-can’t-believe-it” type. That would be the $20 million donation the nonprofit received from MacKenzie Scott, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife. 

When Muroff first received the email from Scott’s team, she genuinely thought it was fraud. In fact, she took a picture and forwarded it to her chief advancement officer asking if it could be a phishing scam. The email’s scant information and lack of a branded signature worried her. 

But when she agreed to talk to the person over the phone, the dots started to connect. 

“When they told me who it was and the amount that we were getting, my jaw dropped,” she says. “I was like, ‘I’ve got to be on Candid Camera someplace. This has got to be a joke.’” 

The nonprofit is still in the process of determining how to best use the gift, Muroff says, putting together a task force that will make recommendations to their board by the end of August. She wants it to be a “community gift, not a United Way gift.”

That approach is pivotal to the way she sees her work and her life. She gets up every day to lift up others.

“Whether that be individuals in our community who need help or a member of my team who wants to talk through a challenge, I am driven by making an impact,” she says. “The fact that this is what I get paid to do is just a dream.” 




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