How the United Way is Responding to COVID-19 and Other Disasters in 2020

What we’re talking about

The United Way has over 1,100 chapters around the United States supporting needs in local communities. The largest privately funded non-profit supports many needs, especially after a disaster. During 2020, the non-profit stepped up to fill in the gaps typically provided by local organizations and agencies, including food banks and other necessary services lacking due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Topics Covered

  • United Way’s local chapters adjusted how they delivered services during the pandemic to account for families with children home from school, family members losing their jobs, and those who needed supplemental food.
  • Many local nonprofits are struggling to deliver their normal services due to the pandemic, and the United Way is helping to step in and support those needs.
  • There are many ways for people to support the United Way. They can volunteer virtually, donate to their local chapter, or volunteer in person at United Way activities in the community.
  • This year, the United Way has supported several major disasters around the U.S., including the California Wildfires, the Gulf Coast hurricanes, and the pandemic impacts in communities around the country.

Additional Information


(0:00 – 1:41)

In this episode of Disaster Recovery Roundtable, we’ll be joined by one of the largest non-profits in the U.S. to hear how they have adjusted their business model to support communities impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The United Way is transforming how it engages stakeholders, its support to local communities, and how it’s adjusting in this new normal to continue providing services to those in need. This is the Disaster Recovery Roundtable, a platform to explore, engage, and educate the emergency management community.

Our topics are timely and relevant, intended to promote the exchange of ideas and best practices. Now, here’s your host, Greg Patchett. And thank you, Steve Henderson.

Yes, the United Way, like so many other non-profits, has stepped up its role in supporting communities in times of need due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This is the first of a two-part series with a look at how the United Way is supporting those in need. In this first episode, we’ll hear from the president of United Way Worldwide for a look at the big picture and how the non-profit is shifting its operations to support those in need, especially due to the pandemic, but while also continuing their mission of support to communities, especially in times of disasters.

In part two of this series, we’ll visit with a local chapter to hear how they are making impacts in the Mohawk Valley region of upstate New York. But before we introduce our first guest, let’s learn more on the origins of the largest privately funded non-profit in the world. What is United Way? United Way was established more than 125 years ago in Denver by a woman, a priest, two ministers, and a rabbi.

(1:42 – 8:21)

In 2012, it mobilized 2.9 million volunteers and raised $5.2 billion across 1,800 United Ways in 41 countries, ranking United Way as the world’s largest privately funded non-profit organization. Be part of the change and join the movement to live united. United Way Worldwide oversees local chapters in their mission to support those in need, but in the era of COVID, they are helping more than ever before.

United Way Worldwide supports over 1,100 chapters within its U.S. network, and our first guest is leading that support. Welcome Susanne McCormick, president of United Way Worldwide. Thanks Greg, it’s a real pleasure to be here.

Let’s kick off by talking about your role with United Way. I understand you became president of Worldwide last June in 2019? That’s correct, and I lead the U.S. network, so I help lead the team at United Way Worldwide that supports our almost 1,100 local United Ways throughout the United States and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Isles. When we talk about that, how many chapters is that across that territory? I think our exact number is, oh, it’s about 1,040, something like that, so over 1,000.

It’s a big group, and our local United Ways, you know, we’re in almost every community in the country, so as you can imagine, that means we have some United Ways that are quite large, serving large metro areas, and then we also have United Ways that are small and in small towns, rural towns, but still really, in either case, really working hard to make a difference to improve people’s lives, no matter the size. The United Way has become an important part of many communities, as you mentioned, they’re almost everywhere now, and providing a framework to support the needs of communities in various ways. Can you explain to us the mission of United Way as a community partner? Well, as you said, Greg, yeah, we’re deeply embedded in communities, and what we say our superpower is, is that we know the needs of a local community, not just through a single lens, but from a holistic point of view, and we work really closely with the entire community, including other non-profits, direct service providers, policymakers, corporations, local governments, or state governments, to really, we see our role as bringing those different perspectives together to try to come up with solutions to some of the hardest problems we face.

Local United Ways support direct services, sometimes they’re providing direct services. Also, a big part of what United Way does across the country is help support, or actually run in some cases, the 211 network, which is a really important access point for people to find out about resources in their communities. So even though United Ways, you know, they can be large or small, we all share the same mission, which is to improve lives by mobilizing the caring power of our communities.

2020 has been a very unusual year for us, and the United Way has had to step up, even sometimes now, to help replicate or replace the role of some other non-profits that may not be as large or as established as United Way is. How has COVID-19 impacted the way you do business at the national level, and then, you know, a little bit down to the local level as well? I have never been more proud of the network of United Ways. They have really stepped into, as you said, sometimes a void of leadership in response to COVID, and I think the way that I’ve seen them change their work for the better is as they’ve been, they’ve demonstrated so much innovation and creativity, and they’ve also, they’ve really also broadened how they think about the role they play.

So we do have some United Ways right now that actually are providing direct services. We have United Ways who have been handing out food, distributing masks, or PPE, actually getting out and getting resources to their communities in a very direct way, because, as you said, many of their non-profit partners weren’t able to do that, had to close, or just didn’t have the capability. So one of the big differences, again, is really positive, have just been so creative and really thinking about also how do they engage their community virtually.

We’ve had some really great examples of virtual volunteerism, you know, engaging people in letter writing or doing visits with seniors via, you know, Zoom or telephone. So it’s forced us to just, you know, open up our minds and try new things, which I think is just really positive. It’s also been really hard, though.

I mean, I look at our local United Ways and non-profits as very much being on the front lines, and every day they have to get up and, you know, think about caring for their communities while they’re still having to care. They have the same challenges and struggles that everyone has right now, is also, you know, being at home and caring for their families and helping their kids, you know, homeschool. So they’ve just demonstrated so much stamina and perseverance and courage.

I’ve just been so proud of our network. Coming up next, we’ll hear about United Way’s disaster response program to learn how they are helping after disasters, including their role as a national VOAD member. But first, let’s hear more on how the United Way is supporting those in need.

More than 70,000 people die from drug abuse in a year. 7.5 million people need to work more than one job to make ends meet. Human trafficking is a $32 billion industry in the U.S. On a single night, over half a million people experience homelessness in the U.S. Together with 60,000 corporate partners, over 8 million donors, and nearly 3 million volunteers, United Way is fighting for the health, education, and financial stability of every person in every community.

Together, in a year, we deliver health care services and support to more than 3 million people, help over 1.3 million people get on the path to financial stability, provide out-of-school programs and individualized support to more than 2 million at-risk teens, and enable over half a million people to get back on their feet through job skills training. These are the faces of change. You can be one too.

(8:24 – 8:46)

You’re listening to Disaster Recovery Roundtable, available on your favorite podcast provider and on our website at And now, back to your host, Greg Patchett. And welcome back to our special two-part series on how the United Way supports communities, especially during disasters. We’re joined by Suzanne McCormick, President of United Way Worldwide.

(8:47 – 11:59)

Suzanne, earlier you shared the impacts of COVID and how it’s also impacting your chapters and the staff and all the work that they’ve been doing to support those that have been impacted by the pandemic. What are some other examples of United Way’s role in disasters nationally? Well, on our U.S. team, we actually have a Director of Disaster Response. And so, you know, as you said, she’s involved with VOAD.

And then she is really our, is the frontline resource for our local communities as they are facing disasters. So she’s always, you know, monitoring what’s happening around the world. And when we know, for example, when we have, if we’re able to predict that a natural, like a natural disaster, like a hurricane is going to hit and impact our communities, she’s very proactive in reaching out to those local United Ways to make sure that they’ve got a disaster plan in place, that they know how they’re going to respond.

Some of our biggest responses, well, now it feels like disasters happen, you know, almost every day now. And so, you know, she’s a little bit stretched. But some of the large disasters that our local United Ways, I think, have been really, really impactful in, in particular, our United Way down in Puerto Rico, which is led by just a fabulous leader named Sammy Gonzalez.

He and his United Way just jumped into action after the island was hit. And also with some help from our CEO in the United Way of the U.S. Virgin Isles, they both coordinated just critical mass distributions of supplies and resources, generators, those kinds of things, to support schools and vulnerable populations. They also, especially in Puerto Rico, really helped increase the capacity of their non-profit partners to help those in need.

I think one of a really great story that came out of our response to those 2017 hurricanes was also that on the state side, our United Way in Orlando, Florida, really became like a sister city to Puerto Rico and helped coordinate getting all kinds of solar batteries and, again, generators from the states to Puerto Rico. So that was a really big response. And right now, our United Ways, we have United Ways in Louisiana, who are very, very actively responding, especially in Lake Charles, hugely impacted.

They’re just front and center in partnership with their mayor, helping coordinate relief. And then, of course, in California, so many of our local United Ways are actively helping support those who have been impacted by the fires. I heard some really great work, specifically just as an example, has been done by our United Way in Santa Cruz, California.

In Santa Cruz, there were over 900 homes that were destroyed. And the United Way, again, has been really innovative and creative. They partnered with another non-profit and set up a mobile laundry mat that is able to go up into the mountains and allow families who have been displaced to do their laundry.

(12:00 – 16:30)

They’ve also helped one of their volunteer fire departments with funds to replace fire equipment, which is sort of unusual for a United Way. And then lastly, as we can imagine, a lot of the crops and wineries in that area were destroyed and displaced a lot of workers. And so they have been providing direct financial assistance to migrant workers who can’t access help from FEMA.

So those are just some examples. And we see that play out over and over and over in communities where United Ways, again, just step in and say, what do people need? Let’s find the resources and let’s get them to them. I think people realize also how important it is to have some clean clothes when you’ve been in a fire or have lost a lot of everything you own.

So that really must have been a huge impact just to be able to do laundry and to have some fresh-smelling clothes to wear. I mean, I can’t imagine. I was talking with our CEO there and she told me like one of the most heartbreaking but heartwarming stories.

And it was about that in one of the schools there, in one of the communities that was impacted, but the school was not impacted. The school is still having 100 percent attendance because as one of the kids said, that’s the only normal thing we have right now. That’s just heartbreaking.

It shows you how impactful it is for kids to want to go to school because it’s the only thing that they can connect with that’s kind of normal for them. Now, I understand that obviously COVID has also impacted the current response that you guys have going on. I’m assuming your teams have to take extra precautions when going into these areas and responding for PPE and that sort of thing.

It’s an important time, I would assume, for people to understand how they can support United Way. What are some ways that people can help make a difference? And you mentioned volunteers as well as obviously you have your annual donation fund drives every year, but really those funds for this year must be more needed than ever before. They really are.

United Ways across the country, many, many, many United Ways have COVID relief funds and communities have been hugely generous in supporting those funds. But we know that the needs are going to continue to be great and local United Ways are going to need to continue to respond and help their communities through the recovery process. And so supporting a local United Way with an unrestricted gift will allow them to use it in the smartest way possible.

And I really encourage anyone who’s interested to contact your local United Way. That’s the way to get help in action the fastest. Your local United Way can also help refer you to safe or virtual volunteer opportunities.

So those are two big things right now that, you know, really encouraging people. And I know it’s a tough time for everybody, but, you know, as generous as people can be with either dollars or their time, it would be so appreciated to be in a local community and to make a huge impact. That’s really a great way for people to make an impact in their local community.

Thanks so much, Suzanne, for sharing that perspective of United Way worldwide for us. Thanks for having me, Greg. And thanks for all the work that you do as well.

And if you’d like to learn more about the United Way, you can visit As you heard, you can donate your time virtually, provide financial donations, and also provide hands-on support to those initiatives helping others. Our series on how the United Way is making a difference continues in our next episode, as we are joined by United Way at the Mohawk Valley in Utica, New York. United Way is uniquely positioned to act and to respond and to support in times of disaster.

And those three ways are, one, we have the support of a timely and extensive 211 database of human health and human service providers. The second is we have a vast network of connections that we’re able to make between the private sector and the nonprofit sector. And third, we have a unique ability to not only plan for the future, but also to be flexible and nimble and offer real-time solutions.

(16:31 – 16:52)

You’ve been listening to Disaster Recovery Roundtable, a platform to explore, engage, and educate. For more information on this episode, visit our podcast page at You can download previous podcasts, learn more about the programs we discussed, and suggest a topic for a future episode. You can also find us on your favorite podcast provider.

(16:52 – 16:56)

This has been a Tidal Basin production. Thanks for listening.