Reshaping United Way

By Jennifer Whytock

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Johnnetta Cole has served as president of the only two historically black colleges for women in the U.S., setting a fundraising record at Spelman College in Atlanta and, in just two years, wiping out a deficit of nearly $4 million at Bennett College in Greensboro.

Now, as the first African American to chair United Way of America, Cole hopes to inject more diversity and openness into the national charity as it tries to reinvent itself.

“We need to make sure we’re as filled with integrity as possible and transparent,” says Cole, “and we need to be self critical, try to reinvent ourselves and find the root causes of problems.”

United Way, like many charities, faces growing competition for donors’ dollars, and growing scrutiny from donors, regulators and lawmakers alarmed by highly publicized scandals at some charities.

United Way itself was the focus of a scandal in 1992, when its then president, William Aramony, resigned in the wake of allegations of financial wrongdoing.

Last year, United Way of America created new accountability and financial standards all local affiliates now must follow.

United Way also is trying to reach out to new donors, including women, blacks and younger adults.

Johnnetta Cole

Job: President, Bennett College; board chair, United Way of America

Born: Jacksonville, Fla., 1936

Lives: Greensboro, N.C.

Family: Divorced; three children, 42, 38, 34; granddaughter, 15

Education: Undergraduate, Fisk University, Oberlin College; Master’s and Ph.D., anthropology, Northwestern University

Hobbies: Walking, listening to jazz

More than 60 local initiatives, for example, raise money from women and support community causes chosen by women.

Cole first became active in United Way in 1987, when she was one of the “founding mamas” of its local women’s initiative, helped create an African-American initiative and chaired the Atlanta affiliate.

Her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all were involved with the precursor to United Way, the Community Chest.

After 10 years at Spelman and three as a professor at Emory University, Cole moved to Greensboro two years ago to head Bennett College at the urging of her friend, poet Maya Angelou.

Angelou, a member of Bennett’s board and a professor at Wake Forest University in nearby Winston-Salem, persuaded Cole to come out of retirement to help lead Bennett through its financial troubles.

“The school had a $3.8 million deficit, enrollment was falling, there were a lot of deferred maintenance projects around campus, and the school was on probation fiscally by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools,” Cole says.

Within two years, the school has become deficit-free through a vigorous fundraising campaign that has raised a record-high $1.1 million from 5,500 alumnae.

While at Spelman, Cole oversaw a six-year campaign that raised $113.8 million, including the largest gift ever to a historically black college, $37 million from the DeWitt Wallace/Readers Digest Fund.

Cole, the author of six books, wants to write again when she retires from Bennett in 2007.

“I want to write about friendships that cross the lines of race, sexual orientation and gender,” she says.

She collects African and African-American art, and enjoys listening to jazz, especially to her brother, John Betsch, a jazz drummer in Paris.

The mother of three sons and grandmother of a 15-year old girl, Cole also has a 16-year-old “little sister” named Maranda Smith through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in Atlanta.

During her one-year term as chair of United Way of America, Cole says, she plans to help the United Way better reach out to the diverse community, which it does not do enough of now.

No place in the U.S. right now is reaching out enough to the diverse population, she says.

“I grew up in the days of segregated water fountains, but there are days I wake up now, in 2004, and I think ‘Why are we still like this, with sexism, racism, heterosexism, religious bigotry and discrimination against age, physical abilities and class?’”

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