Recharging United Way

By Larry Copenhaver

The world may be experiencing an energy crisis – but not the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona – not with Tony Penn running the show.

“Tony has just been a dynamo. He has re-energized the United Way, and he has – through great effort and energy – returned the organization and the campaign to a level of credibility,” said John Bremond, a board member. “He’s really a remarkable guy.” Bremond is president of investment firm Bremond Company and a retired KB Homes executive.

Penn was hired two summers ago as president and CEO of United Way.

“When Tony came to Tucson, he brought a whole new level of enthusiasm and professionalism and just revitalized the United Way. I like the respect he is garnering in the community. Everywhere you go, Tony is there. It’s amazing. But good Lord, when does the guy sleep?” said board member Daisy Jenkins, executive VP and chief administrator of human resources for Carondelet Health Network Systems.

United Way works with more than 70 nonprofit agencies to advance the common good of the more than 100,000 local residents they serve. The focus of United Way is education, income and health, said Penn, 56.

He served as senior executive of the YMCA of Greater San Antonio for eight years. Before that, Penn worked in the for-profit sector including 23 years with Teradyne Corporation. He’s also is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. Penn graduated from the Southwest Leadership program of the University of Arizona Eller College of Management. He also earned a degree from the University of Texas and the Executive Education program at Harvard Business School. He’s married to Linda Penn who serves as a judge pro tempore at Pima County Justice Court.

Jenkins said, “His drive to truly create an inclusive and high-performing organization is so incredibly evident.

But that’s not what Penn found in Tucson when he made the move from the neighborhoods of the River Walk to the Sonoran Desert.

“There were issues,” Penn explained, tiptoeing so as not to lay criticism of the prior regime that saw contributions fall short of goals and management problems that shed a negative light on the organization.

Penn called those issues the “elephant in the room.” He said, “You can’t shy away from the fact that we had issues. I’ve learned from my experience that when you have issues, don’t hide them. I defined the issues as the ‘elephant in the room’ so we could talk about them and solve them. Now we are way past the elephant in the room.

“During my first six months, I went to every place I could find to explain the role of United Way – even if only half a dozen people were willing to sit and listen to the plan of where United Way was headed,” he recalled.

The result?

“The community believes in the brand of the United Way. We, the Tucson community, restored confidence. And we were able to build on that brand and increase the value proposition for the community and our partners,” Penn said. “That value proposition is why the United Way, why the model for the United Way, can work very well – because we have restored best practices on how to make it work in a community.”

Recently, United Way announced that it reached and surpassed its 2011-12 campaign goal of $9.1 million.

“As the poverty rate continues to climb in Southern Arizona, United Way and our partner agencies are being called upon to provide even more help,” Penn said. “This has been a remarkable year – thanks to the extreme generosity of local corporations and individuals.”

That’s what happens when you have the right person at the helm, said board member Judy Rich, chair of last year’s fundraising campaign and president and CEO of Tucson Medical Center. United Way needs Tony Penn.

“You’ll never find anyone with more passion for the work of serving our community. He has incredible heart and clarity about how we can improve our services,” Rich said. “I’ve seen him make decisions and give direction about where we should be putting our energy in the United Way. When you are resource constrained, you are always making decisions about the highest and best use, and I’ve watched him do that.

“It’s a great talent that he has. Tony works with a broad base of stakeholders, as does Tucson Medical Center. We are aligned. We have the same goals.”

“If I were giving grades, I would definitely give Tony an ‘A,’ ” said Jason Ott, board member and public affairs officer for Citi. “He came into a difficult situation at the tail end of a difficult economy, and I don’t think that, reputationally speaking, things were going very well for us at the United Way. It was disheartening. Our staff had never worked so hard and programs were successful – but we came up short in a couple of key areas.

“There was a void of leadership, and he jumped in there,” Ott continued. “He was Tucson’s busiest person. He knew the value of that connective tissue for the United Way throughout Tucson. Morning, day and night, I know for a fact, he was meeting with people. He got neutral people to be cheerleaders, and he brought back some people who had moved away from the mission over time. I think the benefit is a stronger United Way.”

Ott credited Penn for quickly joining the Tucson Metro Chamber. “I think that sent a strong signal to Tucson business leaders. This nonprofit was not hiding in the shadows of some bad press and ill will. He was out there making decisions and driving the United Way mission forward.”

Never underestimate the value of a strong United Way for economic development, noted Michael Varney, president and CEO of the chamber. “There are companies that look for a good Untied Way if they are going to take employees to a new community. It’s a metric by which the community is judged.

“A good United Way makes it possible to serve those who drop through the safety net. And when you return people to being productive citizens, there are positive turnarounds,” Varney said. “A good United Way is important.” And that’s what Tucson now offers.

“Tony is held in very high esteem for taking the United Way to a much different and much higher performance. I’ve never heard a negative word about Tony. When Tony speaks people listen,” Varney said.

Though Penn exudes confidence and is well aware of his leadership qualities, there is one thing missing from his skills – a good handicap in golf. That’s slipped away from lack of practice, the old “use it or lose it cliché.”

“I’ve had very little time to play golf since I’ve been here. I wish I had more time to play,” he said. After two years of rigorous campaigning to rebuild the United Way Penn figured he and his wife would take lessons to get their skills back.

“I recently cancelled that instruction because Linda and I wouldn’t have time to attend,” he said, shaking his head. “I think that if I could break 100 it would be a good day. And that’s a wish.”

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