Leading United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona
By Loni Nannini
Tony Penn is a master of the turnaround.
His tenure as president and CEO of United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona proves it.
Penn joined United Way in 2010 when the organization was faced with management problems and money woes. He immediately began rebuilding and re-engaging the public–an effort that has since led to 80-plus partnerships created with community service agencies and resulted with 2020-21 Fiscal year revenues in excess of $24 million.
An impressive background in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors has buoyed Penn’s success.
He credits his achievements to the discipline acquired as a cryptologic technician in the U.S. Air Force, combined with a skill set attained as a principal engineer and regional manager at Teradyne, a leading supplier of automatic test equipment used to test complex electronics used in consumer electronics.
Those credentials were enhanced by nine years as VP and chief development officer of YMCA of Greater San Antonio. Indeed, he beat out 185 applicants to helm the United Way here.
“In for-profit business, I learned to create shareholder value, meet quarterly metrics, manage multimillion dollar budgets and build relationships,” he said. “When I retired from that phase, I went to the next chapter with non-profits, where I use all of those skills. I call that, ‘my transition from success to significance,’ and this phase has been the greatest work of my life.”
When he came to Tucson, Penn was challenged with rebuilding an agency that was plagued by dwindling workplace giving and an erosion of United Way reserve funds to assist local charities. A key building block was restoring trust with the community, he said.
“We had experienced a bump in the road like all businesses do, particularly those that have been around for as long as the United Way,” Penn said. “We overcame that by being a community that highly valued United Way. We just needed to see trust and leadership restored, and all I did was bridge a gap and share with the community that United Way of Tucson is a valuable asset worthy of their trust.”
Penn’s strategy for success included an emphasis on “The Four Ps”— People, Performance, Professionalism, and Passion—along with implementation and on-going analysis of data-driven metrics, a commitment to transparency and diversification of revenue streams.
“Today, we have a complex revenue model inclusive of major gifts, grant funding from local and national foundations, government contracts, the annual workplace campaign and endowments. That has helped us to strengthen our United Way together,” Penn said.
Another benchmark of success is the institution’s “collective impact,” which is measured through the people served regionally each year. It has increased by more than 80 percent between 2015 and 2020. “That gives me a great deal of personal joy and satisfaction,” he said.
Also, the fact that philanthropist MacKenzie Scott donated $10 million to the agency in 2020, after a rigorous review, also speaks volumes to the integrity of United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona. It’s the single largest donation received by the organization in its history.
Penn’s philosophy about philanthropy is simple: We all have a responsibility to give back, whether through time, talent, money, or all three. “The great Muhammad Ali once said, ‘doing something for others is the rent we pay for our stay here on earth.’ I couldn’t say it better,” Penn said.
Now, as United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona celebrates 100 years, one goal tops his bucket list– sustainability in the next century. The agency is building toward a $25 million endowment to do just that.
“A great institution that has made a difference to so many people over 100 years should not be starting over every year,” he said. “The $25 million Centennial Endowment Fund will create sustainability to take us into the next 100 years by covering annual operating costs to free up revenue for other critical needs designated by the board of directors,” Penn said.