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United Way CEO: ‘I don’t want to go back to normal’

April 28, 2020

By Michelle Braun, president and CEO, United Way of Northeast Florida


Michelle Braun


I don’t want to go back to normal.

I am ready to end sheltering in place when it’s safe to do so. I’m ready to see our awesome United Way team. I am ready to spend time with family and friends. And yes, I am more than ready to end the constant video calls.

But I don’t want to go back to what we called “normal.”

Normal means half a million people in Northeast Florida struggling to make ends meet every day. Normal means many children are not entering school prepared to learn. Normal means grandparents and retirees having to make the difficult decision to pay for food or pay for medication. Normal means our homeless population goes unsheltered and often unfed.

We are all craving “normal” right now. But I’d like to propose a new normal.


We’re all in this together

Pivotal moments in life have a way of giving us pause, encouraging introspection and helping us remember there’s so much to be thankful for – and so much more we can do.

The COVID-19 pandemic is indeed such a pivotal moment. But it’s an even more extraordinary one because millions of people are experiencing it together.

At United Way of Northeast Florida, “together” is all we know. It is our model – we connect, people, resources and ideas – but more importantly, it is our passion.

Every day since 1924, we have not wavered in our commitment to uniting the right solutions with the right community partners to fight whatever issue is facing Northeast Florida. This has never changed and will never change.

Because we’re all in this together.


Nonprofits challenged more than ever before

Now, as we face COVID-19, many nonprofits are incredibly overburdened. With the exacerbated needs of more than half a million people struggling to make ends meet, we are all seeing a significant depletion of resources, funding disruptions, program derailments and, simply put, staff exhaustion.

United Way is not immune to these challenges.

Recently, my colleague and United Way Worldwide CEO Brian Gallagher shared a message with our team members, who, since early March, have worked furiously to help Northeast Florida navigate through this economic and emotional wake of COVID-19.

Brian reminded us United Way was created out of crisis over 100 years ago after migration to cities for employment began taking a toll on our health and well-being. At the time, health and human service organizations were, for the most part, nonexistent. United Way helped make many of the services that exist today possible.

The good news and bad news is United Way, nationally and in Northeast Florida, has navigated many crises in our storied history. The Great Depression. Civil Rights injustices. Wars. Hurricanes. The AIDS epidemic. These crises happened on national and international scales, but we felt the effects here locally – right here in our schools, in our hospitals, in our neighborhoods, in our homes and in our living rooms.

Each time, though, United Way learns to do more and do better. We must. We know response must be strong and immediate, which is why with generous funders, courageous nonprofit and foundation partners, and our staff working remotely, we ensured Florida’s First Coast Relief Fund was ready. To date, with our Relief Fund partners, we have raised $3.5 million for COVID-19 response.


Looking forward to the ‘new normal’ – #United4Jax

We also know with great crisis can come great opportunity. As we learn to connect, work and think differently, we should also learn to invest in and support each other differently.

If you are a first responder, we thank you. If you are social-distancing and wearing a mask when in public, we thank you. And for those able to make a donation to United Way, we also thank you.

This is our challenge together and our duty together as we re-envision what Northeast Florida can be. We challenge ourselves and you to really “live united” – and be #United4Jax.

Next week, we’re joining nonprofits across the world for a special #GivingTuesdayNow, aimed to model the successful Giving Tuesday that occurs every holiday season following Thanksgiving.

#GivingTuesdayNow is meant to help our nonprofit community continue to deliver their services in this unprecedented time. This global day of giving and unity will take place Tuesday, May 5, as an emergency response to the unprecedented need caused by COVID-19.

We hope you’ll envision a new, better normal with us – and make a gift to United Way of Northeast Florida on May 5 to help us achieve it.

Together, #United4Jax, we’ll get through this. Well wishes, and all my best to you and yours.