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Uniting People Is the Way to Success

NONPROFITS: United Way, San Diego CEO Nancy Sasaki Shares Insights

SAN DIEGO – Nancy Sasaki has been President and CEO of United Way of San Diego County since 2018.

A single mother and member of the AANHPI community, Sasaki worked in Austin, Texas, San Diego, Hawaii and then Los Angeles before returning to San Diego, which she called “great for my professional journey.”

Sasaki grew up in Austin and discovered an interest in health and science in eighth grade. Initially, Sasaki said she thought she wanted to be a lab tech – but that’s not where she landed.

In undergraduate school, she studied health and biology, and obtained a teaching certificate at the University of Texas at Austin. She continued her studies and earned a Masters in Community Health at the same university.

Nancy Sasaki
President & CEO
United Way of San Diego County

“As I looked for a job in my field, I was hired by Planned Parenthood as a health educator,” Sasaki recalled. “I thought I would work there for a year, build my networks, learn more about jobs in the field, and then move on after a year or so. I ended up staying with Planned Parenthood for 30 years.”

She had a short tenure working at the American Civil Liberties Union that she said proved to her that the skills she mastered were transferable, but said “my heart was still with Planned Parenthood,” where she spent the next 10 years.

From there, Sasaki became the Executive Director at Alliance Healthcare Foundation, providing funds to nonprofit organizations for health and wellness throughout San Diego and Imperial counties.

“Leaving there, I wanted to continue my work in the community and make a difference in the lives of the people we served,” and eventually landed at the United Way San Diego, Sasaki said.

In some ways, she says, her career shows a full-circle experience in education work.
“Although I never became a teacher, that initial interest and my professional journey have brought me back to having an impact in education for the children in our community,” she said.

The San Diego Business Journal recently caught up with Sasaki to gain insight in how to run a successful nonprofit.

How did you get to where you are today? What can you share about your journey and experiences that can offer lessons and inspiration?

Many times there were others who saw more in me than I did. They offered me various changes and promotions that continued to teach me and challenge my skills. Especially in Austin, as the health educator, budget cuts required me to also be a clinic counselor. From there I was asked to join the fundraising team, then work with the VP of client services and lead internal teams and finally to be the interim CEO for a short period. Learning how the various departments needed to work together and how integrally linked they were, provided a well-rounded view of how an organization runs. So I would say go with what others offer you and try it out. Also, don’t be afraid of something new or get too comfortable with what you know, but challenge yourself to use your skills in other places.

What can you tell us about United Way San Diego County?

What I’d like people to know about UWSD is that we are a 100-plus-year-old organization that has always responded to the needs of the community. Those needs change and our programs in education and economic mobility are fairly new. What we see is an opportunity to be the partner people turn to ensure children, youth, adults and families have the support they need to achieve educational success and financial security. We do this through our education programs: United for Literacy and STEAM to Careers, as well as our economic mobility programs: Earned Income Tax Credit Coalition (over 40 partners), SparkPoint (a financial literacy and coaching program), and BankOn (a coalition of partners working with unbanked and underbanked individuals and families).

We believe the focus on education will set up our children and young people for a thriving future. At the same time, we believe there are economic opportunities and resources that can strengthen and support those working to do more than survive in San Diego County.

We also create opportunities for people to give back in a variety of ways. Of course, financial support is always welcomed!

We also support a Day of Giving where people throughout the county volunteer at various nonprofits throughout the county. Individuals and teams can go out and give back doing everything from cleaning up garden areas, packing backpacks with school supplies or hygiene kits, to sorting prom dresses and beach clean ups. Although this happens on one day, we also create these opportunities throughout the year.

What challenges have you face as a female, single mother and person of color, and how did you overcome them?

At the time I became single with a 3-year-old daughter, I determined that I would do what I needed to do to be able to provide for her myself. Her dad has been wonderful over the years. When I was developing leadership skills, the main way I overcame the challenges was to prove myself. I did the work, I was professional, I asked questions, I listened to others and I spoke up for others when needed. But I attribute a lot of what I was able to accomplish because others saw my work and believed in me and what I could do and gave me the opportunity to grow. That description of me as a ‘female, single mother and person of color’ usually didn’t come with ‘successful CEO.’ I didn’t let those characteristics determine my path.

What is United Way doing to support our community and the focus of your work on the community’s needs?

In addition to what I shared (above), UWSD also adapts to immediate needs. At the start of the pandemic, we launched a Worker Assistance Initiative to provide funds for people who had lost their job or had their hours substantially cut. These funds provided for utility and phone bill payments, rent, mortgage and other immediate needs. We distributed over $2 million in six months.

More recently, we distributed $5,200 in gift cards to people impacted by the floods. We are also working to provide education supports to students, also impacted by the floods, to ensure they are able to keep up with their schoolwork. In partnership with San Diego Gas & Electric, we will be distributing an additional $180,000 to flood victims. All of this work is conducted based on the needs of the community.

When not responding to emergencies, we strive to work in partnership with others in education, specifically ensuring kids reach third grade reading proficiency by the end of third grade. This is an important milestone because kids who do not reach this milestone are four times more likely to drop out of high school and three times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.

For older youth, adults and families, we strive to give them options for employment in a STEAM career and financial literacy and coaching. All these efforts are aimed at supporting them to be able to thrive in the country’s most expensive city. By seeing the possibility of a STEAM career, increasing income, increasing savings, increasing their credit score, and/or decreasing their debt, we help set them on a path to thrive.

What do you see as some of the greatest needs of the AANHPI (Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander) community?

The communities in which we work serve all the people. We know that in historically under-resourced communities, the need is basically the same, regardless of ethnicity. People who are unable to make enough to be above the ‘Real Cost Measure’ will struggle to put or keep a roof over their heads, food on the table, pay their bills and have success in their educational goals.

In education, the statistics show that the API students are doing pretty well and reaching third grade reading proficiency. However, these reports typically don’t provide a further delineation based on ethnicity within the API numbers.

Why is it difficult to understand the needs of the AANHPI community?

Most of the time the reports do not provide a breakdown of the API statistics. The information isn’t collected and therefore it isn’t possible to get that level of detail. This identification – AANHPI – is also fairly new. In some ethnic groups, they may not know how to identify themselves in the surveys and reports. This has been a historical problem in surveys, reports and research.

What can you share with others, including those in the AAHNPI community, about how to have a successful career journey?

I’m not an expert in knowing what to do, but what worked for me was to be open to others guiding me, knowing and learning where my interests were, listening to the advice and feedback from trusted sources, building my networks and finding champions. When I talk to young people who are just starting their careers, I also advise them to try to focus where their interests lie and on what energizes them.

What are the motivating factors behind your leadership at United Way? What drives your passion?

I wanted this job because I wanted to continue to work in the community. I love jigsaw puzzles, and I see my role to be very similar to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. First I put together the outer edge – the boundary so to speak. Then I start to fill in the picture, maybe grouping colors, maybe looking for the pieces that are identifiable in one part of the picture. At the end, you have a very complete picture of your end results.

I always wanted to be in a position where my work and my decisions had a positive impact in the community. I wanted our work to make a difference, even if I wasn’t the one who was hands-on in the work. I believe everyone has incredible potential but the system fails them along the way. At the end of the day, I want to know I did something that helps them break through those systemic challenges, even it is going to take a while to realize it.

What are some of the greatest challenges facing United Way in San Diego?

One of our greatest challenges is ensuring the community knows what we are doing and why. Many may recognize the name – Untied Way, but even if they do know the name they might not know what we are doing.

So getting the word out about our work and our successes is important. Next would be funding. Because of the nature of philanthropy, we are constantly raising money to do our work. Many grants are for one year, and don’t provide enough funds to cover the back office operations of the organization. Individual donations become a key component.

Funding enables us to create the programs and success in those programs enables us to obtain more funding. And taking care of our most valuable resource – our people. We strive to be competitive with market pay and the cost of inflation presents a challenge in this environment.

How has UWSD overcome obstacles in the past?

There has usually been a strategy to implement to overcome obstacles. Maybe there’s a gap in the services being provided, maybe there’s new funding opportunities to explore, reviewing how we are fulfilling the community needs and being vigilant about opportunities.

There’s a delicate balance between saying no and exploring opportunities when faced with obstacles.

What do you see trending in your industry?

There has been more focus on government funding to greatly increase services. Housing, mental health and the environment are rising to the top of community concerns. Also, developing a workforce that can meet these challenges is critical to our future.

United Way of San Diego County
FOUNDED: 1920
CEO: Nancy Sasaki
HEADQUARTERS: 4699 Murphy Canyon Road, San Diego
BUSINESS: Nonprofit
REVENUE: $8.4 million (2022)
EMPLOYEES: 40
WEBSITE: uwsd.org
CONTACT: 858-492-2000 or info@UWSD.org
SOCIAL IMPACT: UWSD partners countywide with school districts, businesses, the public sector, nonprofits, philanthropy and social services to support early childhood success, youth success, and family stability.
NOTABLE: United Way says its challenge is making systemic changes that will reach hundreds of thousands of children and families.

 

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