United Way's Jim Mullen turns lens to Summit County's challenges
Nov 22, 2015
Editor’s note: This is a recap of the Leadership Akron Alumni group's most recent event from its Leadership on Main series, which offers a monthly program featuring conversations with Akron’s civic and business leaders.
Akron community leaders got a chance to hear from the new head of United Way of Summit County, as Jim Mullen spoke at the Nov. 11 Leadership on Main event.
The group did not have to look far for this month’s speaker, as Mullen is in this year’s Leadership Akron class, the 32nd for the organization devoted to grooming the city’s future leaders.
Audience members learned that they have a compassionate man in a tough job working on behalf of their community, as Mullen summed up some of the best things about his job and some of the worst problems afflicting the city and its residents.
On that last point, Mullen saved some of the most alarming information for the end of his talk, which was a question-and-answer session with Mark Krohn, a partner with the Brouse McDowell law firm and a Leadership Akron alumnus. As Mullen talked about United Way’s efforts to fight “generational poverty” — when a family lives in poverty from one generation to the next — Krohn asked him what portion of Akron’s population currently live in poverty.
“We estimate, just in Akron proper, not Summit County – 82,000,” Mullen replied, to a few murmurs of surprise from the crowd inside the lobby of Canal Park, home of the RubberDucks, where the meeting was held. And it got a bit worse.
“In 2009, pre-economic downturn, there were 22,000 families — not people, but families — on food assistance in Summit County. In 2015, last month? Forty-seven thousand families. I do get emotional about this,” said Mullen, who had earlier discussed his tendency to sometimes tear up when talking about things dear to him.
Delivering dire statistics is part of the job for Mullen, who will be helping United Way of Summit County raise money. The organization recently set records, raising more than $12 million a year since 2013 for area nonprofits.
Mullen, who returned to Northeast Ohio in May to take the helm in Summit County after working with the United Way of Metropolitan Nashville, said his organization will be focused on better planning its spending so that its various initiatives are better aligned. It also will focus on addressing the area’s long-term needs and reversing some worrisome trends, such as increases in the city’s poverty rate.
“The metrics for success are going the other way, and there’s going to come a time when we have to make a decision: Do we want to try to find the world’s largest Band-Aid? Or do we actually want to solve the problem?” Mullen asked. “My vote is let’s go solve the problem – and I hope many of you feel the same way.”
It would be a mistake, though, to take Mullen’s focus on the area’s problems to mean he’s not happy to be here. Mullen said that working for the United Way in Northeast Ohio, where he still has family, is a dream job for him.
“This is a wonderful place. I could not imagine landing in a better place than Akron, Ohio, and Summit County,” he said.
But, he added, he also wants to see the community coalesce to address its problems, including by working with the United Way.
“We have to want to do this,” he told listeners.