At first, Brian Thomas, president and CEO of AAA Akron Auto Club, eased into his increasing involvement with various nonprofit organizations, including United Way of Summit County.
“The emerging class from Leadership Akron is always fodder for board nominations,” he says, chuckling.
However, his tone changes as he talks about the moment his mounting responsibility was forged into a driving urge to advocate for others who need help being heard.
“It was the morning of 9-11, and I was leaving my board orientation for the Victim Assistance Program when the planes hit the towers,” Brian says, pausing as he recalled the day. “It was such a beautiful morning that day, if you remember. Just this beautiful, clear blue sky—and everybody’s feeling so good in Akron when that happens. Then this happens, and you think, ‘Things can change so quickly in the world.’”
Having already spent the morning with the Victim Assistance Program, immersed in that perspective—that life-altering change can happen to anyone at any moment—on the local level, Brian found himself, like many, stunned by the global impact of such tragedy.
“That was something that woke me up to service. It made me aware that anybody can be a victim anytime, and it is important to have programs that serve these needs,” he says. “You don’t know when you’ll be one of the people who is a recipient of those services.”
Despite the catalytic nature of that day, Brian didn’t choose a life of service because he was suddenly armed with this almost instant empathy. In fact, he says he was probably “born into it” because his father, Ray Thomas, was the executive director of the ARC and had an office in the United Way of Summit County building. As a kid, Brian grew up going to Camp Christopher, which was operated by the Catholic Young Organization where his father also worked when it was, for a while, a United Way affiliated organization.
“Our parents,” Brian says, “brought us up with a sense of servant leadership—serve others, not yourself.”
Brian has been a long-time member of United Way’s Leadership Society which recognizes annual gifts of $1,000 or more to United Way (alone or combined with the gift from a spouse). When he joined the United Way board several years back, Brian’s understanding of the organization’s challenges and opportunities came into sharper focus. This rang especially true when he served on the organization’s allocation committee where he had the chance to help decide where United Way funding would be directed. There, he got to see up-close how other organizations operate. He says he finds it exciting to watch new ventures take off and succeed. It explains some of his appreciation for organizations that take innovative approaches to their missions. Likewise, as chair of United Way’s development fund committee, Brian looked for groups that collaborated with others to avoid duplication of services. Still, even with those standards, making those decisions proved difficult under United Way’s old model which directed money to agencies instead of programs.
“A lot of worthwhile things got left out when we were funding only agencies,” Brian says.
Brian was admittedly reticent when United Way began to move away from funding agencies to funding programs.
“At first I wasn't a big fan of that, but I've really grown to understand and appreciate the benefits of doing it the way it is now. I want to help out with things, like, poverty and education, but I'm not really involved with agencies that directly do that. When I give undirected dollars to the United Way, I'm counting on United Way to determine where it's going to be best used. At the same time, being able to give through United Way to agencies and programs I care a lot about allows me flexibility and gives me the chance to do it quite easily through payroll deductions. So I can donate to four or five separate agencies that I want to give to, plus what United Way deems most in need or most appropriate and it all just comes out at once."
In the end, Brian believes in the new United Way community impact approach because it has a greater impact on society by taking a broader view of the problems in education, income and health that plague society. That’s part of the reason he’s remained so loyal to United Way.
“It’s a venerated brand,” he says, “and it’s hard to turn your back on something that is such a part of the fabric of our society.”
Brian has even committed himself to service in his free time. He is a 20-year member of the five-piece rock band, Freez-R-Burn, in which he plays with his two brothers. The band routinely plays benefit concerts to raise money for good causes, big and small.
“We enjoy playing music but we’re fortunate we don’t have to make a living at it,” he laughs.