Julie Russell on Community Impact and Innovation

Julie Russell on Community Impact and Innovation

Julie Russell constantly asks the big questions: Why do we do what we do? How do we make sure we’re doing it well?

As Chief Impact Officer at United Way of Greater St. Louis, she works with a talented team of staff and volunteers to create systems, strategies and a learning culture to help local people live their best possible lives.

We sat down with Julie to learn what drives her work and how United Way ensures it remains innovative, collaborative and effective.


What is your motivation for doing this work?

I went to school to do psychology. I spent the first 10 years of my career doing direct practice – seven of those years at a United Way supported agency working with kids and adults with chronic mental illness.

Part of that passion for me came from having a brother who took his own life the summer after my freshman year of college. He had struggled with depression and anxiety for many years. This began my journey and passion for helping people.

In my career as a therapist, I always wondered, ‘Am I really helping my clients? How do I know?’ What drives me in my role now is being able to invest in programs that we know work, being able to give families and individuals access to quality programs and breaking down the stigma around seeking help. It’s such a privilege for me to do this work and to be able to help people like my brother. I wasn’t able to help him, but I’m now able to help people like him.

How has your time working at a United Way supported agency informed your work at United Way?

I feel very privileged that I was able to be boots-on-the-ground for 10 years. It helps me truly know what it takes to do that work – the strategy that’s involved, the people management, the discipline and that culture of learning that’s required. I’ve been there.

It also helps me know how important the agencies’ voices are and how important the community voice is. And that’s why we are so intentional about including agencies in what we do.

What is community impact, and how does United Way measure it?

The way that I would define community impact is our ability to create results. When we think about results, it’s really about prolonged results that are measurable and financially sustainable for the people and the causes we serve.

Outcomes come from the people providing services to the community. That person who’s helping that kid, family or individual needs to be equipped with best practices. You also need to have a strong organization, a quality organization that buys into data, collaboration and innovation. That organization and that individual both need to have the capacity and the capability. That’s why, in addition to funding our member agencies, we have intensive series of capacity building and support.

Outcomes matter now more than ever. The stakes are high because we’re responsible for people’s lives. In addition, resources are tight, demand for services has increased, and the issues facing our community are more and more complex. By measuring outcomes, we can focus resources to achieve the greatest return on investment and build our collective impact.

Why are innovation and collaboration important?

Measuring outcomes is to improve, to get better. And getting better means innovating – changing the way you do things to get better results.

We have some complex issues in our community that need to be addressed. We, as an organization, must be agile. We must have that culture of learning and a growth mindset in order to create the conditions for innovation.

We know that no one organization can do it alone. We know organizations that can coordinate, collaborate, and partner effectively are much better equipped to solve big societal problems. When we leverage our collective genius and learn from one another, we have a greater chance at achieving lasting results for our community. And that’s the beauty of collaboration.

How can community members come together to foster innovation and collaboration? What does that look like?

It’s kind of like setting the table – creating a space where diverse voices and points of view are welcomed and heard. Deep listening and learning from the voice of our community is critical.

What excites you most about the St. Louis region’s future?

I’m excited about leveraging our assets and the innovation in St. Louis to come together to create equitable outcomes and to be a model for the country. One way we’re doing this right now is through our Community Needs Assessment, which will capture our community’s voice to help identify our most pressing needs. Looking ahead to Community Investment 2020, we’ll have better alignment of investment, needs and outcomes, while at the same time allowing us to be more agile and strategic.

Leading by example with regard to impact, innovation, and collaboration excites me.

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James Taylor
James Taylor