UNITED WAY HISTORY – A CENTURY OF SERVICE
Five caring individuals began to dream of greater service to others. They envisioned one organization that could include and unify many other organizations and, in the process, strengthen each of them.
The concept proved worthy, and infectious. And 37 years after that initial effort arose amid the Rockies, it reached Tampa.
On Jan. 10, 1924, a group of civic leaders gathered at Tampa’s city hall and established the Tampa Welfare League. The original organization included 16 agencies: Boy Scouts, Children’s Home, Girl Scouts, Humane Society, Milk Fund, Old People’s Home, Red Cross, Salvation Army, Seaman’s Institute, Tampa Urban League, Traveler’s Aid Society, United Charities, WCTU Day Nursery, YMCA, YMHA, and YWCA. The first President of the Welfare League was C.C. Nott.
The goal for the first year’s fundraising campaign, known as the Community Chest, was $179,011.37. Mayor Perry G. Wall was the first General Campaign Chairman, and the slogan for the first drive was “Suppose Nobody Cared.” All campaign proceeds were divided among the above agencies, with the exception of $30,000, which was allocated to the building fund for the Old People’s Home.
In the earliest days of the league, organizers used a number of unique methods to raise funds, including having women collect donations on horseback.
LED BY A WOMAN
While Nott and Wall proved pivotal, a woman, Ruth W. Atkinson, served as the first executive director of the welfare league. Described in media accounts as a diminutive powerhouse of thought and energy, Atkinson built a reputation as a pioneering social worker. She led the welfare league with an eye towards caring for all, including Tampa’s emerging African-American population and the growing number of indigent residents.
Her words in 1924 still ring true today.
“We have formed a habit, and rightly so, of boasting of the finer points in our city’s life,” Atkinson said. “We are proud of the many civic improvements which we have brought about in the last few years. Can we in the face of these boasts and in view of this pride, neglect to support what is unquestionably one of our greatest assets?”
The caring members of our community heeded Atkinson’s words and met the moment, turning a fledgling idea into a social force for transformational change. The welfare league repeatedly found ways to inspire those who could give to help those who couldn’t.
As we approach a century of success in giving community members the freedom to rise, the legacy initiated by Atkinson and those who followed in her footsteps continues to bring about lasting community impact in our five-county region.
THE GROWTH YEARS (1930-1950)
Over the years, the name Tampa Welfare League was dropped and the organization was simply known as the Community Chest. In 1956, the Community Chest became the United Fund, and in 1976 the United Fund became The United Way of Greater Tampa. Finally, in 1993, the organization changed its name to United Way of Hillsborough County, Inc.
In Pinellas County during 1932, the Community Chest was created with the goal of organizing and funding a coordinated plan to meet the social needs of the community. The original participating agencies were Salvation Army, YMCA, YWCA, Boy Scouts of America and the Florence Crittenton Home. The first year’s campaign goal was $30,000.
Despite the prevailing chaotic economic conditions, (President Roosevelt declared a federal banking holiday the day the first fundraising campaign kicked off), the campaign raised $20,277.42. Local attorney Allen C. Grazier acted as General Chairman of the campaign. Through the war years, the annual campaign was combined with the United Defense Fund, and slogans referred to supporting the community and the home front.
EXPANDING ON BOTHS SIDES OF THE BAY (1950-2002)
In 1956, the St. Petersburg Community Chest joined the South Pinellas County Chapter of the American Red Cross to form the South Pinellas United Givers. This organization joined the Clearwater and Dunedin funds in 1971 and formed the Pinellas United Fund. The next year, the Fund merged with the Community Services Council to form what became known as the United Way of Pinellas County.
TAMPA BAY (2002 – 2012)
In July 2002, the United Ways of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties combined operations to better serve the Tampa Bay region. The new United Way of Tampa Bay funded nearly 70 Community Partner agencies located throughout the two-county area. In its first year of operation, United Way-funded programs helped one of every three people in Tampa Bay, totaling more than 600,000 people.
UNITED WAY SUNCOAST (2012-2023)
In July of 2012, United Way of Tampa Bay and United Way of Sarasota consolidated creating United Way Suncoast — representing a four-county region including DeSoto, Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Sarasota counties.
Suzanne McCormick became CEO of United Way Suncoast in 2014 and helped the organization expand its reach across the region. She cultivated growth, increased community impact, and led a new strategic plan to break the cycle of generational poverty. She also served as the chair of United Way of Florida.
In 2017, United Way Suncoast and United Way of Manatee County merged to expand the United Way Suncoast footprint to five counties: Manatee, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Sarasota and DeSoto.
The United Way Suncoast tabbed Jessica Muroff to fill the CEO void when McCormick moved on to become U.S. President of United Way Worldwide. Muroff immediately convened board members and stakeholders to convene a new strategic vision that is moving the organization into the next decade.
United Way Suncoast has evolved and changed dramatically over the years, largely because the organization is a flexible system that responds and adapts to changing social conditions and social needs. Yet the concept behind the first joint-fund drive in Denver remains valid today. There’s still a need to amplify United Way Suncoast’s efforts and multiply its success stories. Although the challenges that spurred Tampa to unite in 1924 are far different, the collective will that proved to be the best way to help the most people in 1924 remains viable today. And necessary.