Amanda McMillian takes helm at United Way of Greater Houston at dire time

Katherine Feser

Amanda McMillian jumped right into her new role as president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Houston on May 1.

McMillian, who most recently served as executive vice president and general counsel of Anadarko Petroleum Corp. prior to the company being purchased by Occidental Petroleum, oversaw the publicly traded exploration and production company’s legal, human resources, real estate and facilities functions.

The Huntsville native began her career at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in 1998 where she practiced corporate and securities law, . McMillian joined Anadarko, which had been a client of the firm’s, in late 2004.

In her new role, McMillian will oversee the implementation of the organization’s strategic plan, developed under the leadership of Anna Babin, who remains with the United Way as a senior adviser to assist with the transition. The Second Century Vision plan focuses on serving the working poor – people with jobs who don’t make enough to pay their bills and get ahead — and families living below the poverty level.

McMillian spoke with the Chronicle about her plans.

Q: You were general counsel for one of the largest energy companies of the world. What made you want to take this job?

A: When the acquisition was completed back in August, I really wanted to take some time to reset, certainly spend some more time with my family, get some sleep and really think deeply about what I wanted to do next. Honestly, this sounds a little bit cheesy, but my heart was definitely calling me to do something more mission oriented. I really wanted to serve the community. My family and I have been here in Houston over 17 years. This is our home. We wanted to stay in Houston and figure out how to help make Houston a better place for everyone who lives here. I was already exploring that when I learned about this opportunity. I was with Anadarko Petroleum almost 15 years. We were one of the United Way’s largest corporate campaigns. With each campaign, I learned more about what the United Way did and why it is so important.

Q: The job has certainly become more challenging since you began looking into the position last fall. How do you feel about the changes?

A: I did not get that moment of rest to get my sea legs that I might have been hoping for, but was well aware of and very supportive of all the incredible work United Way has done over the years, whether it was Katrina, Harvey or other natural disasters and now COVID-19. These recovery processes take a long time. I knew that from my experience working with the United Way in the past, so I knew that would be part of the job. I wasn’t too worried about having to step in at this point, but certainly interesting timing with that combined with the pressure on the energy sector.

Q: A lot of your donations comes from companies. How do you think the current economic environment is going to impact your revenue and what are you doing to prepare?

A: There is incredible stress on the greater Houston economy right now, with both the pandemic and energy prices. While we are planning for that pressure, acknowledging that pressure, figuring out how to manage that pressure, what gives us hope is all the incredible assets we have here at the United Way. Houston is one of the most generous communities I’ve ever been a part of. I don’t want to be blindly optimistic, I think that would be naïve to do in this situation, but I think with all of us coming together and understanding the urgency of what we need to do, we can get through this and we can provide the help and support we need across the community.

Q: How did your experience in the corporate world prepare you for this position?

A: One of the reasons I moved from a law firm into the corporate world was the dynamic of being able to be more involved in strategic planning and decision making. Not just getting the call to execute on a project or a transaction once that decision had been made, but really getting to dig into company strategy, what our path is, what we should do, why we should do it, why that’s the best answer. You go through that same process here in terms of assessing needs across our community and thinking about how we’re going to address those needs.

Q: What’s your annual budget?

A: It was set at $64 million before the pandemic and downturn in the energy sector. As with all businesses and nonprofits in this climate, what was originally budgeted may not be applicable, so we continue to be prudent and thoughtful in our ongoing financial projections and in managing expenses.

Q: How does the United Way of Greater Houston compare other United Way organizations nationally?

A: We currently rank around 4th right now in terms of both revenues and the size of the communities we serve.

Q: If you must trim spending, how will you go about it? Will there be cuts to programs across the board or will you drop certain programs?

A: It would depend on the specific needs we were trying to address at the time. I would expect it to be a multifaceted approach, so I would work closely with the leadership team here as well as our board and really just look across every major category of our budget.

Q: How many employees do you have?

A: There are 194 full- and part-time employees; 78 of those employees are staff for the 2-1-1 Texas/United Way Helpline.

Q: Do you foresee the United Way organization having any furloughs or layoffs?

A: That’s certainly not a decision we’ve made at this point. We need to do everything we can to make sure we’re well equipped to help families across the Houston area. We’ll just have to keep evaluating the budget and work closely to assess those needs and what we can do to execute on those over time.

Q: What is the greatest need in the community right now?

A: If you look at the activity that’s coming through to our 2-1-1 Texas/United Way Helpline, the volume of calls is significant. Just since March 1, we’ve seen almost 65,000 calls through that help line. The top calls for that are rent-payment assistance, utilities/electricity assistance and then also food needs. We’ve partnered up with the Greater Houston Community Foundation and we’re leading the Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund. We’ve raised over $15.4 million already to help individuals and families across the community with those urgent needs.

Q: What can you tell me about the Second Century Vision strategic plan?

A: Any good organization always needs to be re-evaluating its mission and thinking about what it does and how it does it so we can be better at what we do. We launched this “Thrive” effort and in 2018 produced this report with 10 years of data in it. We looked at market conditions, community needs, the Kinder Institute Houston Area Survey, 2-1-1 data and we really thought about the best way for us to leverage our special place and what we can do to really provide an opportunity for every person and family in our community to thrive. 

Q: What came out of that assessment?

A: The first part of it is that safety net we always provide, helping people with urgent basic needs. The second part of that is a more sustainable long-term path where the United Way is able to leverage its position in the nonprofit community to coordinate this integrated web of support and provide this path for individuals to build their own path to financial independence.

Q: What does that entail?

A: That includes a lot of things. This includes financial planning. It includes job training or upskilling, so for the person who is working three jobs and struggling, we can help them find one job that pays more than all of those three jobs put together so they can have a little more balance in their life and maybe can save and someday buy a home. It provides tax planning assistance. It provides out-of-school and after school care and tutoring for their kids so we can set their kids up for academic success.

All those things that we need along the way to have a more stable and successful life. With this vision, we have the ability to bring all these amazing partner agencies together to leverage and amplify what they do. That’s really what pulled me to this. That potential for exponential impact that I think we can achieve through this vision.

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