End of an era – United Way’s Paul Didier retiring after 38 years at the helm

By: Marissa Nall, Staff Writer | April 8-14, 2016

United Way of Santa Barbara County President and CEO Paul Didier poses with children participating in the Fun in the Sun summer learning program in this file photo.

Paul Didier has witnessed a lot of change in his 38 years as president and CEO of the United Way of Santa Barbara County.

“I wanted United Way to be more of a responsive, innovative sort of leading-edge organization that would use research and best practices to become the way I looked at Santa Barbara,” said the executive, who is retiring at the end of this year.

Dedicated to a career in the nonprofit sector, he sought to build United Way up to match the caliber he saw in Santa Barbara businesses and culture. The structure of the organization — what he described as “a voluntary association of charitable entities” — allowed it to be nimble.

“I saw that as an opportunity to sort of breed and take advantage of the entrepreneurial opportunities that structure allowed,” Didier said. “For me, that was important.”

The changes he made were critical to the philanthropic landscape, said Brian Sarvis, former superintendent of the Santa Barbara Unified School District and a United Way board member for 15 years.

“Not too much changes. But he was able to really bring people together to focus on critical issues and critical needs in the community,” Sarvis said. “That’s a powerful thing.”

When Didier got his start, the United Way office was little more than 500 square feet with cracked linoleum floors and a bare light bulb hanging from an exposed wire in the ceiling. It had only two employees, including his predecessor, and barely enough money to hire him.

Only a couple years later, the board would choose him, at not quite 30 years old, to replace the outgoing CEO. Today, it owns its 8,000 square foot office and will be expanding its popular Learning Center this year. The staff numbers more than 20 year-round employees — including credentialed teachers who make it the only nonprofit in Southern California licensed to supply Supplemental Education Services to schools.

Didier was at the helm when the organization changed from simply gap-filling the budgets other nonprofits to providing direct services. What in 1975 provided funds to 112 charities and groups now supports 2,100, both financially and with parallel programs like Fun in the Sun or United for Literacy.

He also steered the organization away from its standard door-to-door fundraising, an expensive, time-consuming and inefficient method, to today’s corporate partnerships and events. The board of directors, which numbered 65 members, would be slimmed down to a more potent 23.

His dedication to his hometown gave him the long-term perspective that enabled his accomplishments, Didier said.

“Santa Barbara was going to be my home so I didn’t want to climb the corporate ladder of United Way and go to Washington and big cities,” he said. “I measured everything that I did in terms of 10-20 year cycles.”

Though every goal he hit involved a “big dollop of luck,” (something shared by every successful company or organization in the world, he said) he was focused on measurable, replicable outcomes. Priorities at the time changed often, as new nonprofits emerged.

“Our focus shifted from being an organization that was responding to the requests of the year,” Didier said. “One organization cannot solve a community’s problems. Public or private, it doesn’t happen. And so, there’s this growing realization of kind of the interdependency of all of us in society.”

One of his proudest accomplishments, Didier initiated the Power of Partnership Initiative with United Way, which surveyed 6,000 community members about their aspirations for Santa Barbara. After identifying 350 topics, it drilled down to three common priorities and the partnerships and specific outcomes that would drive them.

“He has a true collaborative spirit in looking at not just the outcome but the process by which you get to it,” said Joyce Ellen Lippman, executive director of the Area Agency on Aging.
He has been an advocate, mentor and a force to bring the community together, said Heidi Holly, executive director of the Friendship Center.

“If you have a question, you call Paul,” Holly said.

Didier said he was fortunate in his role and the people he’s worked with.

“From the board, to donors, I’ve been blessed,” he said. “I get to rub shoulders with the captains of industry and ask them for money for their own community.”

It’s also been a chance to work with people equally as passionate as he, Didier said. Celebrating an award for a program he helped create makes him appreciate the team building and enthusiasm that went into them.

United Way of Santa Barbara County President and CEO Paul Didier is shown with children in the Fun in the Sun summer learning program in this file photo.

“I’m going to miss that, totally,” he said. “I’m going to miss the clients.”

Moving forward, Didier said, charitable organizations still have work to do, trends to which they will need to adapt and forces with which they will have to contend.

“Volunteerism and charitable organizations are not synonymous,” he said, a “seismic shift” from his early days in nonprofit work that still surprises many in the community. “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. It’s the world we live in.”

State and federal laws have made it easier to start a nonprofit but limited how volunteers can participate due to privacy and protection concerns.

Educational codes, too, are now three times longer than the criminal code, more complicated and contradictory, he said, dropping California to 40th in the nation in reading and math scores.

“Therein lies some of the problem about why California is not where it should be,” Didier said. “California is going to have to figure out how to turn itself around because our education results are significantly below average. Our economy in the state depends on it, long term.”

Corporate donation also has a different mindset than when he started, focusing more on marketing and less on helping entry level or mid-level employees. He has observed newer startup companies who claim to be socially responsible but don’t measure up to the standard metrics of the 1970s.

“What we have are lots of statistics that show, in an era when more words are being written, fewer pre-tax dollars are being given,” he said. “I keep wondering when are facts going to weigh in as heavily as puff.”

Both companies and private donors are much more interested in evidence-based practices when investing in human capital, said LuAnn Miller, executive director of Isla Vista Youth Projects.

“Funders have become more strategic,” Miller said. “We can’t just put money out everywhere, it has to be strategically done, and I think Paul has been one of the leaders in figuring out how to strategically invest.”

Didier shared his knowledge and experience with his co-workers and has left a strong foundation for United Way, she said.

“He has sort of a youthful exuberance about life and what’s possible,” said Sarvis. “I don’t think most people know what a good skier he is and a good cook as well.”

After working more than 60 hours a week for four decades, Didier plans to take six months off. But nonprofit work isn’t something he can give up.

“I’ve spent my whole life being involved with charitable organizations,” Didier said. “That’s not going to change.”