United Way of Snohomish County CEO Craig Chambers at their headquarters on June 29, in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

United Way of Snohomish County CEO Craig Chambers at their headquarters on June 29, in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

New CEO expected to reinvigorate United Way of Snohomish County

The nonprofit lost staff and funding during the pandemic. Craig Chambers wants to turn things around.

EVERETT — United Way of Snohomish County’s long search for a permanent leader is over.

The nonprofit this month hired Craig Chambers to fill the chief executive officer position that has been held on an interim basis since May 2020, when Allison Warren-Barbour left the top position. Board chair Nicole Amor said Chambers is “the rock star, the gem” that the agency sought to fill the role.

“Craig is a very charismatic, energetic person that truly understands United Way and the work that our United Way is going to be accomplishing,” Amor said.

Chambers, 37, most recently spent two years as the chief executive at United Way of Skagit County. His resume includes another seven years of executive and directorial experience with the YMCA of Snohomish County.

He is expected to make a yearly salary of $128,000, down from the last permanent CEO’s salary of about $165,000. Chambers lives in Lake Stevens with his wife and four children.

Board members expect him to reinvigorate an organization that’s waned during the pandemic. The local United Way downsized from about 20 full-time employees in early 2020 to 10 this July. In that same period, the agency has undertaken two failed executive searches and waved goodbye to four interim CEOs.

Donations plummeted, falling from about $2.4 million in 2019 to about $1.2 million in 2021, according to the organization’s annual reports.

Amor said the nonprofit has not been immune to the challenges of the past couple years.

“United Ways globally have had to pivot, and we have struggled in the pivot. Part of that was us trying to pivot during the pandemic without a permanent CEO,” she said. “We know that we haven’t been as engaged with the community as we need to be, and now that we’ve gotten the search over with and have a CEO to help guide us, United Way will be much more engaged in partnerships and COVID recovery.”

Amor said the board had been searching for the right person to lead the organization, even turning down candidates found by an external search consultant.

“We had a couple of good candidates, but neither were going to be the right fit. And that’s when we really realized that we needed someone local. We needed someone that knows Snohomish County,” she said.

Having lived in Snohomish County cities most of his life, Chambers said he knows “every nook and cranny” of the community he is now working for. He also relates to the lived experience of the families United Way helps.

“I grew up as a kid that needed that support system. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up. We were a single family household, three kids, broke, poor, lettuce and mayo in the fridge and that’s it,” he said. “My mom worked hard … but that doesn’t work sometimes — a lot of times. So I get super passionate about helping the people that need us the most.”

Chambers plans to build back staff, connect with donors and get out to listen to local families and their experiences, so the organization can better understand how to help. He also wants to visit United Way partners in person as often as possible and be easily accessible to employees.

And he aims to keep in place the organization’s “CORE Collaboratives” focused on removing barriers to early childhood education, post-secondary and employment pathways, economic assets, health and wellbeing services and social connections. The group adopted the systems-oriented approach in 2018 in an attempt to find long-term solutions for families experiencing poverty.

Instead of short-term fixes, like giving out free meals, United Way might work with families to find child care, transportation or job opportunities, to address the issues preventing them from affording food in the first place.

“We are not fighting for tomorrow,” Chambers said. “We are fighting for 15 years down the road.”

Mallory Gruben is a Report for America corps member who writes about education for The Daily Herald.

Mallory Gruben: 425-339-3035; mallory.gruben@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @MalloryGruben.

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