INSIGHTS: Looking forward with Greg Burris

Kandice RileyAnnouncement

As United Way of the Ozarks opens a new era of leadership, Greg Burris prepares to retire from his role as UWO president/CEO on June 30, 2024. We took this opportunity to talk about UWO’s and Burris’ past, present and exciting future.

Why is this the right time for UWO’s next generation of leadership?
This is a great year for a handoff. Now, UWO has a refreshed focus, strategy and operations. A new, highly competitive process is in place to select nonprofit partners and programs, and all are centered on either Championing Children or Pathways Out of Poverty. The programs that emerge from this new vetting process are the cream of the crop. We’ve streamlined operations and updated technologies, and have built a long-term strategy of community engagement. The organization has a top-notch Board of Directors and an energetic and skilled team of professionals who are excited to build on this momentum. We’ve accomplished a set of strategic changes that position the organization well for the future. The next president/CEO will have a great foundation to accelerate fundraising and development.

You’ve been involved with UWO as a volunteer campaign manager, Board member, Executive in Residence and as President/CEO. What has drawn you to UWO?
Very simply, I love activating the reality that we can achieve things together that we can’t do individually. UWO is a unique catalyst for so much good across the Ozarks because we unite people, resources and ideas. We collaborate, facilitate, convene to bring together companies, nonprofits, government and industry. I’ve been blessed to see the power of people feeling ownership of their community, and that makes civic engagement the most fulfilling way for me to serve.

At UWO, we believe that the better we know and understand the people around us, the better we can work together and improve life for everyone. We must all operate from a place of curiosity and empathy, recognizing we each have our own story, rather than defaulting to pre-conceived ideas or judgements about situations and solutions. I really think that’s the key to success and why I promote community ownership so strongly. I want every citizen to feel a renewed level of ownership of, and control over, their community. We can only do this if we work together.

Civic engagement led you to a friendship with one of your heroes, author and scholar Dr. Robert Putnam. How did that come about?
I was motivated by his books, “Bowling Alone” and “Our Kids,” and wanted to learn how our community might apply his ideas about strengthening society by working together. I reached out to him with some questions, not expecting this Harvard professor to answer an email from someone in Springfield, Missouri he’d never met. But he responded immediately and we’ve since built a lasting friendship. And he’s become a big fan of the Give 5 program and the way it builds social capital and engages older adults in the community. He even recorded a video for Give 5. It still thrills me to think I have connected with one of my heroes. It seems a bit unreal.

The pandemic brought many opportunities for creative solutions to new problems. What’s your favorite UWO “pandemic story?”
Early on, during the shortage of hand sanitizer, a local business offered us a 55-gallon drum of the liquid for our nonprofit partners. Our challenge was to get it out of the drum and into one-gallon containers. We had no specialty tools – and no experience – but we were determined. One of our team’s husband burned out his power drill trying to tap the drum. We did everything we could think of, but were not succeeding. We happened to see a City Utilities crew working down the street and approached them. Desperate, we asked the CU workers if they might have an idea or tool we could use. As it turns out, they not only knew how to address our challenge but also had the tools we needed on their truck. They got to work and soon our partners arrived, gallon containers in hand, and 55 gallons of hand sanitizer went off to do its work across the community. An unexpected and perfect lesson in the power of collaboration and the kindness of Springfieldians.

What’s on your agenda after June 30?
Sleep in for two days in a row. Beyond that, there’s a list of things waiting for my time. Clean out my basement. Practice my guitar and prepare for gigs with my band, Static in the Attic. I’ll still be working part-time for United Way of the Ozarks. I will continue to lead the Give 5 program, the civic matchmaking program that introduces local retirees to meaningful community volunteer opportunities. And, of course, I’ll be available to help UWO and the new President/CEO in whatever way I can. I deeply believe in what we are doing and the path we’re on.