Tocqueville Society Profile: Ellen King

Ellen King is one of United Way’s most dedicated champions. But it wasn’t always this way.

If you were to chart Ellen King’s United Way involvement, perhaps with a fancy line graph, you would notice a relatively flat line for several years —

“I was a cynic about United Way,” she says. “It seemed like a great, big monolithic organization that I couldn’t understand.”

— and then, about four years ago, a spike in the trajectory, coinciding with her exposure to the Women’s Leadership Council and the Annual Women’s Breakfast, which offered a unique window into United Way’s work.

And she was off, on her way to becoming one of United Way’s strongest advocates. King, Vice President and Associate General Counsel of Sun Life Financial U.S, saw her degree of involvement “escalate geometrically;” from an increase in giving, to volunteerism at events like the Community Baby Shower, to co-chairing Mass Bay’s Women’s Leadership Council. What happened?

“The single most important thing for me was to see and touch the work United Way does,” she says. “I’ve been able to visit United Way partner agencies and have met the most impressive people and clients.”

This hands-on experience ignited her interest and compelled her to expand her engagement to even greater heights. She now sits on the United Way National Women’s Leadership Council and, most recently, has served as a reviewer during the local grant allocations process, a volunteer-powered effort that determines which agencies receive United Way funding.

“The opportunity to work with staff and to meet the people in the agencies that serve those in need fundamentally alters the way you see United Way,” she says. “I have to understand what I’m advocating for and I have to believe in it personally.”

She boils it all down to two simple questions: “What does United Way do?” and “Why am I not better off giving my money directly to another agency?” They are loaded questions to be sure, but in answering them, Ellen King transformed herself from a bystander to a standard-bearer.

“The allocations process is an indication of the story that needs to be told,” she says. “There are so many service providers and agencies out there that are so different from one another. It was daunting to read the applications.”

And this is where her emotional response to the work being done in the field met her intellectual understanding of United Way’s value.

“It was fascinating to go through this very disciplined process,” she says. “There is such a collaboration with partner agencies that goes beyond funding. United Way can coach and counsel them to have a greater impact.”

In the early years of her involvement with the Women’s Breakfast, King was self-conscious. Even when it came to asking people to attend or reserve a table, she hesitated; why petition on behalf of something that she didn’t understand? For the 2013 Women’s Breakfast, however, she stood up in front of an audience over 1,000 and asked them to give–give of their time, their money, their expertise. It was an endorsement she didn’t take lightly; behind it was the full force of her conviction.

“It is phenomenal to see how much of a change happened within me in a short period of time,” she says. “When I was recruited to do the ask for the breakfast, I hardly had to think. I have reached the point in my personal journey where it’s now time for me to help people understand how I went from being tentative to a complete advocate for United Way.”