Inside Track and Nonprofits

Inside Track: United Way’s Noe pushes the bar for a better today

CEO says organization’s mission is to shine a light on the dark areas to bring hope to people.

January 5, 2013
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United Way's Noe pushes the bar for a better today
With 26 years of nonprofit experience, 18 of it with United Way, Maureen Noe is comfortable rubbing shoulders with people from all walks of life. Photo by Michael Buck
Maureen Noe was adding accomplishments and pushing herself to find ways to help others achieve better lives for themselves long before she became the first female president and CEO of Heart of West Michigan United Way on Feb. 14, 2011.

That’s right, her first day on the job was Valentine’s Day. The irony is not lost on Noe of the symbolism of a heart that beats strong for people looking for a lifeline that takes many different forms.

“I thrive on quality and improvement, pushing the bar to a better today,” she said. “That’s achieved through the whole community, not just one portion of the population being better than the other. United Way sees a connectedness, to coach them to those opportunities.”

The opportunities to which Noe refers are three “building blocks” that represent the core of Heart of West Michigan United Way’s mission. As with other United Way offices, the issues focused on are determined locally.

For West Michigan, the first building block involves taking a proactive approach to health careto avert low-income people from using the emergency room as their primary care physician. That includes its 2-1-1 program, a free referral-services hotline available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to all Kent County residents.

The hotline provides information those in need by connecting them to local health and human services, such as Cherry Street Health Services, which provides a host of medical services, including preventive, restorative and emergency care, dental care and behavioral, vision and prescription assistance, all of which are provided to low-income, uninsured or underinsured children and families.

Another initiative, launched by Heart of West Michigan United Way in 2012, is called the Health Vision Council. This is a partnership between United Way, Kent County Health Department, and a coalition of 80 service agencies, community hospitals, mental health providers and community aid foundations charged with crafting the Kent County Community Health Needs Assessment. The strategy includes increasing the proportion of residents, including the uninsured and working poor, who have access to affordable health care, boosting the number of providers available that accept Medicaid or offer low-cost/free services, and reducing disparities in prenatal care.

“For too many, their primary physician is the emergency room,” said Noe. “Not everyone has direct access to health care, and that involves not only the working poor but companies that employ too few employees to afford health care.”

The second building block is education, which includes kindergarten readiness, decreasing Kent County  high school students’ drop-out rate (2,000 students in Kent County dropped out in 2011), culling community input to bring to light solutions, and Schools of Hope, a reading strategy program that is helping to alleviate illiteracy in Kent County schools.

The third building block is income, which involves a panoply of social service programs. The key to this plan is shepherding people to reach financial independence and economic security through work-force development programs, as well as addressing homelessness, stocking food pantries and providing utility assistance.


Heart of West Michigan United Way
Position: President/CEO
Age: 50
Birthplace: Garkida, Nigeria
Residence: Cannon Township
Family: Husband, Mark; daughter, Ashley, and son, Christopher.
Business/Community Involvement: Expanding Learning Opportunities - City of Grand Rapids; Kent County Family & Children's Coordinating Council; Kent County Workforce Development Board; First Steps Commission; Inforum; Kent County Agency Leadership Council.
Biggest Career Break: Noe considers each step in her career important stepping stones to where she is today.


None of these big-picture goals would be possible if not for the collaborative work Heart of West Michigan United Way accomplishes with 60 agencies and 120 programs, accomplished with an annual budget of $18.6 million.

And there are other social issues the Heart of West Michigan board of directors is mulling, said Noe, among them the widespread problem with childhood/teen obesity. “This could be the first generation that does not outlive their parents,” said Noe.

As sobering as that possibility is, Noe isn’t one to shirk from a challenge.

“Challenge is an opportunity waiting to happen, to see things differently through a different filter,” said Noe. “If you experience a setback, reapply the lesson you learned in a different way.”

Prior to hiring on at Heart of West Michigan United Way, Noe was president of Butler County United Way in Hamilton, Ohio, for 11 years.

Her work with United Way actually started in 1985 when she was a college intern for Middletown Area United Way in Cincinnati, where she eventually snagged a job as director of community services, a post she held from 1988-1992. Noe then became area director of United Way of Greater Cincinnati (1998-2000); then president/CEO of Butler County United Way (2000-2011), before relocating to Grand Rapids.

Noe earned a degree in psychology from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in 1985, and became a licensed social worker that same year. Her achievements include working on a major Child Assault Prevention Project and directing the Volunteer Services Department at Fort Hamilton-Hughes Hospital.

Other accomplishments include launching Leave No Child Behind, a school-based program recognized as best practice in Ohio, and the development of a nonprofit board leadership certificate program in collaboration with Miami University that was recognized by the Ohio Continuing Higher Education Association as a program of excellence.

With a combined 26 years of nonprofit experience, 18 of it with United Way, Noe is comfortable rubbing shoulders with people from all walks of life. There is a connectedness she feels between people who, on the surface, may not seem to have much in common: senior managers, the working poor, children who are best served with early childhood education opportunities.

As to why Noe gravitated to assuming the leadership helm at Heart of West Michigan United Way, she cites a desire to bring her skills to a new level that moving to Kent County has made possible. Plus, she said, West Michigan harbors a philanthropic, collaborative culture she found herself gravitating to immediately.

“This community has some real social service health issues we need to pay attention to,” said Noe. “How can we bring dignity and empowerment to its citizens in Kent County? How do we keep our eyes on the prize, building this social structure but not creating a dependency, and instill dignity in people’s lives without creating dependency?”

Noe believes it takes a village to make a community hum with opportunity by pointing people to new avenues of positive, healthy habits. And United Way is positioned to help the community achieve some of these big-picture goals because it works with a coalition of other charitable organizations that pool their resources and expertise to resolve pressing community issues and make measurable changes through partnerships with schools, government agencies, businesses, financial institutions, community development corporations, voluntary and neighborhood associations, the faith community and others.

Noe said when Heart of West Michigan United Way moved to its current location at 118 Commerce Ave. SW, it gained a certain level of street cred because it is in the Heartside district of Grand Rapids, bounded roughly by Fulton and Wealthy streets and Grandville and Lafayette avenues.It’s an area where many live off the grid.

“Some people see vision on Commerce Avenue and the Heartside community itself,” said Noe. “It was a distraught area we intentionally moved into to bring light for a better future. We should shine a light on dark areas and bring hope to people.”

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