Dorothy Ables: Taking the lead in the United ways $81 million campaign

Dorothy Ables

Dorothy Ables has seen the affects. She’s met the girl, Lillian, who was a struggling, at-risk teen when she joined a United Way of Houston after-school program. 

Lillian is now a college student majoring in bioengineering before going to med school. She’s on her way to building a better life for her future family — and her community.It’s real-life examples like those – and thousands more – that keep Ables volunteering diligently for the United Way of Greater Houston. This year, she became just the second woman to chair its annual community campaign.

Ables, the chief administrative officer at Spectra Energy, has set an ambitious goal: $81 million or more raised during the campaign, which would be a new record.

“United Way touches about one out of every two lives in our community,” she said. “It works on the whole circle of life by helping children and youth and neighborhoods and seniors. We’re trying to create lasting change in our community, and what we do today is going to build a better tomorrow.”

Ables has been working to make lasting change in her community since she was a teen, when she volunteered to help children in a Head Start program improve their reading to grade level. Her parents were active volunteers, with her dad, Harold Mathias, chairing a United Way campaign when she was a kid. 

“From a teenager on, volunteering was just something that I have always done, and it just completes who I am. It’s part of me,” said Ables, chief administrative officer with Spectra Energy. “I’ve been very lucky in my life, and I believe you need to give back to the community.

“But, you have to find the right volunteer activity for you. Over the years I’ve figured out things that I’m better at volunteering for and some that I am not as good at, which includes, for example, holding babies in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.”
Ables set this year’s fund-raising goal, recruited volunteers to help raise the money and is going out into the community to meet with leaders and appear at company campaigns. The campaign kicked off at the Hobby Center September 7, where they celebrated the nonprofit’s 90th birthday, and Ables conducted the orchestra before about 1,200 volunteers and donors. Ables’ commitment runs from April 2012 through March 2013, when the campaign ends.

Each United Way is separate and autonomous. United Way of Greater Houston focuses on developing children and youth, strengthening families and neighborhoods, sustaining senior independence and supporting people who are rebuilding their lives. It invests in hundreds of programs, including The Center for Hearing and Speech, Legacy Community Health Services, Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, Boys and Girls Club of Greater Houston, Community Family Centers and Star of Hope. 

It also funds individual programs. Last year, 461,000 children and youth were impacted by United Way programs, such as Houston’s Kids, a holistic out-of-school program that provides enrichment, character development and family support services, and Bright Beginnings, an early education program that prepares children from low-income families for success in school. 

According to the United Way of Houston, 79 percent of students in United Way programs are more successful in school, and the organization’s Education Task Force and Board recently outlined an aggressive new education initiative.

For families, the agency funds health, mental health, drug and alcohol prevention, parenting and basic needs programs, with more then 862,000 family members helped last year. The THRIVE program helps hard-working, low-income families find jobs with good wages, safe and affordable housing, financial security and success for the children.

The nonprofit also provides seniors with transportation to doctor’s offices, hospitals, social services agencies and other places. It helps provide access Levitra Online to help with daily living and household chores, home visits, assistance with home repairs, nutritious meals and a support network. Last year, 79,000 seniors received assistance through the organization, according to the United Way of Greater Houston.

There’s also the rebuilding lives component, which last year helped 842,000 people who suffered from violence, job loss, natural disasters and family emergencies. Last year, there were 922,700 calls to the 2-1-1 line, set up to provide immediate help and advice.But helping that many people requires money.

Last year, the organization raised $79.2 million. Ables hopes to increase this year’s take by convincing individuals who have given before to give more and to get some who haven’t given before to give, she said. She, and the individual company campaigns, do that by illustrating the good the United Way does, having recipients tell their stories and making the campaigns fun and engaging.

“Even just getting five dollars with the number of people we have really adds up,” she said.

Ables started giving to the United Way during her company’s first workplace campaign in 1980. This year the company raised $1.7 million, a 15 percent increase over last year and the company’s 21st year as a million-dollar campaign.

She can take Spectra’s impressive amount and use it to talk up other companies, Ables said. “I think there’s a little friendly competition among companies.”

Ables began volunteering with United Way in the late 1980s, and she’s served on the women’s initiative committee, was co-chair of the Alexis de Tocqueville Society for two years and helped start the leadership circle of donors who give $5,000 to $9,999 annually. She’s also on the board of directors and the executive committee. In 2000, she chaired Spectra’s giving campaign, getting an important understanding of how corporate campaigns work.

Ables, whose favored personal causes focus on children and youth, has also been president of the Junior League of Houston and co-president of the Children’s Fund. 

“Dorothy brings an incredible history of being a grassroots, hands-on volunteer. She has served in virtually every leadership role; she brings this incredible wealth of knowledge, and she’s just a mobilizer,” said Anne Neeson, United Way of Greater Houston’s vice president of donor relations. “People want to be on Dorothy’s team. It’s phenomenal to watch.”

A group of past chairs work with United Way’s president and Neeson to select the community campaign chair each year, Neeson said.

“And hands down, everybody thought Dorothy was the person who should chair the campaign,” she said. “She’s produced fabulous results in her different roles; she knows how to run a corporate campaign, and she’s committed to the work of the United Way and can clearly articulate the mission and talk about our work. There was just no one else who should have been chair of this campaign this year than Dorothy. She’s just got everything we need in a chair.

“I rarely meet anybody who doesn’t want to be part of Dorothy’s team, doesn’t want to do what Dorothy’s asking them to do. She knows the community so well. She knows all the facts and all the feel-good messages. She has a big heart, and people gravitate to her.”

Ables is glad to put that quality to work helping Houston. 

“Houston would not be a very good place to live if we hadn’t had United Way here for 90 years because it really is about improving the community for all of us,” she said. “And, so Lillian becomes a doctor, Lillian’s family does better, and they give back. Really it’s just a cycle. It really multiplies as you help someone.”

Dave Schafer is a free-lance journalist and staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.