Fran Weisberg is the first to admit her reputation when she was in high school and college.
“I was a troublemaker,” she says.
The rebellious spirit fit the period well, Weisberg says. It was the late 1960s and early 1970s, and she wanted to make a difference, even if that meant coming into conflict with authority. It often did.
“I believed in saving the world and change, and I would say I was definitely a child of the late ’60s,” Weisberg says. “I really wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.”
As a college student, Weisberg says, that spirit brought her into conflict with what was still a very conservative University of Rochester and eventually led her into a career of community organizing and advocacy.
She gradually learned change need not always mean conflict, and in a career that has stretched more than four decades she has been able to make some significant changes by bringing people together.
After advocacy across several areas—from politics to elder care to the region’s health care landscape—Weisberg has taken on what she believes may be her greatest challenge.
The recently named president of the United Way of Greater Rochester Inc. is leading the biggest effort to address poverty the region has seen while also leading a shift within the non-profit agency to reflect decades of changing demographics and philanthropy.
Now, as she leads an agency with total revenue of $36.8 million in the fiscal year ended March 31, 2014, the most recent total available, Weisberg says she is calling on the skills she has learned and the connections she has made throughout her career to bring about that change.
UR was a much different institution when she first stepped foot on campus in 1971, Weisberg notes.
“The university was a rather staid, conservative place, and I was not,” says Weisberg, 61.
It did not take long before she found herself in a leadership role, helping head efforts to open the university to the community, she says.
“One of the things I felt strongly about was a connection to the community, and we had this radical idea of building a bridge to the community,” she says.
The idea was both literal and figurative. Students wanted to establish a stronger connection to the surrounding 19th Ward, both by working closely with neighborhood groups and by constructing a physical bridge that would allow students to access the area more easily.
While the bridge would take more than a decade after Weisberg’s graduation to come to pass, she and a group of students did establish deeper connections with community groups.
Her spirit of organizing was starting to form during these college years, although it did not always go smoothly, Weisberg says. When she was a student, it was a tradition for students to plan an alternative graduation ceremony apart from the official event put on by the school. Weisberg was asked to help organize the event in her senior year.
“Normally this was an event that drew about 50 or 100 people, but this year the university put their foot down and said we couldn’t do it,” she recalls. “Myself and the other organizers said, ‘We’re doing it anyway.’ We ended up having half of the class show up and participate.”
Weisberg is proud to see the strides the university has taken in the last few decades.
“Now the university is so open, and they’re the ones leading community efforts,” she says. “But at the time we got a lot of pushback.”
Weisberg rode the spirit of change after college, remaining in the Rochester area and working as a community organizer. She worked to set up feeding programs in rural counties, helping to spread programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children and food stamps to places where they were desperately needed.
Her passion for working with older adults led Weisberg to become an ombudsman in nursing homes, where she would speak up for the residents. This often led to more conflict, she says.
“We would go into nursing homes and advocate for patients’ rights,” she recalls. “There were some homes that said we can’t come in, and I had to step in and say that under federal law we can—and we are.”
But this led to another important lesson, Weisberg says. While she was busy fighting for elderly patients and taking on the often oppositional administrators, Weisberg says, she was disarmed by a simple invitation.
“The late Bob Hurlbut actually reached out and invited me to come talk to him,” Weisberg says of the founder of what is today Hurlbut Care Communities/ROHM Services Corp.
The two talked about elder care and how they could work together, forging a relationship that Weisberg says helped her adopt a new plan for bringing change to the community.
“I saw that not everything is right and wrong and fighting,” she says. “There is so much common ground if we take the time to talk and learn from each other. I saw that I could help make changes to policy through advocacy but without toppling everything.”
It was not long before Weisberg took those skills in a different direction. After working with state senator John Perry as a long-term-care expert, Weisberg was pulled into the world of politics, becoming Monroe County’s first woman to chair the Democratic Party.
She found her way back to elder care, however, leading Lifespan of Greater Rochester Inc. for a decade and eventually becoming executive director of the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency.
It was there Weisberg led another sweeping effort. Under her leadership, the agency convened the 2020 Commission, a committee of local community, business and health care leaders that investigated expansion planned by several local hospitals.
The process was not always easy, Weisberg recalls, but it was eventually able to draw consensus among a wide group.
“We had to do the study four times and eventually agreed that the region needed between 120 and 130 beds,” she says. “We persuaded the state and they brought it to within about 12 beds. That showed how real data and analytics and people buying in and working with the state can really make a difference.”
State Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, a longtime friend, says Weisberg has a unique ability to bring people together, especially on issues that can be divisive.
The two go back to her earliest days working with the Democratic Party, and it was she who encouraged Morelle to first run for state legislature.
“I’ve never met anyone like her,” Morelle says. “She has an infectious enthusiasm, she works doggedly and has this amazing ability to build and foster networks.”
The United Way’s effort on poverty is remarkably similar to the work of the 2020 Commission, Weisberg notes. The agency is acting as convener for the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, a wide-ranging effort drawing together non-profit agencies along with state and local officials to address the region’s deep pockets of poverty.
She has been using many of the lessons learned from the 2020 Commission in leading the initiative, especially in how to pull a number of different stakeholders together into a cohesive process, Weisberg says.
“Similar to the 2020 Commission, we want everyone to feel ownership of their efforts,” she says. “We have been a fragmented community in the past, with so many people doing different things, and we need to get everyone together and moving in the same direction.”
The United Way has taken a lead role, pulling together work groups made up both of local leaders and community members. The agency also has been key in making sure the process is open and reflective of the community, with many avenues for local residents—especially those who are living or have lived in poverty—to give their input.
Weisberg says the work groups are in the process of forming priorities, which will be put together into a draft of how to proceed. The work is not always easy, but she says all participants have a strong will to work together.
“It’s not perfect, but nobody has walked away from the table,” Weisberg says.
It was the need to bring the community together around the collective effort that drew Weisberg to the United Way. After Peter Carpino announced his intention to retire, she saw her skills as a great fit.
“They really saw the need for more convening and getting everyone in the right direction to solve these big problems,” she says. “They were looking for someone who could get consensus and get funding to run these programs, and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for a number of years. Thus began this new journey.”
David Fiedler, who led the United Way’s search committee, says the agency was looking for someone with extensive leadership experience, passion for the United Way’s mission and a highly inclusive and collaborative style.
Weisberg was a perfect fit, says Fiedler, CEO of ESL Federal Credit union.
“During her 40 years in the community, she has distinguished herself in her ability to produce collaboration among stakeholders with very divergent views,” Fiedler says. “Her entire career has been committed to the betterment of the Rochester community.”
Given the size of the task, Morelle also believes Weisberg is the perfect fit.
“It was an inspired choice by the United Way board to bring her on,” says Morelle, who is a key player and has been the public face of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative. “She brought this metamorphosis at Lifespan and Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency, and she’s the right one to be leading these efforts now.”
Weisberg has found another resource from her time leading the 2020 Commission—resolve.
“If we could get every hospital to agree to look at the needs of the entire community while they all also had their own interests to consider, then we can do this too,” she says.
Change from within
While she is heading up efforts to address poverty in the community, Weisberg is also leading an important effort within United Way.
After decades of relying on robust workplace giving programs to fuel its annual campaign, the changing landscape of the local economy is forcing the agency to move in a different direction.
“Kodak is certainly still there and is a great community partner, but it’s not what it was 20 years ago,” she says.
As Kodak and the region’s other major employers shed jobs in the last decade,
United Way’s annual campaign has changed as well. After campaign goals hovered around the $40 million mark in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the agency has seen totals gradually declining. This year’s campaign raised $24.3 million.
Weisberg says the changes in the economy call for a different approach, one that does not rely so heavily on the workplace.
“The workplace campaign is always critical, but we will also need to look more strategically at raising money in different ways, including government and foundations,” she says.
The organization also is following changes within the national United Way as agencies take on an important role in driving community change.
Working on both major tasks—the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative as well as United Way’s own strategic changes—is not easy, Weisberg admits. But she says the efforts can feed into each other.
“It is a bit daunting to help the United Way transform and move in new directions so it can continue to address critical problems, all while undertaking this big initiative,” she says. “At the same time, I realize that the Anti-Poverty Initiative can be a lab for where the United Way is going. We should all aspire to drive community change, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Weisberg says even her free time can get a bit cramped. Last month she and husband, Thomas Toole, had a chance to get away for a bit, so they decided to spend it at the Stratford Festival, where they took in 12 plays in six days.
Weisberg, who is also in a women’s book club and enjoys watching movies, says the arts are a passion for her.
Popular culture is not, Morelle adds.
“For someone who is so in tune with movies and sees every play, she’s remarkably ignorant of popular culture,” he jokes. “And I can be pretty out of touch myself, but sometimes something comes up and she has no idea what it is. I just have to say, ‘C’mon Fran, even I know that.’”
Morelle says Weisberg has a good excuse, given her tendency to throw herself so completely into her work.
Weisberg says the hard work is worth it.
“This is a critical moment for our community, and it’s taking all of my different skills and relationships to do this job,” she says. “It’s very important work, and I’m very honored to be doing it.”
Position: President and CEO, United Way of Greater Rochester Inc.
Education: B.A. in psychology, University of Rochester, 1975
Family: Husband, Thomas Toole; four stepchildren; eight stepgrandchildren
Activities: Going to plays and movies
Quote: “This is a critical moment for our community, and it’s taking all of my different skills and relationships to do this job. It’s very important work, and I’m very honored to be doing it.”
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