Front & Center: Spokane County United Way president and CEO Tim Henkel reflects on career of creating lasting change in community

<p><p>As president and CEO of Spokane County United Way, Tim Henkel is passionate about creating solutions to build a strong, healthy and equitable community.</p></p><p><p>Henkel began his career in the nonprofit sector nearly 40 years ago, starting as a community organizer for VISTA – now known as AmeriCorps VISTA – in Grand Rapids, Michigan.</p></p><p><p>He later served as senior division director for Heart of West Michigan United Way and vice president of resource development for United Way of Central Iowa.</p></p><p><p>In 2007, Henkel took the helm as president and CEO of Spokane County United Way, where he led the nonprofit’s mission of partnering with other organizations to improve outcomes for those in poverty, provide educational opportunities for youth and work to prevent hunger and homelessness.</p></p><p><p>Spokane County United Way, which has been serving the local community since 1921, receives funding from foundations, companies and individual donors.</p></p><p><p>In the past decade, the nonprofit has distributed more than $20 million in grant funding to local organizations, according to its website.</p></p><p><p>Henkel is retiring this month after more than 14 years with the local organization.</p></p><p><p>Spokane County United Way has named John Dickson – most recently the chief operations officer for Spokane County – as its new president and chief executive officer, effective Nov. 22.</p></p><p><p>Henkel cited shifting priorities and desire to spend more time with family as reasons for his retirement.</p></p><p><p>“It’s an opportunity for me to step aside and have someone else step in and say, ‘Where else and how quickly can we move this work forward?’ And I was ready to do that,” Henkel said.</p></p><p><h3>Community organizer to chief executive</h3></p><p><p>Henkel’s affinity for helping others in need began at a young age.</p></p><p><p>“We didn’t have a lot growing up, but we did OK, and there were others that we knew and I could see really were struggling and that things weren’t right,” he said. “I grew up in the 1960s and there was lots of different kinds of challenges that we were facing, and social justice and doing the right thing from my vantage point has just always been a thread within a foundational orientation that I have had in relationship to what I felt was important.”</p></p><p><p>Henkel, a Phoenix native, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science from University of California, Santa Cruz in 1977.</p></p><p><p>“My thought was that I was going to get into providing some kind of engagement service work in a community, local government, whatever it might be,” Henkel said. “I got out of college and the first and only job I could get was driving a propane truck in the Santa Cruz Mountains in California.”</p></p><p><p>Henkel explored other job opportunities, which led him to a position as a community organizer with VISTA in Grand Rapids.</p></p><p><p>“I moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, never having stepped foot in the state, let alone even knowing where Grand Rapids was in Michigan,” Henkel said. “I started work there as a community organizer, literally knocking on doors in neighborhoods, talking to folks and finding out what was important to them and the kinds of things they’d like to see happen for themselves and for their neighbors.”</p></p><p><p>Henkel was involved in launching a couple of neighborhood organizations and an energy conservation nonprofit that assisted households in obtaining electricity at little to no cost.</p></p><p><p>In 1983, Henkel was hired by the Heart of West Michigan United Way to be part of the organization’s fundraising resource development team. He was later promoted to senior division director. In 1988, Henkel joined the United Way of Central Iowa in Des Moines, Iowa, where he served as vice president of resource development for more than 19 years.</p></p><p><p>“I was looking for an opportunity to lead a United Way. Obviously, I had a pretty long career, even at that point,” Henkel said. “A position opened up in Spokane, and I was lucky enough to be selected to to do that. It’s been a great ride. We’ve loved it. My wife and I both said, ‘We wish we had landed here a little earlier.’”</p></p><p><h3>Expanding access to education</h3></p><p><p>When Henkel joined Spokane County United Way in 2007, the organization’s board was examining how it could expand its reach beyond raising money and distributing it to other nonprofits.</p></p><p><p>“There was a lot of conversation and effort about how we could improve the high school graduation rates – that was a national conversation,” Henkel said.</p></p><p><p>At the time, the county’s average high school graduation rate was about 75% and in some schools, it was about 60%, Henkel said.</p></p><p><p>“We began to work with a variety of community partners and said, ‘What is it that we can begin to do to to address that?’ Because it wasn’t just the public schools’ sole responsibility to do that,” Henkel said. “We all had a desire and a role to play in that, and a variety of things have taken place over the years.”</p></p><p><p>The organization collaborated with community partners to improve access to early childhood education, summer learning opportunities, and mentorship and youth programs, among other things.</p></p><p><p>That collaboration has helped to boost high school graduation rates to nearly 90% in the county, Henkel said.</p></p><p><p>“There’s still a long ways to go,” Henkel said. “There are low-income students and students of color that are still markedly behind, and that’s really what we see as the capacity, the role that United Way and other partners can play in helping to change those really big challenges that we face.”</p></p><p><h3>Creativity, collaboration key to change</h3></p><p><p>Henkel said Spokane County United Way’s staff and board members have a great deal of creativity and thought around building lasting change.</p></p><p><p>When the pandemic took hold in the state in March 2020, Spokane County United Way partnered with other area nonprofits – including Innovia Foundation and Empire Health Foundation – to create two COVID-19 Response and Recovery Funds that made grants to community-based organizations in Eastern Washington and North Idaho.</p></p><p><p>“At that time, we collectively came together and said, ‘Let’s set up a fund for this region to create a response that potentially either complemented or reached out and connected with individuals, neighborhoods and groups that might have been lost or left behind,’” Henkel said. “We were able to raise in excess of $3 million and get those out in some pretty unique ways in a short period of time. That, again, complemented a lot of other things that were going on and helped individuals that were left behind in many different ways.”</p></p><p><h3>Planning for the future</h3></p><p><p>Henkel will remain in an advisory role at Spokane County United Way through the end of the year to assist Dickson.</p></p><p><p>After that, Henkel is looking forward to “unplugging for a little while” and traveling with his wife, who recently retired from her job with the county.</p></p><p><p>“Both of our daughters and their respective spouses are on the East Coast. Our granddaughters are out there. So, we’re going to head out that way and spend some time with them,” Henkel said.</p></p><p><p>Henkel plans to remain in Spokane and continue working to make the community a better place.</p></p><p><p>“I’ve lived in a number of different places across the country and there’s a lot of things that are attractive about (Spokane),” Henkel said. “But I think the other part of it is that it’s a place where people get to know one another. It’s a place where you can affect change, and it’s a place where we know that we want to be able to continue to do that.”</p></p>