Marketer of the Year: Lisa Bowman of United Way Worldwide
Lisa Bowman could probably jog in 5-inch stilettos.
“I believe there’s nothing you can’t accomplish while wearing them — I’m seriously only 5 feet tall — but in my head, I’m 5-foot 9-inches, and ready to take anything on,” says Bowman, EVP/CMO, United Way Worldwide.
And during her career, she has taken on just about everything — which is why she’s Target Marketing’s 2019 Marketer of the Year. For instance, she helped guide a partnership between United Way and Salesforce, with Salesforce Philanthropy Cloud launching in June 2018 to “meet the donor where they are” using “Salesforce’s CRM, but populated with content from United Way and serviced by us for ‘on-the-ground’ activation,” she says. Videos about the cloud show that organizing a campaign and donating can be as simple as a click, at any point throughout the year, instead of United Way’s previous once-a-year method. Bowman also helped the more than 130-year-old nonprofit improve marketing to key donor segments which, for example, resulted in its Women United affinity group reaching “the $2 billion threshold recently,” she says.
"It’s been such an exciting time to be part of the United Way leadership team that is developing and implementing our transition to a digitally enabled network," says Bowman, "and looking at how we meet the needs of the next two generations of donors, who want an experience that is very different than that of the Baby Boomers or Gen Xers."
But these are just a few of the highlights of Bowman’s more than 20-year-long marketing career, during which she’s given back to the profession, and worked with integrity that perhaps originates with her original plan to become a journalist.
“Lisa is bringing vision, technology, and new life to a nonprofit brand that is finding its way in the new nonprofit landscape,” writes Chris Lyons, president and CRO of Target Marketing Group, when nominating Bowman for the award.
Target Marketing editors chose Bowman as 2019 Marketer of the Year after sifting through nominations from readers, editors, editorial board members, and marketing thought leaders who contribute to editorial coverage. Bowman stood out, before editors knew about the Louboutins she stood on.
Bowman is a new type of nonprofit marketing leader, too, bringing an entire career of dot-com, retail, and for-profit leadership expertise to United Way — and not leaving that expertise at the door.
“There are tremendous similarities in how for-profit and not-for-profit do, and should, operate,” Bowman opines. “For-profit often has shareholders concerned about ROI. So do we. It’s just that they aren’t shareholders. They are still investors in our ‘business,’ also looking for ROI; albeit, a social return on investment. We both have customers, value propositions, and business functions to run. We have brands that need to be protected and promoted.”
So Bowman is helping reimagine not only corporate and nonprofit leadership, the marketing profession, and an executive wardrobe, but is helping throw out the commonly held belief in corporate America that a member of the C-suite needs to look and act like a silverback gorilla. This stereotype of power was supposedly eroding five years ago, when The Economist wrote about CEOs being “more than six feet tall, [with] a deep voice, a good posture, a touch of grey in his thick, lustrous hair and, for his age, a fit body.” In the old way of thinking, rising to the top of the marketing profession had as much to do with accomplishments as it did appearances.
But at 52, Bowman also is a certified kickboxing instructor who has a far different way of looking at marketing. “Old” only works when people haven’t seen it before, she says.
“The old things sometimes don’t work today,” Bowman says. “There are all these new channels to use. You have to fight much harder to break through and get someone to absorb your message. And sometimes, old school stuff stands out. [United Way] recently used a newspaper — I know, a what?? — to communicate something. ... I think the news cycle and ever-present access to everything in 0.03 seconds make it hard to get people’s attention. There’s so much coming at us that things fly by, and I think we inadvertently/unintentionally filter things out. We’re all multi-tasking so much that we’re rarely ever 100% present anymore. Every year, that’s my New Year’s resolution. I blow it by Jan. 3!”
Bowman expects as much from herself as she does from others, which is a lot.
UPS CEO David P. Abney recalls working with Bowman when she joined UPS in 2000.
“Her talent was obvious from the start,” he says.
She remembers it differently, though. For her, integrating into the UPS culture was her biggest professional challenge.
“I was hired into UPS as a vice president at [about] 30 years of age,” Bowman says. “It wasn’t common then to hire people ‘off the street’ — people came from within. I had to fight pretty hard to earn my place, not having ‘grown up’ UPS. ... [I] listened a lot. Tried to really integrate into the culture — even picking up the internal vernacular, so I wouldn’t be as obvious that I was ‘new.’
“I will say though,” she continues, “that as most UPSers came up through the operation — and safety is key — my constant wearing of really high heels was a dead giveaway. I also asked to go work in the [other job functions], so I could understand the business. I didn’t know how a package got from Point A to Point B — I needed to know the business. I rode with drivers, went on calls with sales reps, sat in on a call center, unloaded a 53-foot trailer. It was super helpful, and I remember my boss at the time telling me not to go do it and really surprised I wanted to.”
One of her colleagues who helped her learn — now-retired Teri P. McClure, who worked as UPS general counsel and chief human resources officer — met Bowman shortly after she started at UPS.
“My first meeting with Lisa was particularly humorous,” McClure says. “She was new to UPS and trying to work through the cultural nuances of the company. She had so many ideas and wanted to move so quickly. I did not want to tamper [with] her enthusiasm. But I needed to help her understand the cultural ways at UPS.”
But Bowman found her footing at UPS soon enough. During 2010, when Bowman was the chairwoman of the United Way’s Global Corporate Leaders Advisory Council, one of her friends from that council had no doubts about Bowman succeeding, in general.
Amanda J. Ponzar — chief communications and strategy officer with Community Health Charities — says: “Lisa is one of the toughest people I know. She’s smart, shrewd, strong, and unyielding. She seems to be able to work around the clock without sleeping. She knows what she wants. There’s never a doubt in her mind. She has incredibly high standards and expects the best at all times from herself and everyone around her, regardless of their department or role. Lisa’s a no-nonsense innovator and problem-solver. When we worked together, I knew the outcome would always be outstanding. Lisa is not afraid of change. In fact, she embraces it. You should expect change when working with Lisa, as she’s not going to be satisfied with the status quo or just ‘that’s the way we’ve done it in the past.’ Lisa might come in and blow something up, but it probably needed to happen, and the result will be better. She’s a powerful person.”
So, basically, Bowman blew up United Way’s status quo, before she even worked there — while helping lead the UPS-wide fundraising initiatives for the shipping company’s United Way giving campaigns.
During 2010, then-COO Abney first worked with Bowman on her first United Way campaign.
“Her leadership was instrumental to the success of the campaign,” Abney says.
As her CV says of her time at UPS working on the company’s United Way campaigns, Bowman:
- Rejuvenated a declining United Way campaign; generated four consecutive years of 15%-plus growth by creating a new narrative to position United Way to over 300,000 employees and growing campaign to exceed $64 [million] annually.
- Led the largest campaign in UPS’s 32-year history of supporting United Way.
- Aggressively grew the number of [UPS] employees that are members of the United Way Alexis de Tocqueville Society (those giving at a minimum of $10,000) from 48 to [more than] 350 in a 4-year period.
United Way Comes Bowman’s Way
In 2015, United Way appointed Bowman CMO, plucking her away from UPS.
“It really was a natural transition,” she says. “I had run UPS’s United Way campaign, which was the second largest, and first to generate $1 [billion] for United Way for four years. Using a traditional marketing approach — treating United Way as a product with features, benefits, and positioning it to our employee ‘customers,’ it grew from $48 [million] to $65 [million]. I wasn’t looking to leave UPS — I had taken on a new role about six months prior, but United Way was looking for a new CMO, and it really felt like the universe was speaking to me; that this was what I was supposed to go use my skills for — the intersection of my passion for marketing and purpose to make change around me.”
Making the Professional Personal
Joining United Way may have been a natural transition for Bowman, but it was a transition for the always-on marketer. Bowman is an “on-demand marketing counsel for a friend that started an online business in her late 60s,” a marketing advice provider “to my nail shop and esthetician’s office,” and she uses airplanes as classrooms, because the long flights allow her to study big-picture marketing ideas.
But to connect with United Way donors, she had to take a step back from the accountable professional Abney describes as having a contagious sense of humor, who “manages to keep her personality, which helps her to influence others.”
She instead had to create marketing for United Way to “reshape its brand to one that today is accessible, relevant, and meaningful to more people everywhere,” according to the announcement about her award as the 2017 Nonprofit Marketer of the Year by the American Marketing Association (AMA) and the American Marketing Association Foundation.
As that honor implies, Bowman succeeded in that task. The main reason for that award — the “Join the Fight,” public service announcement effort — showed that most of what the United Way does wouldn’t be suitable cocktail party conversation.
It’s dirty, hard work.
The United Way released the PSA to the public, with an April 2017 blog post:
“You can watch the PSA on television, view it on websites, and read about it in print publications across the country. The footage, while graphic, reveals the difficult and dangerous situations that occur in neighborhoods without intervention from organizations like United Way. The strong imagery paints a portrait of people who are in dire need of support. These are people who need a chance. They need hope.
“At United Way, we fight for the health, education, and financial stability of every person in every community. Our new PSA is a notice to the world that we are here to fight the challenges of today. We are ready to serve as problem-solvers for the issues that are difficult to face — and too hard to ignore. Above all, our PSA is a reminder that hope lives in each of us, and that we will never give up our fight. We will always #LIVEUNITED.”
What isn’t in the news is the work is personal for Bowman. She saw a homeless man named Dion at the corner of Northwest Second Avenue 17th Street in the Overtown neighborhood of Miami. She recruited him to be in the PSA by telling him doing so would help United Way assist people like him.
But the man she hasn’t seen since then has affected her far more than anything else in her marketing career — he is her best memory, and his image lives framed on her desk, to remind her of her purpose.
Dion’s entrance into her life speaks to her as her favorite professional memory for “actually having that experience and being able to add some authenticity to our story. [I’m a] firm believer [that] things happen for a reason — he was there on that street that day for a reason.”
Dion helped the United Way, but didn’t accept volunteer efforts to take him to a homeless shelter.
So Dion’s gift is, so far, unreciprocated.
And that experience with Dion is perhaps part of why Brian J.G. Lachance, Chief of Staff, United Way Worldwide, knows what sounds like a slightly different side of Bowman than her previous colleagues encountered.
The person Lachance describes has many characteristics of a journalist or a documentary filmmaker. And all of the characteristics of the woman from 2005 who saw a family in dire need of United Way’s help. That’s when, during a UPS work trip to Texas, Bowman met a family with four girls who didn’t have regular access to food during school breaks. She sent money to the family and the area United Way for years, then worked professionally to become involved with the United Way at UPS.
“Lisa’s work is rooted in her compassion for others,” Lachance says. “When Lisa goes on location to shoot real stories about real people, she comes back with new friends. She knows their lives, talks to them, and gets to understand the essence of their humanity. She does this, not only on the job, but everywhere she goes. She gets to know more about Lyft drivers during a five-mile trip than most people would know in five years.
“It’s this interest in people — their experiences, their dreams, their pains — that puts a fire under her work of telling United Way stories. In fact, she’d say her job is not telling ‘United Way Stories,’ but rather telling ‘People’s Stories.’”
Turning B2B2C Into C2B2B
Bowman says there’s one major factor influencing how much her career changed after coming to United Way.
“For starters, the multi-million-dollar advertising budget doesn’t exist,” she exclaims. “I had never worked with donated media, so that was certainly a learning [curve] for me.”
In other words, the ongoing “Join the Fight” campaign is happening with donated media — not an ad budget.
“Not always having a direct line to the customer is also different,” Bowman says. “Our customer, the donor, is embedded in the workplace. We’re really a B2B2C [Business-to-Business-to-Consumer]. I think — over time, as we evolve our model and leverage digital more and more — the demand will come from the ground-up, with people wanting us in their workplace, and we’ll migrate towards more C2B2B [Consumer-to-Business-to-Business].”
One of the videos demonstrating the Salesforce Philanthropy Cloud starts with an office worker seeing a news article about a disaster and clicking the app to start a campaign, which then causes “donate” buttons to pop up on her colleagues’ computers.
Learning the United Way
Another change for Bowman is that United Way doesn’t own the data of most of its donors, creating an interesting situation for segmentation and messaging efforts.
“United Way has historically taken a broad approach to marketing,” Bowman says. “The vast majority, [more than] 90% of our donors, come via a ‘workplace campaign,’ similar to what I ran at UPS. Because of that, we are often limited on donor data to allow us to really do effective targeting or segmentation. We also don’t buy media. Every ad you see is donated. That allows us to be far more efficient with the investment of donor dollars towards true impact work.”
So, with 3 million volunteers, 10 million donors worldwide, and $5 billion raised every year, Bowman had to be creative to turn around United Way’s marketing.
“There were a number of things we needed to change,” she says. “First was the ability to get our network of 1,800 local United Ways in [more than] 40 countries talking about who United Way is and what we do — in a consistent manner.
“We had strong awareness of the brand, the United Way entity if you will, but much lower comprehension of what we actually do,” she continues. “We developed a brand credo — super simple and easy to use. (We actually call it ‘The One Thing.’) So that all United Ways start the conversation with the same thing, ‘United Way fights for the health, education, and financial stability of EVERY person in EVERY community.’ It put[s] our three focus areas front-and-center and moves us to active language on what we do.
“Next, we needed to change our creative approach to showcase exactly what that meant, and invite people to join the fight, because change doesn’t happen alone,” she says. “Next up was recreating the donor experience and modernizing our business model. We partnered with Salesforce to bring to market Salesforce Philanthropy Cloud, which is our new platform for sustainable social change, at-scale. ... It’s the way the next gen of donors wants to engage. The future of giving, volunteering, and advocating will be about engaging individuals, particularly online. People want to easily find and participate in meaningful volunteer opportunities, contribute to the causes that matter to them, see the impact of their contributions, and share their experiences.” (The video about Salesforce Philanthropy Cloud shows it has all of the capabilities Bowman lists here.)
But, as Bowman’s friends and colleagues say, she is a mover and shaker for a reason — she won’t stand still.
“You have to stay current with what’s going on — what’s working, what’s just a blip on the radar,” Bowman says. “I like to watch campaigns to see what happens, especially when brands take a risk or do something fun. Does it cut through; does it get noticed — is it something we could do? How are you doing this? I read industry pubs, try and go to conferences, LinkedIn — it’s all there — you just have to find it — and find the time to consume it. I spend a lot of time on planes — sometimes it’s my classroom.”
But sometimes, those who care about her want her to get off of those planes.
“Mojo hates when I leave,” Bowman says of her rescue dog, “and I usually find a toy in my suitcase that he’s packed for me. It’s hilarious.”
On the Horizon
Looking out of the plane window at the horizon, Bowman sees a future at United Way.
“I still have a lot to accomplish here,” Bowman says. “United Way needs to be well-positioned to be the platform of choice for social change with the next gen of donors. I’d like to accomplish that.”
Then she provides hints about other possibilities.
“I also have a blossoming business idea,” Bowman says. “Not sure if I actually have it in me to try and bring it to life, but I’ve been marinating on it for about a year and it doesn’t go away. That might be something I try and accomplish. I’d also really like to land an endorsement package for my dog, Mojo. He’s been on ‘Animal Planet’ several times and would be a great spokesdog.
“In all seriousness,” she concludes, “the best accomplishment I think you can have is knowing that you made an impact when you look in the rearview mirror. And I think, regardless of if I look in that mirror in six months or six years, I’ll be satisfied that I accomplished that.”
But those who know Bowman well doubt that she’ll look back — she’ll probably just keep running forward.
“I believe Lisa can do whatever she puts her mind into,” Abney says. “Her energy, persistence, and diligence will lead to her success.”
As for the running, her friends and colleagues know what Bowman will be wearing.
Ponzar says: “She’d show up in 5- to 7-inch heels, no matter what we were doing — walking to an informal coffee catch-up, etc. Nothing ever slowed her down. I almost believe she jogged in 7-inch heels. If anyone could pull it off, it would be Lisa.”