Black History Month: Former United Way CEO Joanne Harrell

By United Way of King County, on February 22, 2022 | In News, Success Stories

Ask former United Way of King County CEO Joanne Harrell for quotes to live by, and she’ll summon lines from the prose poem Desiderata by Max Ehrmann: “You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

To know the trailblazer who has dedicated her life to serving others is to know that the lines in Desiderata speak to Harrell’s unquenchable confidentia, that fire in her belly and faith at her core that dispels any notion that she shouldn’t be right where she is, summoning her talents and her drive to make the world better.

“We can’t always see, but if we have faith, lean forward and work hard for justice, things do get better,” said Harrell, who 25 years ago became the first Black CEO in United Way of King County’s history. As we celebrate Black History Month by recognizing pioneers, we recognize one of our own in Harrell, who served at the helm for three years and spearheaded initiatives that last to this day.

 “[Being United Way CEO] was about bringing my skillsets and talents forward to address key community issues, ways that are meaningful and help others and move the community forward,” Harrell said. “It was a phenomenal place to be and a phenomenal opportunity to drive change and make the world better.”

Harrell grew up in Washington, D.C., to a close-knit family and in a community where it was common to see Black doctors, lawyers, lawmakers and scientists. Her role models were women like Amelia Earhart, the American aviator who was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. From early on, she endeavored to go where her talents would take her; being a first at something merely came with the territory.

“Whatever the seats are which we occupy as ‘the first,’ our greatest impacts come from giving our best and leaving a clear and positive path for those to follow as we represent our communities well,” said Harrell, who recently retired from Microsoft after 20 years of service. Currently, she’s Seattle’s First Lady, the wife of Mayor Bruce Harrell. “My focus has been on giving my best—trying to be at the top of my game because it’s not really about me—but making the path broader and the road better for others.”

My focus has been on giving my best–trying to be at the top of my game because it’s not really about me–but making the broader path and the road better for others.

Joanne Harrell

Harrell became United Way’s CEO in 1997 just two years after embattled United Way of America CEO William Aramony was sentenced to seven years in prison after being convicted of stealing $1.2 million from the national organization. The highly publicized controversy affected United Ways worldwide and locally fueled funders’ objections to the King County organization’s operating costs.

During her three-year tenure, Harrell oversaw development and execution of marketing and fundraising strategies that vaulted United Way of King County’s revenue from $54 million to $93 million. United Way also created the Gates Endowment during Harrell’s tenure, with a $110 million funding target that offset the organization’s operating costs.  

United Way also began its homelessness work under Harrell. “It was called Out of the Rain,” Harrell said. “Even 25 years ago, we were doing the counts of people who were unsheltered and trying to be a catalyst in terms of convening and aligning resources and providers.”

Joanne Harrell, her husband Mayor Bruce Harrell and their two grandchildren

Her work at United Way has typified a career of service and outreach. Harrell also served as Vice-President and State CEO at US West Communications (now Lumen Technologies), and has served on boards of the YWCA, the Salvation Army and Atlantic Street Center. Not bad for someone whose first job as a teenager was a Red Cross candy striper, a volunteer who works in health care settings.

“My father said that, before I go out and get regular employment, I should help somebody first,” said Harrell. Her desire to help people has never waned, and Harrell said that many of the issues that Seattle and King County face were present during her United Way tenure. She said she hopes the county would continue to address the homelessness problem and would make substance abuse treatment free and available to everyone. Families should have resources to help them thrive and everyone in the city should feel safe.

“And there should be equal education opportunities,” Harrell said.  “Genius is spread among all races equally, and, if everyone could look at all children and love them like they do their own and have all that level of passion and empathy and commitment to their success, the world would be better.”


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