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United Way’s Traci Wickett doesn’t give up easily

October 1, 2018

Traci Wickett learned at the tender age of 12 just how much persistence can pay off.

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, the 8th-grader was yanked out of school by her parents three months before middle school graduation for a move to Grand Prairie, between Dallas and Fort Worth. Wickett, a budding equestrian who nevertheless wasn’t allowed to have a horse, set strict terms for her cooperation.

“I was very perturbed and I sort of blackmailed my father, that I would behave much better if I knew that there were a horse waiting for me,” she said.

Wickett didn’t give up, her father gave in and she got her horse, Nelly, which she rode around the streets of Grand Prairie, then a large town of 25,000.

“I was a dog with a bone,” Wickett said. “I’m still a dog with a bone.”

That quality of stick-to-itiveness has served her well as president and CEO of United Way of Southern Cameron County, a position she’s held for 23 years since making the jump from the private sector in 1983.

Wickett had been an information technology specialist for Mercantile Bank in Corpus Christi, with territory that extended to Brownsville. She met a Brownsville banker, fell in love, got married and moved to the tip of Texas. When she arrived for work at UWSCC her first day on the job, the staff consisted of one receptionist, period.

Today the organization has a staff of seven, though running a nonprofit is still hard.

“In the nonprofit world, we need to start showing return on investment immediately,” Wickett said. “That’s kind of a different expectation from the for-profit world.”

The pressure to keep overhead extremely low, meanwhile, makes it harder for the organization to extend its reach to help more people, she said.

“So you can’t really invest much in the capacity of your organization to bring about the change,” Wickett said. “At the same time you’re expected to bring about change more quickly than someone who’s running a commercial enterprise.”

At the same time, UWSCC’s mission of advancing the common good on multiple fronts, has never been more vital.

“We fight for the health, education and financial stability of every person in this community, and we invite people to join us, and to bring their skills, passion and expertise to the table,” Wickett said.

Donors’ expectations have changed, she noted. Whereas previous generations gave money to charity, assumed good things would come of it and left it at that, today’s donors want to be more engaged, Wickett said.

“They want a whole different experience,” she said. “To the credit of younger philanthropists, they want authentic engagement with the charity, not just a hands-off transaction.”

It’s required charities to change their models to accommodate that desire, which means figuring where supporters can get involved and see the results of their philanthropy, and put their time and energy to use in addition to their financial donations, Wickett said.

“It’s worth it if we can figure out how to do it properly,” she said. “It definitely can be good. … If we didn’t have hundreds of volunteers to advise us and come and find their niche and help us fill all of the gaps that we have because we are so tiny, we not be able to provide value to the community.”

Wickett, as head of UWSCC for so long, may seem almost synonymous with the organization, though she insisted nothing could be farther from the truth.

“I could be without a job tomorrow and this organization would still be here and thriving because it belongs to the community, and they’re represented by the board of directors,” she said. “I am a hired hand. I have spent years working on sustainability and making sure that the day I walk out that door this place continues to thrive.”

Proof that Wickett has a life outside of UWSCC hangs on the wall above her desk: A blown-up, framed photograph of her scuba diving alongside a large sea turtle off Black Rock, Hawaii.

“This helps me go to me happy place anytime that I’m sitting here feeling overwhelmed,” she said.

Wickett loves being in the water. Seeing a whale shark while diving is at the top of her bucket list. There again, maybe persistence will pay off. No doubt it’s been indispensable in helping her build UWSCC into the far-reaching charitable organization it is today.

“When they interviewed me for this job I was asked the question, what is your worst fault and what is your best quality, and I said they are exactly the same thing,” Wickett said. “I am a dog with a bone. I just can’t let go until I get to where I need to go. That tenacity has served me well in certain aspects of my life, but has just been crippling in other aspects.”

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com

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