The Giver

Photo by Nathalie Walker

Photo by Nathalie Walker

Aloha United Way president and CEO Cindy Adams has high hopes when it comes to raising funds for the big-hearted organization.

Cindy Adams’ journey from Silicon Valley’s tech world to Aloha United Way’s top leadership role may seem like an unlikely career route.

However, connections come to fruition, upon learning that a civil service family with a ministry in the island communities of HawaiÊ»i and Okinawa raised her. She’s also the kind of trailblazer who can graduate from the University of HawaiÊ»i in small-town Hilo to go on to become one of the few female leaders in the male-dominated tech realm of the 1970s.

“She’s what you’d call a visionary,” says Don Rich, who met Adams about 15 years ago when she was representing Call Sciences on a tech industry panel.

“The industry is a bunch of guys, primarily, and a few sharp women that can hold their own. Eventually, she decided to go back to HawaiÊ»i to reconnect with her family. It was a courageous move to give up what she had going on in Silicon Valley, where she was so well-regarded. I think Aloha United Way is lucky to have her.”

Though only a few months into the job, Adams is already proving her penchant for service and her mettle. In December, she successfully defended the organization against a staff recommendation to advise Gov. David Ige to consider replacing Aloha United Way as the state’s workplace giving program with a combined state-run campaign. The issue, which came before the state Ethics Commission, was dropped. It was an important move since about $849,000 of the approximately $10.8 million Aloha United Way distributed in 2013 came from the state campaign. In addition, the organization is still coming back from the doldrums of the last economic recession, which saw mayor organizational layoffs and restructuring as donations dropped from $13.1 million in 2005 to $9.1 million in 2010.

Cindy and grandsons, Conner in the background and Micah in the foreground, fishing at Kawaihae Harbor, Big Island (photo by Bill Adams).

Cindy and grandsons, Conner in the background and Micah in the foreground, fishing at Kawaihae Harbor, Big Island (photo by Bill Adams).

“We feel like we are kind of in the same place that we were last year. We have definitely come back from 2009, but the pendulum hasn’t swung completely in the other direction. The optimistic side of me thinks that we’ll hit our goal of putting $11.65 million back into the community this year. But we have ground to make up,” she says.

Fresh from her roles as vice president of sales and marketing for CBI Polymers and founding Executive Director of the Hawaii Meth Project, Adams brings a big business perspective to the organization’s continued turnaround, which is vital to the 880,000 or so community members it serves annually.

“There’s so much need here. But, in the business world, when you are hit with an economic downturn, you tighten the belt—and even when it gets better, you don’t loosen it to the third hole again. There’s a little bit of a lag, and if you have achieved an efficiency, you won’t go back again,” says Adams, whose past business acumen also comes from various marketing and operations positions at companies like de Reus Architects and MediaGate.

“Donors are the same way. People are still being cautious,” says Adams, demonstrating what will resonate with the community: The 90-plus-year-old nonprofit still has relevancy and gets results.

Three generations: Cindy's mom, Cindy and her daughter, Jodie (photo by Bill Adams).

Three generations: Cindy’s mom, Cindy and her daughter, Jodie (photo by Bill Adams).

“Making sure to demonstrate our return on investment is critically important,” she says. “We are also looking at identifying additional revenues to bring into the state, such as large federal grants that are focused on the homeless. And, we are looking at how to bring our partner agencies together to meet the various grant requirements.”

Although, she’s still new at the job, Adams said she’s incredibly proud of the more than 250 partner agencies, which come under the 501c3’s umbrella. Longtime friend Lori Lum, who played a significant role in helping Adams launch the Hawaii Meth Project, said it’s clear that Adams is relishing her new role at Aloha United Way.

“She told me that Aloha United Way is a unique opportunity to play a transformative role in HawaiÊ»i,” Lum says. “She feels a tremendous sense of personal responsibility to the donors who expect that Aloha United Way will maximize their investment back into the community to do the most good, to make a significant difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who are our neighbors, friends, co-workers and families.”

L to R: Micah, Cindy and Conner, at the Hilton Waikoloa, Big Island (photo by Bill Adams).

L to R: Micah, Cindy and Conner, at the Hilton Waikoloa, Big Island (photo by Bill Adams).

Helping those in the community who are in need, and inspiring others who are doing well to give back, comes naturally to Adams, whose family taught her to “pay it forward.”

“My dad, James Ota, was [the] pastor of our church. He worked as an electrician, but he always made time to give back. My mom, Jane, was the same way,” Adams says. “I really didn’t think about what effect that they had on my life, until the last couple of years, but they had a significant impact on the direction of my life. It’s coalesced these last 10 years.”

To be sure, their leadership helped shape the kind of woman who is so accountable to her team that she sometimes gets up at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. to send out 15 or 20 emails.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve got these great ideas and I just want to share them…’ but, of course, I think the best ideas come later when we are collaborating.”

She’d like to see similar teamwork from the HawaiÊ»i community, which has identifiable needs in all socioeconomic levels.

“We have to take ownership of the challenges in our community and figure out what role that we want to play in addressing the root causes,” she states. “Every citizen has that responsibility. Some feel it less, but I would ask everyone to step up to the plate.”

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