United Way: Mark, tell us about your role leading American Red Cross of Wisconsin.
Mark Thomas: For the past three years I have fulfilled the role of regional CEO and southeast Wisconsin chapter executive for the American Red Cross. In this role I am fortunate to head up a large team of 48 staff members and over 2,000 volunteers. My approach to leadership is one of understanding that I surely can't do this alone. Partnership and teamwork are very important. The question I ask myself is, “how can I galvanize and lead my team but also stay enough out of the way to allow the magic to happen?” Appreciation, collaboration, and an open mind to new and fresh ideas are key to my leadership style.
What is a highlight of your work?
I have daily highlights. At the American Red Cross, our mission is to assist people impacted by disaster. Each day when my wife asks how my day was, I can tell her a true story about someone we helped – a fire victim, a flood victim, a person in Kentucky who was supported by our exported resources, a young person learning how to swim, or a person in need of a blood donation.
I know that every day, no matter how tough the day was or how dark the situation was, we helped someone.
What motivated you to choose a career in the nonprofit sector?
Growing up here in the central city of Milwaukee I saw people who were much less fortunate than myself and I always had a passion for lending a hand.
When I started my career in the for-profit sector, I knew I wanted to give back and becoming a United Way donor was my first step. Then I accepted a position on the board of Next Door. After 30 years in the for-profit world, I knew I had some transferrable skills that would allow me to go into nonprofit management and have a deeper impact in the Milwaukee community.
What words of encouragement or advice do you have for young professionals of color looking to enter or advance a career in nonprofit?
Don’t talk, act. It’s easy to talk about and identify the challenges we are facing – I’ve been part of those conversations for nearly 40 years. But by taking action, even in a small way, you can effect change. A movement starts small, but once you galvanize others and get them excited and passionate about the issue, an activity can become a movement.
Speak out, but then act. Find the nonprofit that aligns with your passion and get started.
What is a community issue that you are particularly passionate about and why?
The community issue I’m particularly passionate about is employment. The jobs are out there, but we must make sure people have access to those jobs and have the resources they need to do a good job. As employers, we have an obligation to ensure the environment within our organizations is welcoming and inclusive. So, when someone who looks like me take a job out in the suburbs, going into an environment where there are few others from my neighborhood or with my same life experiences, I feel heard, respected, and can contribute in a meaningful way.
What is your favorite way to give back to the community?
As the leader of a good-sized organization, I like providing opportunities for folks from the communities we serve, whether volunteer or paid opportunities. We serve a lot of people in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties, and I want to make sure our workforce and volunteer force reflects that community.
Another way I give back is by donating. I’m a parent, a spouse, and have a busy job, so I don’t have a lot of hours to volunteer personally. My wife and I are proud to be Tocqueville donors for United Way. I know that our donation, when it gets into the hands of the staff at United Way, makes a significant impact in our community.
Mark, tell us a little more about you.
I have a beautiful wife, Cristy Garcia-Thomas, who is a proud United Way board member. This year, we will celebrate our 20th anniversary! We have two adult sons and a daughter who is a junior in high school. We also have a dog, Zoey, who runs the show.
In my spare time, I love to golf and try to play as much as I can. I enjoy visiting Milwaukee County’s beautiful parks and public golf courses. I am also a barbeque nut and love trying different styles of barbeque across our community. As a fan of the Milwaukee Bucks and the Marquette Golden Eagles, I also spend a fair amount of time at the Fiserv Forum.
Celebrate Mark Thomas and other award winners at United Way’s Annual Meeting on February 15, 2022. Register for this virtual event.