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Alumni in Action: Anne Wilson (MSW '79)

Anne Wilson

United Way of the Bay Area CEO Anne Wilson's (MSW '79) broad outlook on social work training and service delivery

For Anne Wilson (MSW ’79), CEO of the United Way of the Bay Area, a distinguished career in nonprofit administration was a result of not knowing how – exactly – she wanted to focus her social work career. In trying to determine the right concentration for her master’s program at the School of Social Welfare, she wondered, “Everyone’s picking gerontology or child welfare or environmental health – and I’m interested in all of it. Is that okay? Can I make that work for me as a career?”

The answer was an affirmation from her advisor, Dr. Neil Gilbert, who notes of his former student that "Anne made an impression. There was an air of competence around her." Wilson credits Gilbert for encouraging her to “have a broad experience” and to “look at systems and policy in a wider way.” “I felt like I was going to come out of Berkeley not being an expert on any one thing, and he affirmed that was a respectable path to take,” says Wilson. “It’s proven to be true.”

Wilson opted for a concentration in Community Organization, Planning and Administration (now called “Management and Planning”). The track had 18 students at the time, many of whom had years of real-world experience in the human and social services field. “We came to the program after working in child welfare, mental health, gerontology and brought knowledge of those systems to the table,” she says. 

Adding to the breadth of practical knowledge Wilson gained through her peers was the learning opportunity provided by her program fieldwork. “My field placement was in a place called the United Way,” she says smilingly. “The joke around here is that I first showed up in knee socks as a student.”

At the United Way, Wilson found a place where her wide-ranging interests and broad-based approach to the social services field aligned with organizational priorities. “It was very interesting to me because United Way was at the intersection of the nonprofit sector, the business community and the public sector, and I had never worked in that space before,” she explains. “I was fascinated by the civic engagement that was represented.  All these years later, it is still inspirational to me.”

After completing her MSW degree, Wilson worked as a consultant for Herman Gallegos (MSW ’58). Wilson assisted with administrative duties for a wide-scale evaluation of legal-services agencies across the country until her field placement agency hired her full-time as a planning associate in 1980.

Her enthusiasm for dabbling in different specialty areas continued at the United Way, where she took on varying roles and responsibilities, including fund distribution, agency performance evaluation, communications, grantmaking, public relations and major gifts/individual fundraising. Wilson served as the organization’s “utility player,” as she puts it, all the way into her current position as the first female CEO of the United Way of the Bay Area.

Throughout her career, Wilson notes that she has continuously called on her MSW background to inform the larger scope of her work and professional philosophy. “The values of MSW training are probably more influential than anything else,” she says. “The concepts of self-determination, civic participation, building on assets versus focusing on deficits, are fundamental of that training. Valuing inclusion, valuing participation and looking at the whole person are very much social work tenets -- and they very much guide me.”

Wilson believes these values will continue to provide the framework for future generations of social work professionals, but she hopes that students also prioritize learning “how to lead and how to advocate.” “There are issues in which society and communities need MSW leadership, in content and in process” she says. “Leadership means advocacy, the ability to communicate, the ability to solve problems with others and build partnerships.” She advises students to “go after those kinds of skills or practice by learning from people who are skilled in those areas. Leadership, advocacy, collaboration -- these are the tools that you are going to need.”

Wilson also reiterates the age-old wisdom of “finding your passion.” “If you really care about mental health or gerontology, go after it,” she advises. “Especially if that’s where you will find the greatest satisfaction.”

At the same time, should someone find their passions spread far and wide, Wilson is quick to summarize her MSW advisor’s affirmation, “You can have a satisfying career, make a meaningful contribution and still be a mile wide and an inch deep.”