Mike Fieldman has made helping people his life’s work. For the past 20 years, he’s been doing that as the director of the United Community Action Network.
In February, he announced he will retire later this year.
Fieldman has been at UCAN’s helm for close to half its 50 years, and grown it from a $5.5 million a year operation with about 90 employees to one with an annual budget ranging from $17 million to $21 million and an employee roster of more than 200. Under his watch, it extended services to Josephine County, too.
The food bank expanded, AmeriCorps volunteers were brought into the community and bus services were added. A new Head Start facility was built. The number of apartments available to people struggling with problems like substance abuse and homelessness increased from a handful to 93.
Despite all that, Fieldman is humble about his contributions and optimistic about the organization’s future.
“I want UCAN to continue to thrive. It isn’t about me. It really is about the people who work here, the services we do. I just see myself as having been a steward of the legacy that was given to me, and hopefully passing that on to somebody else,” he said.
And, he said, there’s plenty left for the next leader to accomplish around issues like the housing shortage and food insecurity.
Fieldman sat down recently to talk about his work. During the interview, he said some of his proudest moments came during the recession.
“We had people who used to donate to us coming in and saying, ‘I can’t believe I’m here. I used to donate to you and now I’m here needing help.’ I’m really proud of the fact that we were able to be here for people in our community when they needed it,” he said.
Fieldman said there will be a need for organizations like UCAN as long as it is possible, as it is now, to work full time and not be able to support a family with that income.
Nonprofit organizations are able to tread a middle path between business and government, he said. Like government, they’re accountable to the public for the way their money is spent. Like business, they are required to be flexible enough to capitalize on opportunity. There are 1,100 community action networks across the country. They were started by President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in 1964, and gained steam under President Ronald Reagan, who moved to limit government and increase the role of the nonprofit sector.
That history has given UCAN, and other organizations like it, the ability to bring in dollars from outside the area but use them to make local decisions about how best to address local problems.
“We see what the needs are in the community and try to address them, and we become the repository of programs the government can no longer provide,” he said.
It also means they contribute to the local economy. The nonprofit sector makes up about 15 percent of the nation’s economy. As one of the county’s largest nonprofits, UCAN has generated hundreds of local jobs and spent millions of dollars on construction projects.
Fieldman’s life’s work has centered around social justice. He started his career working with inner city kids in Chicago.
“I guess I just got hooked on making people’s lives better,” he said.
When he was in college, Fieldman briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a minister in the Presbyterian church.
“But I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do or where my strengths were. I just wasn’t good enough with words to think about giving sermons every Sunday,” he said.
You might say he wound up in a different type of ministry, one of reaching out to help the poor and downtrodden.
“I have definitely felt like what I’m doing is a calling for me,” he said.
He said he has loved his work in Douglas County, a place he said is filled with an extraordinary number of generous people.
“There’s more financial support here than any other community I’ve ever worked in before. So that’s unique. I think it’s unique to Douglas County,” he said.
In retirement, he plans to spend more time with his music, playing guitar and singing in two local choirs. He also plans to travel. He’s open minded about what else he might accomplish during retirement. He said he’s always been the sort of person who sets out on a path and just sees where it leads.
“I feel that if there are other things I’m meant to do, that path will open up. The door will open itself up to me, and I’ll know what to do. I’m comfortable with that,” he said.