For years, Joci Straus was the sole woman on the executive committee that governs United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County. Long recognized as a community activist and fund-raising dynamo, Straus was happy to be there, of course, but she eventually began to wonder why her committee colleagues were all men. Shouldn’t an organization that stands for charitable giving try harder to attract female leaders?
“Women control more than half of privately owned wealth in this country, they have high-paying jobs, own businesses, and they can write checks without having to get permission from their husbands,” she says, recalling her thinking at the time. “So why weren’t they being asked to join leadership positions in philanthropy? If they are not asked, they are not going to participate. It’s not only about money. It’s about the United Way message of caring for the community. Women have always cared about their communities.”
Not one to wait for someone else to get things done, Straus eventually nominated several other women for the committee. Yet she continued to feel that the city’s premier fund-raising charity wasn’t tapping into the vast potential that local women represent. So three years ago, she founded the Women’s Leadership Council, whose mission is “to recognize and promote philanthropic giving and involvement in United Way among women.” To join required a minimum contribution of $1,000.
Today, WLC has more than 1,100 members who collectively donate $2 million a year. It has been such a success, in fact, that Straus has been asked to chair the entire United Way campaign for 2004, succeeding Frost Bank chairman and CEO Dick Evans. She is only the second woman in the history of the local organization to assume this highly visible role. The goal: $37 million. It’s enough to make even corporate big shots sweat, but Straus remains confident.
“I am aware of the responsibility, but it doesn’t intimidate me, “she says calmly. “People are more than willing to be involved if you present your case to them the right way. I think the community is behind United Way and if not, we’ll get them there.”
Spoken like a true leader! We are sitting in her sun-drenched living room overlooking the Olmos Basin on a late December day. Last night she cooked a Hanukkah meal for 30 family members, but today the house is in perfect order, its mistress poised and stylish as always. And ready to talk about what matters to her, which, one way or another, revolves around the causes she believes in.
Eagerly, Straus lists all the good things United Way supports: services for the elderly, programs for adults with disabilities, children’s shelters, respite care, drop-out prevention programs and more. Altogether, the money collected from thousands of donors is distributed to 120 programs in 70 health and human services agencies throughout Bexar County, helping “hundreds and hundreds of needy people.” Moreover, the overhead cost of the local operation is only 7 percent, one of the lowest among charitable organizations in the country. Always a visionary, Straus has her own ideas on how to expand the campaign beyond the usual big corporations and organizations.
“Our gain is going to be with smaller businesses,” she explains. “Large companies in San Antonio have always been supportive, but we need to go beyond that. We also need to direct the attention of young people to United Way. That’s something I would like to see happen. I am also thinking of having couples work together (to garner support).”
As the campaign chairman, she is responsible for recruiting team captains and developing an overall campaign strategy. “It’s a lot of calling and one-on-one visits with people to get them to sign up,” she says.
United Way president Howard Nolan has no doubt that Straus will sign them up.
“Joci has a unique ability to raise dollars from both individuals and corporations,” says Nolan, who has known Straus for a long time. “We look for a high-profile individual who has shown leadership and caring for the human services sector in the community and is able to inspire others, and Joci embodies all these qualities. She will bring her spirit and style (to the job) that we haven’t had recently. She is a very persuasive person, but she does it very gently and nicely … She does it in such a way that people feel they want to follow her.”
Indeed. When it comes to raising money and making things happen, Straus is an old pro. The wider San Antonio community probably knows her best as the founder of Las Casas Foundation, which secured the funds for the restoration of the historical Majestic and Empire Theatres downtown. But she has also held — or still holds — leadership positions with quite a few other organizations, including the Texas Cultural Trust Council, which raises money for a state-wide arts endowment; the National Council on the Arts; the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, where she heads the development board; the Texas Research and Technology Foundation; St. Mary’s Hall; the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and others. Throughout her career, she has always served as a volunteer.
Born Jocelyn Levi in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, the woman who has given so much of herself to this community became a citizen of our fair city by accident — literally. She was four years old when a car accident stranded the Levi family in the Alamo City for an extended period of time. While ensconced at the St. Anthony Hotel waiting for the vehicle to be fixed, her parents fell in love with San Antonio and decided to settle here. Young Joci grew up on a nearby ranch, attended St. Mary’s Hall and learned some skills that would serve her well throughout her life.
“Living on the ranch at that time was a lesson in self-reliance and creativity,” she says. “We had no TV and no phone. I couldn’t call anybody to help me with my school assignments or if I forgot something. It helped me get organized at an early age. I became a list maker.”
She later attended Mills College in Oakland, CA, but dropped out before graduation to marry Joe Straus Jr., the son of family friends, to whom she has now been married for 51 years. Two daughters and a son soon followed, but the young mom still found time to volunteer. She cut her fund-raising teeth in politics, first as the organizer of Nixon’s Girls in 1960 and then through increasingly more demanding jobs in the Republican Party, including serving on the finance committees for the elder George Bush’s presidential campaigns. To this day, the Strauses remain good friends with George and Barbara Bush as well as with their son, the current president. The latter was, in fact, the first visitor who signed the guest book in their new home back in 1986, and in 1999-2000 Straus served on his national finance committee as he ran for president.
She’s chaired so many task forces, special fund-raising events and finance committees that it’s hardly surprising that she was the one then-mayor Henry Cisneros and developer Tom Wright turned to for help in 1988 when funds were needed to restore the Majestic and the Empire.
“They needed a nonprofit to work with the city and Arts Center Enterprises (theater managers) to raise the money for restoration,” recalls Strauss. “I had other things going on, and I was reluctant to jump in. But they told me the buildings would be torn down if the funds were not raised, and I said yes. The theaters had to be saved. The next day, I started plotting my strategy.”
With her usual charm and grace, she wooed potential donors with lunches on the Majestic stage, an understanding attitude and with her passion for the historical buildings at the heart of downtown. With assistance from then-executive director Elliot Cohen, Straus raised $5 million in 11 months, earning the gratitude of all of San Antonio. Eventually, Las Casas would raise three-quarters of the total restoration cost of $15.5 million.
That same hands-on approach has been her ally in getting people to join the Women’s Leadership Council of United Way. Lawyer and UTHSC president’s wife Graciela Cigarroa became a member two years ago because of Straus.
“Joci invited about 10 of us to a luncheon and introduced us to the wonderful things that the WLC does,” says Cigarroa. “Her enthusiasm in engaging women and her energy are contagious. I got excited about the council and the opportunity to participate in educational programs and visits to agencies.”
What Cigarroa is referring to are aspects of the program Straus and United Way staffer Rhonda Spurlock Dahlke have put in place to appeal to women. Several times a year, WLC organizes clusters of visits to the funded agencies to let the members see first hand how their money is spent. To allow for networking and building friendships, each visit is followed by a lunch in a member’s home. The council also sponsors educational programs addressing social, health and philanthropy issues. A recent program featured former first lady Barbara Bush.
Now that she’s taken on the 2004 campaign, Straus has passed the WLC leadership mantle to colleague Kye Fox. But she will remain involved both in terms of money and time.”You have to donate yourself, or people won’t take you seriously when you ask them for money,” she says. “But since I can’t give millions, I will continue to give of myself.”
Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff
Photographer: Liz Garza Williams