William “Bill” Underwood, a widely respected civic leader and fundraiser in the volunteer community who served 23 years as executive director of United Way in Sacramento, died Aug. 15 of cancer, his family said. He was 79.
Mr. Underwood was credited with raising the United Way’s profile and the level of giving to nonprofit organizations during a period of steady growth in the Sacramento region. Following a nationwide search, he was chosen to lead the Sacramento Area United Crusade in 1972. In addition to a change in the name to United Way Sacramento Area, he oversaw increases in staffing and budget as the agency added nonprofit members and raised more money from corporate and individual donations.
“United Way thrived under his leadership,” said Stephanie McLemore Bray, president and chief executive officer of the agency known today as United Way California Capital Region. “He built strong partnerships with companies and businesses in the region, many of which we still have today.”
Mr. Underwood was well known among national nonprofits as a member of the United Way of America’s professional advisory council and strategic planning council. He served as chairman of the 1992 National Philanthropy Day and president of the Central California chapter of the National Society of Fund Raising Executives.
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He was active in Sacramento as a leader, board member and volunteer for many nonprofit groups. He was president of Business Volunteers for the Arts and belonged to the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club of Sacramento.
After retiring from United Way in 1995, he served as interim president of Capital Public Radio. He was active in establishing professional standards for associations and was a leader in local, state and national association executive groups.
“He was very skilled at what he did,” said Jim McColm, former executive officer of the Sacramento Red Cross. “He was a good fundraiser and an enabler of people. He encouraged people and tried to provide the community with services that would improve people’s lives.”
Born in 1934 in Pasadena, William Jesse Underwood graduated from Occidental College. He left a job at a Los Angeles insurance agency to be a community organizer during the 1960s War on Poverty and embarked on a career in nonprofit agencies as a Boy Scouts executive in Riverside County.
He went on to work at United Crusade agencies in Hemet, Whittier and Sonoma County after a family crisis introduced him to important services provided by volunteer and nonprofit groups, his daughter Ramona Allen said. His first wife, Betty, was hospitalized for several months with a serious illness, prompting him to seek help for her and his family from a local blood bank, Salvation Army and visiting nurses association.
“He said he needed to feel that what he was doing had a purpose,” his daughter said. “He was very passionate about volunteering, and he wanted to inspire others to volunteer.”
Mr. Underwood’s first marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife of 38 years, Sandy; three sons, Jeffrie, Ted and Jon; seven grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
A memorial service is set for 1 p.m. Thursday at Fremont Presbyterian Church, 5770 Carlson Drive, Sacramento. Memorial donations may be made to United Way California Capital Region or to Sutter Hospice.