Photo of University Hall

Tom Toronto ’79

Changing the Landscape for Those in Need

Posted in:

Photo of Tom Toronto

Tom Toronto ’79 brings heart, soul and on-the-ground leadership to the quest for affordable housing in New Jersey. As President of Bergen County’s United Way, he has helped hundreds of seniors, veterans, and individuals with physical and developmental disabilities, such as autism, thrive in quality homes in good communities.

But there was a time when Toronto wasn’t even sure he wanted to follow his older brothers’ footsteps to college. “I decided to try night school and enrolled at Montclair State,” he recalls. “It wasn’t long, though, before my advisor helped me re-set my expectations.”

Toronto matriculated as a full-time student and soon came to embrace Montclair State life. “I became a building manager at the Student Center,” he says. “At the time, it was one of the best student jobs on campus. I got to know the administrators and learned a lot about how an institution of higher education operates. I was at the center of the action – I even got to meet Joe DiMaggio when he made a campus visit. It made for a rich college experience.”

Although Toronto majored in political science and history, he sampled a wide variety of disciplines, from Chinese language to public speaking. “I was a student at a time when it was easier to experiment while earning your degree,” he says. The Peace Corps was on his list of things to try.

“The Peace Corps was in a period of transition,” he says, “and the requirements were becoming more specific. I submitted my application but was wait-listed.”

Toronto’s commitment to community and the public good continued to grow, however, and he began to consider other ways he could be of service. “I took a job at Columbia University and started working toward a master’s degree in public administration,” he says.

“One day I found a United Way pledge card in my mailbox,” he says. “Without thinking much about it I filled out the form and submitted it. My supervisor came to see me the next day – it turns out I was the only member of his team to make a pledge! He asked me to help encourage others to participate.”

Soon Toronto was meeting United Way executives and learning that there was a way to do good in a business-like way. He applied for an internship with the organization. “I thought I would be stationed in Denver, but instead they sent me to Jersey City,” he says with a laugh.

Assignments in South Jersey and Philadelphia followed. “Each United Way is its own organization,” he explains. “This makes it possible to confront seismic changes in society and technology, and to reinvent what we’re doing to address current needs.”

“I was working closely with large corporations to manage workplace giving,” he continues. “Aside from the fun aspects – like seeing how Oreo cookies are made – it was interesting to develop marketing programs specific to each company.”

Toronto leaned into technology to design campaigns that encompassed corporate partners’ national, and sometimes international, footprints. It was fascinating work, but ultimately drew Toronto away from his own sense of purpose.

After 9/11, Toronto decided to go all-in to address the lack of affordable housing in his home state and by 2002, he was named president of Bergen County’s United Way.

“Few organizations working in affordable housing development had enough capital to launch projects,” he notes, “but Bergen County’s United Way had a healthy balance sheet and could take on the risk. We stepped in as a developer, builder and owner.”

Under Toronto’s leadership, Bergen County’s United Way has completed 34 projects and has 22 more in the pipeline, becoming in the process New Jersey’s largest provider of supportive housing for seniors, veterans, and individuals with physical and developmental disabilities such as autism. Importantly, the organization has helped to demystify affordable housing and to show how these projects can benefit communities.

Toronto is grateful for what his Montclair State education taught him about critical thinking, as it relates to public policy in particular. “I learned the dynamics of public administration from top-notch professors,” he says. “They taught me how to use public policy to achieve greater good. They inspired me to strive for something bigger than myself.”

Toronto contributes his time to the Bergen Leads Advisory Board and has lately been considering how he might get more involved with his alma mater. He is impressed by the University’s expansion and diversity and is excited to see that the Feliciano School of Business now offers tracks in real estate.

For students to benefit fully from the University’s excellence, he encourages them to use their undergraduate years as a time of exploration. “If you’re an arts major, take a class in accounting, if you’re a business major, try a course in sociology,” he counsels. “Do all you can to broaden your perspective.”