Karen Profita

Karen Profita

President/CEO, Capital Area United Way

In spite of its 124-year history, its pioneering concept of workplace fund-raising and its financial support of local agencies, United Way has received criticism for its lack of innovation, especially now, when more nonprofits compete for fewer dollars.

Karen Profita, president/CEO of Capital Area United Way, says friends told her she was crazy for accepting the position in 2008. But the longtime business and nonprofit executive was unfazed. She's part of a new guard of United Way leaders adding assertive new initiatives meant to transition the organization into a forward-thinking agent of change.

"If our job is just to pass along money, it's simply too slow and expensive," Profita says. "This organization has to be about making an impact."

Under Profita's leadership, the Capital Area chapter has pinpointed a community issue: early childhood development. Louisiana's high-school dropout rate—4.6% in 2009-10, according to the state Department of Education—is linked to crime and to a shortage of trained workers.

"Focusing on the birth-to-five years is so much more cost-effective," she says, citing the statistical likelihood of children dropping out of school when they haven't learned to read.

This summer, the organization will announce a series of 10-year goals for the community, many of which address early education.

CAUW also has beefed up its investment in impact initiatives, like the Knock Knock Children's Museum, whose exhibits will be devoted to early childhood, and Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, which provides free books to children in rural areas.

"We excel as collaborators, and we're good at convening," Profita says.

She has been credited with restoring trust in an organization that is recovering from inconsistent leadership. She reduced overhead and paid countless visits to funders, sharing her vision along the way.

Her hard work has paid off: CAUW raised $10 million in total pledges from its most recent campaign and distributed $7.5 million to 45 service agencies in the 10-parish region. Moreover, public participation in the distribution of funds was at an all-time high: 160 volunteers spent more than 3,000 hours evaluating community programs.

Profita is also leading CAUW toward a more competitive funding process. Last year, agencies that received funds in the previous year were guaranteed only 80% and had to compete for the balance. In 2011, the guaranteed amount fell to 50%.

In the future, agencies that want to apply for United Way funds will participate in zero-based funding, she says, which will push local nonprofits toward collaboration, social enterprise, alternative funding sources and overall excellence.
Profita is bullish on Baton Rouge's ability to leap forward and wrestle social issues, like early childhood education, to the ground.

"We have one of those windows that come along every 20 years to really do something," she says, adding that the United Way can play a fundamental role.

"This is an organization with great bones and a wonderful base. Ultimately, we don't want to be judged on how much money we've raised, but on what kind of change we've brought about in the community."

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