Elise Buik had a vision when she took the helm of United Way of Greater Los Angeles in 2005. Simply put, it was to guide the staid non-profit beyond its fundraising roots into the frontlines of “impact and mission.”

So the non-profit’s first female chief executive launched a yearlong study to determine the most pressing needs in Los Angeles County. They turned out to be homelessness, school dropouts and economic family stability.

“I think it was at a fork in the road,” said Buik, 45, a former marketing executive in the private sector. “Did we want to become more of an impact organization?”

She then initiated a competitive request for proposals, the first in the organization’s 80-year history, through which would-be recipients had to, in essence, bid for the help.

It was a delicate task and, in the end, scores of longtime beneficiaries lost funding, resulting in some grumbling and complaints. But by most accounts, the effort ultimately succeeded.

“Her leadership style is very inclusive,” said Regina Birdsell, president of the Center for Nonprofit Management, an L.A. non-profit consultancy. “She has revitalized the organization.”

Buik said there is simply no other way to run an organization like the United Way, which faces so many competing interests.

“In a job like this, people are always looking to you for the answers,” she said. “What I’ve learned to say is, ‘Let’s search for answers together.’”

Buik has tried to fulfill the United Way’s new mission in other ways. In addition to narrowing the organization’s focus, she has become an outspoken voice in public policy debates.

Recent examples include the agency’s successful push with the L.A. school board for every student to have access to college prep courses, United Way’s support of universal health care for all California children and the non-profit’s work with the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce to form a business task force on homelessness.

She also has been successful at the traditional core mission of the non-profit: raising money from corporate and other partners to distribute to its wide base of affiliated charities. United Way managed to bring in $60.7 million last year – almost $1 million more than in 2007 – despite the economic collapse. The bulk of the money goes to charities.

“I think she’s really connecting the business muscle to the social sector; it’s a brilliant combination,” Birdsell said.

Buik said her own business background has helped.

Born in Atlanta, she was the marketing director for First Data Health Systems Group, a medical software developer in Charlotte, N.C., when the company transferred her to Los Angeles 17 years ago. Later, rather than accept a transfer back to Charlotte, Buik went to work for United Way in downtown Los Angeles, first as vice president of marketing and than chief operating officer before becoming chief executive.

“We run United Way as a business. It’s the best of both worlds when you can marry vision with business principles,” said the former businesswoman.

When she can get away, Buik tries to spend time doing family things with her husband and sons, age 8 and 5.

“You know the kind of stuff I’m talking about,” she said; “hiking, dogs and kids’ sports.”

NON-PROFIT

ELISE BUIK, 45

United Way of Greater Los Angeles

YEARS ON THE JOB: 4

QUOTE: “In a job like this, people are always looking to you for the answers. What I’ve learned to say is, ‘Let’s search for answers together.’”

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.