Two of the Region’s Most Influential Nonprofits Embrace New Era of Leadership, Collaboration
There’s been a lot of enthusiasm about the revitalization taking place in downtown Erie these days.
New businesses. New buildings. New energy. New ideas.
But there’s another change under way that is also reason for excitement.
At a time when the benefits of diversity — including gender diversity — in the workplace are becoming more widely acknowledged, two of the most influential nonprofit organizations in the northwest Pennsylvania region are embracing a new era of leadership and collaboration.
Leading the way are Laurie Root, president of United Way of Erie County, and Karen Bilowith, president and CEO of The Erie Community Foundation (ECF). Both women are respected veterans in the nonprofit sector and share a common goal — to improve the quality of life in the Erie community.
As head of United Way since August 2021, Root is a driving force of the local social impact organization, which has generated more than $5 million annually in community investments to break the cycle of poverty and improve the local community.
Bilowith, who has led The Erie Community Foundation since October 2021, oversees one of the region’s largest public nonprofits — a network of 800 charitable endowments that injects more than $21 million annually in support of the Erie region.
Root and Bilowith acknowledge that they were both enthusiastic to embark on their new positions as their organizations advance some very important and impactful community initiatives.
“I’ve made a commitment to the community, and I want to see it through,” explains Root. “I think that the leadership skills and the experience that I bring to this position are what is needed right now for this organization. Our strategy is set, and we are in a position to leverage the impact of that because we have all of the pieces and players in place.”
“The Foundation has been doing some innovative and progressive things in terms of helping to partner with businesses and the public sector on the growth that was happening in Erie and building on the momentum,” adds Bilowith, “and I wanted to be able to help bring a new perspective and leadership to that particular emphasis of The Erie Community Foundation.”
Indeed, both leaders have the backing of their professional teams and Board members. But they also share a passion for leadership that has been decades in the making.
For Karen Bilowith, the journey to lead The Erie Community Foundation has taken her across the country and back. From a young age, the Vermont native says her parents encouraged her and her sister to pursue their dreams without limits — be it sports, education or career — ultimately shaping her leadership aspirations. Bilowith’s path took her to Boston College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, and then West, where she earned a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Colorado.
From there, Bilowith’s professional career led her to the Denver Zoological Foundation and American Red Cross. She also served as president and chief professional officer for United Way of Schenectady County in upstate New York and as a senior program officer for the National AIDS Fund in Washington, D.C. — a position in which she went into local communities across the country to develop their philanthropic plan for HIV and AIDS services. Quickly becoming a rising leader in the nonprofit sector, Bilowith continued to challenge herself with new opportunities — as president and CEO of the Community Foundation for the Greater Capital Region in Albany, New York, and eventually, her position as the president and CEO of the Idaho Community Foundation.
Bilowith’s impactful leadership also earned considerable recognition. In 2020, she was recognized with a CEO of Influence award by the Idaho Business Review and in June 2013 received the Key4Women Achieve Award.
Bilowith, who describes herself as a “big picture thinker,” credits her colleagues — both men and women — for helping her hone and leverage her skills, and for giving her a chance. “Just having people say, ‘I want to hear what you think’ has been really important to my professional journey, so I always try to develop that in my staff as well and empower them,” she explains.
Bilowith’s leadership experience has certainly prepared her for her role at ECF, where making an impact has been an integral part of The Foundation since the first charitable endowment fund was established by Boston Store co-founder Elisha Mack in 1935.
“I love being part of a community foundation because I think we have a really special role in helping people who love their communities participate in helping them,” says Bilowith. “Every day at The Erie Community Foundation, we connect donors to important community causes.”
ECF’s impact certainly can’t be overstated. Over the past few years, The Foundation has averaged $21.3 million annually in new gifts and $19.9 million in annual grant-making. The Foundation also has worked closely with corporate and civic leadership to raise $27 million in start-up funding to transform the downtown Erie, while also strengthening adjacent neighborhoods.
The Foundation has led the effort to establish a community college, a center city Innovation District and the expansion of the Magee-Women’s Research Institute in Erie, a $26 million medical research facility that represents a unique partnership of UPMC Hamot, and Penn State University, the Behrend Campus. The Foundation’s initiatives also include Erie Vital Signs, the Nonprofit Partnership and Erie Gives, the annual community fundraising campaign.
At a time when diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts have become more prominent discussions in the community and business world, The Erie Community Foundation also has been an early adopter of initiatives to help foster inclusivity. One of the most exciting initiatives launched during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the We Believe in Erie Fund — a shared fund that will provide more than $100,000 in support of GEEDC and its programs for minority scholarship and apprenticeship programs.
At the organizational level, ECF also has developed its own team and board to be more diverse. In 2022, the Foundation added three new members to its Board of Trustees — all women, including Robin Scheppner of American Tinning & Galvanizing, Karinna Vernaza, Ph.D. of Gannon University, and Annē Lewis of Red Letter Hospitality, the youngest trustee in its history.
“We’re headed in the right direction, and we’re finding new ways to engage the communities that we are supporting,” says Bilowith.
Bilowith’s positive approach definitely shapes her leadership. The self- described outdoor enthusiast, skier and bicyclist, does not consume “emotional calories” by giving into negativity, a view she embraced from a colleague at the National AIDS Fund. “Don’t put it out there because that gives it life. I try to follow that, staying positive while being realistic.”
Bilowith has good reason to be excited about what’s ahead. As ECF gets more involved with collaborative community efforts, including leveraging federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, The Foundation will be instrumental in ensuring that DEI efforts are implemented, not just discussed. “You see it all the time that there are new buildings, new institutions created, but the chal- lenge remains the same because not all the people are benefiting from that growth and that is something that we plan to hone in on and pay attention to.”
Another priority for ECF is Erie Gives, which shattered giving records in 2021, raising over $7 million for 438 nonprofits. In her leadership role, Bilowith sees more opportunities to work with employers on making giving and volunteering part of their employment engagement strategies. “When it comes to Erie Gives, we can’t stop prioritizing because the nonprofits really depend on that money, but because it is also an entry point for people in philanthropy that creates the culture of giving and an important part of our mission.”
Transformational grant-making programs are an important part of ECF. The next stage will require Bilowith and her team to find more ways to sustain them and get more people involved with community transformation projects. Most recently, ECF presented a $3 million grant from the Susan Hirt Hagen Fund to the expERIEnce Children’s Museum to help with its renovation and expansion that will nearly double its footprint in downtown Erie. Bilowith also would like to see more focus on women leadership efforts, including the Erie Women’s Fund, which helps empower women and families and foster self-sufficiency. The ECF Board already has made a $30 million commitment to transformational philanthropy and $10 million to impact investing, which is going to drive The Foundation’s focus for the next five years.
“There are so many ways for businesses to be involved in philanthropy, whether it’s Erie Gives or thinking about working with us as a partner in their corporate giving,” says Bilowith. “I’m excited about what’s ahead.”
When it comes to Erie, Laurie Root knows the importance of leaning in and lifting up the community. A self-described “Boomerang-er,” the Erie native returned to her hometown armed with the experience and dedication to make a difference.
A graduate of Hollins University, Root held high-profile positions in the for-profit and nonprofit areas in the Washington, D.C. region, including working for the late Pennsylvania Senator John Heinz. She also worked in the publishing business and in Seoul, Korea, as a TV writer and contributor to the nation’s then No. 1 TV show, “Quiz Academy” as well as “Everyday English.” She returned to D.C. where she joined a national trade association and helped develop an executive education program in partnership with Harvard University, eventually leading to her role as vice president for Women in Cable Telecommunications.
After 30 years away from Erie, Root found the time was right to return home to family and friends, and to a new professional opportunity at United Way of Erie County. She took on the role as vice president of Investor Relations and then senior vice president before being named president in 2021.
During that time, Root has been a formidable figure in advancing women in leadership efforts in Erie. She was honored as the recipient of the 2016 Women Making History award from the Mercy Center for Women, the 2015 Women’s Roundtable Woman of the Year Award, as well as the 2013 ATHENA Leadership Award.
“Leadership and executive leadership development have had a profound impact on how I view my role, and hopefully I set an example for other women to take that extra step up into leadership and take on the roles and responsibilities that may initially feel a little bit out of their comfort zone.”
The changes under way at United Way have certainly prepared Root to lead. Over the past eight years, she has helped lead United Way’s transition from a pass-through fundraising entity to a social impact organization — a major change for an organization that has been part of the community since 1911.
“We’ve completely changed the model of who we are as an organization,” says Root, “and I think that our Board saw the impact that we, as an organization, could have and they, as thought leaders, didn’t back away from that.”
A visible commitment to this change is the organization’s 2021 office move to the former Wayne School building on East Avenue across from East Middle School. The Wayne School space is also the home of other community impact organizations, the Erie Center for Arts and Technology (ECAT), the Blue Coats peacekeeping initiative and the new UPMC Jameson School of Nursing.
United Way’s new home also places it centrally located in the 16503 ZIP code. The area is among the city’s most poverty stricken and where the demand for United Way’s Call 211 helpline is highest, connecting residents with resources such as childcare, utility payments and more.
Under its new social impact model, United Way’s work is an even more critical component of an overall economic development eco-system for Erie, with investment and focus on the human capital component upstream that will feed directly into the downstream investments in the community.
At United Way, according to Root, that means staying laser focused on education and its flagship strategy, community schools, in which students and their families are connected to community resources that lead to improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities. United Way presently has 11 community schools in four school districts serving more than 6,000 students in Erie County. By the end of the 2021-2022 school year, all of the public elementary and three middle schools in Erie’s Public Schools will be community schools.
The business community has been very supportive of the model by becoming Corporate Partners, helping to fund the initiative. One of the community schools, Diehl Elementary, has a coalition of eight companies that came together to support the initiative. They understand that this is not only an investment in the community but also an investment in the future workforce.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” explains Root. “This is going be a generation- and-beyond commitment in the community to assure that children, no matter what ZIP code they are living in, have a level playing field in terms of achieving academic success in school, and it drives everything we do now.”
United Way has embraced collaboration with other local organizations, volunteers and businesses to mobilize the community to help more people achieve self-sufficiency. In fact, United Way also has partnered with many employers in the Erie region to support its other initiatives, including the grade-level reading program Raising Readers, as well as the Imagination Library, a free book program for children from birth to age 5, which will give away its 1 millionth book in early 2023. “The community has really supported this, and the impact has been in incredible,” says Root.
The Erie FREE Taxes program continues to be an economic driver for the community as well. In 2019, United Way surpassed the program’s impact of $100 million in the community with the Earned Income Tax Credit and savings refunds to lower and middle income individuals.
According to Root, financial stability is essential to family stability, which is critical to student success in school. But it will also take a united community, led by a diverse and dedicated team, to crush poverty — United Way’s ultimate goal.
“We have an outstanding team of professionals with extraordinary education and experience backgrounds, but everyone also has a passion for helping people lift themselves up and lift up the community,” she says. “While we all bring a different perspective and skill set, what ties us together is that commitment to the people in the community, to the children, their families and to Erie.”