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Updated: August 5, 2019 Women to Watch

Women to Watch: Liz Cotter Schlax, a CEO marshalling volunteers’ superpowers

PHOTo / Tim Greenway Liz Cotter Schlax, President and CEO of United Way of Greater Portland

Liz Cotter Schlax, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Portland, is a strategic thinker.

She helps put the “united” in United Way, motivating hundreds of volunteers to get together to work on a cause. She’s also good at identifying what each volunteer brings to the effort — putting to work “whatever your superpowers are,” she says.

At the United Way of Greater Portland, she oversees an annual operating budget of $8 million. For the fiscal year 2020, the nonprofit invested $6.84 million in community programs ranging from the Preble Street soup kitchen to Portland Adult Education. Some 45 volunteers spent more than 600 hours evaluating requests and ensuring grants were distributed objectively.

“We can’t do this work alone,” says Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street. “We’re humbled by the continued support of United Way in empowering our vulnerable neighbors to strive toward health, stability and independence.”

In five years leading the area United Way, Cotter Schlax is already making her mark. She worked with stakeholders to develop and carry out a long-range strategic plan, Thrive 2027. It focuses on three goals: Giving kids a strong start, helping families earn a living wage and finding ways to help people live longer, healthier lives.

Photo / Tim Greenway
Liz Cotter Schlax, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Portland, has taken a strategic approach in her five years there.

In recent weeks, after putting out a call for volunteers to help work with asylum seekers who have been streaming into Portland, the United Way built a coalition of 1,900 volunteers. The biggest need is for translators and people willing to do food service.

“We recruit the volunteers then send them to the city and they train them,” Cotter Schlax says. “Our role is to bring the people together.”

Born in N.Y., raised in Waterville

Cotter Schlax was born in Oyster Bay, N.Y., but her family moved to Waterville when she was in third grade. Her father, William Cotter, who had represented the Ford Foundation in Colombia and worked as an assistant attorney general in Northern Nigeria, served as president of Colby College from 1979 to 2000. The house was filled with artifacts from around the world. She graduated from Waterville High School, and recently went back for her 30th reunion.

“Academia was the family business,” she says. “I was so lucky to grow up on a college campus. We’d go to plays, movies, ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ basketball games.”

For college, she went to Harvard University, where she studied sociology, which helped her in her eventual journey into the world of nonprofits. While in college, she took a year off to work with Up With People, an international service-related nonprofit that moved her group of students around the world, from the U.S. to Belgium and Finland, among other European countries, then Russia.

“It was right before the fall” of the USSR, she says. “It was an amazing time to be there.”

Her natural interest in people combined with a love of data gave her the foundation to pursue work in nonprofits after college.

“It tapped into my natural personality, what I enjoyed,” she says.

One of her first jobs was with Up With People, this time as a staffer.

“We’d go to a new community and you’d have to get acclimated. There’d be host families. There were service projects. What captivated me was the service side and the education side. In my family, there were always stories of other countries. I saw my parents, who had the desire, bravery and courage to go live in Africa … The international piece and the service piece came together” working for Up With People.

After several years living out of a suitcase, “I got tired of not having a kitchen or a closet,” she jokes.

She briefly settled in Washington, D.C., working as a White House volunteer in the Clinton administration and then at the nonprofit KaBOOM, which builds playgrounds in communities that cannot afford them.

Around this time she met her future husband, Michael Schlax, who was earning a Ph.D at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She moved to Madison and worked for two nonprofits, including the United Way of Dane County, where she was campaign director. Then they moved together to New York City, where she earned an MBA at Columbia University. Her now-husband worked at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J.

Despite a now-growing resume in the nonprofit sector, in 2002 both she and her husband went to work for John Deere Co., she in strategic planning and business development and her husband in engineering. Over more than six years, they were stationed in Moline, Ill.; Raleigh, N.C.; Zwiebrueken, Germany; and finally Des Moines, Iowa. Along the way, one daughter was born in North Carolina and the other in Germany.

It was in Des Moines that she went to the director of the United Way of Central Iowa and offered herself as a volunteer.

She told the director she’d worked at United Way and had experience in strategic planning and fundraising, and expected to be placed in a volunteer situation.

“She called me back and offered me a job as senior vice president of resource development,” she recalls.

She moved up to chief advancement officer and eventually spent six years at the United Way of Central Iowa.

A return to Maine

Fast forward to the July 4th weekend of 2014, visiting her parents, who were now living in Concord, Mass., she heard that Suzanne McCormick, CEO of the United Way of Greater Portland, was planning to leave her post. (After five years at United Way Suncoast in Tampa, Fla., McCormick is now U.S. president of United Way Worldwide.) Cotter Schlax leaped at the opportunity to return to Maine.

“I guarantee you I was the first to apply. No one worked harder to get that job,” she says.

By fall of 2014, she and her family were buying a house in Yarmouth and moving their two girls into schools here.

She says by then the tide was shifting for nonprofits across the country. “Fundraising was starting to slip,” she says. “It was a national trend.”

The United Way traditionally works B2B, working with businesses to set up employees with payroll deduction donations. But the United Way was not as effective at getting donations directly from individuals, and Cotter Schlax said that needed to be addressed, in part with better strategic planning to encompass giving from individuals and larger donors, like foundations.

To hone its focus, the United Way in Central Iowa had adopted a long-term strategic plan to zero in on certain goals. Even as she made her bid for the top post at the United Way of Greater Portland, Cotter Schlax laid out a similar vision. She sought consensus from the board, suggesting a course of action. After getting hired, “I went out to meet with 80 to 90 donors,” she says, again laying out a vision that included change.

After holding 90 community “conversations,” meeting with some 2,000 community members, the program she and the staff and volunteers developed was Thrive 2027. It is a plan to focus on early childhood education, measuring third grade reading scores; enable families to thrive, improving household income; and helping people live longer, healthier lives, measuring preventable premature deaths.

“United Way volunteers make decisions, they help deliver on the mission,” she says.

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