Westchester's Greatest Leaders and Bosses: Naomi Adler, Esq., President and CEO of United Way of Westchester and Putnam

As a not-for-profit that funds local assistance programs, United Way of Westchester and Putnam has a lot of people knocking on its doors for cash. So it follows that, when 46-year-old Rockland resident Naomi Adler became CEO in 2008 after holding the same title at United Way of Rockland for seven years, she found an organization that was spread too thin, doling out money without a clear mandate. Couple that with a drop-off in funding in the years prior to her taking over, and Adler had her hands full as she set out to convince those inside and outside the organization that UWWP could become the focused, vigilant grantor it is today.

“You have to know how and where you’re leading people,” Adler says. “We went back to our stakeholders and partners and asked, ‘Why are we relevant?’ and found the organization’s impact was highest in three areas: education, income, and health.” The result was a ground-up restructuring around those three areas; Adler slowly ceased funding for any program outside them.

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“She created the transformation team,” says Susan Schefflein, senior vice president of community impact. And it wasn’t easy—Adler had to sell the changes. “She needed to get the board members on board; she needed to get the volunteers on board. It was a matter of communicating the value of it, the benefit of it, why this was strategic, why it’d be good for the community. People can be resistant.” But Schefflein says, “People on the staff got very excited.” Only to become more excited when they saw how well it was working.

Take the following programs, all introduced as a result of Adler’s reorganization. In education, the Thrive by Five initiative reached 1,057 young children last year by funding training for parents so they could teach their children basic language, literary, social, and emotional skills before they started school. Last year, Teach Me to Fish…Work Skills for Life enrolled 800 people into career-training programs. And for health, UWWP is funding seven agencies to fight childhood obesity in more than 2,000 of Westchester’s children.

Those successes came despite a drop in funding in 2008. Leadership during trying times requires flexibility, Adler says, not to mention boldness. “You have to take risks with vision in mind,” she says. When their best-known program, 2-1-1—a costly-to-run helpline that provides information about food assistance, elder care, emergency response, and other issues—lost state funding, Adler chose to keep the program running, gambling that she could find alternative backing.

“2-1-1 was a huge risk for this organization, and it’s been a financial challenge.” But the risk paid off: “She’s been able to go to all types of resources and make an appeal to obtain funding,” says Monica Tufts, chair of the UWWP board. “She turns every rock over to bring new monies in, and she doesn’t give up.” Today, 2-1-1 is on track to receive state funding in 2013.

“I am completely in awe of the way she led us through change,” Schefflein says. “It has been a real inspiration to have her leadership. She is a tremendously powerful advocate. She gives you the vision and says, let’s get it done.”

Photo by Toshi Tasaki

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