Karla Isley Building a Community United

Written by: Brady Drake

Karla Isley, newly named President & CEO of United Way of Cass-Clay, accepted the new role because it offers an opportunity to build the type of community she wants her children and all members of our community to live in.

“There are moments in your professional life when you pause and reflect and ask yourself if you can do more–if you can utilize your skills and abilities to create a better community for the next generation,” Isley said. “Asking myself that question led me to accept this position. I’ve been thinking a lot about the mission of United Way to create a better tomorrow for everyone and how I can take an active role in creating a better tomorrow.”

Karla’s Isley’s first day with United Way of Cass-Clay was September 14, 2021. She joins the United Way team with more than 15 years of strategic business leadership. She has extensive experience in corporate strategy, organization planning, budget administration and proven leadership. Before joining United Way, Karla had been with Noridian Healthcare Solutions since 2000 in various leadership positions, most recently in the role of Vice President of Strategy and Innovation where she led initiatives focused on organization wide innovation and driving growth. Karla is known for her “give 120%” attitude that originates from her time as a basketball player and is driven by building teams through mentoring.

Let’s get to know Karla.

What motivated you to want to take the leap and become United Way’s leader?

I think about United Way’s bold goal to help children succeed, and I think about my 5-year-old starting kindergarten this fall. He was ready to go and prepared to be successful. I can’t help but ask myself, “what can I do to help all kids have the opportunities to succeed?” Creating the type of community where all kids can succeed is what motivated me to want to serve in this leadership role. All children deserve opportunity, all people should have the tools to be independent and together we can reduce hunger and homelessness. United Way is leading these efforts. I believe when we help our neighbors, we can solve problems, we can create change and make a better tomorrow for everyone.

This community is my home – my family’s home. My husband, Michael, and I live in Reile’s Acres, located just northwest of the metro. We are blessed to be raising our two boys, Oliver and Isaac, in this community.

I am honored to be joining the United Way team and to be serving and helping the communities I call home. I am so passionate about helping others and building relationships. I look forward to continuing the amazing work I have witnessed through the power of community and getting to connect with business leaders and community members who share our vision and values.

Tell us about your background – where did you grow up?

I grew up on a small dairy farm in Dalton, Minnesota, not too far from here. I graduated from college at the University of Minnesota Crookston. During my time at Crookston, I had the opportunity to play basketball which really influenced my “give 120%” attitude that I still believe in today.

Growing up I was taught the importance of family–I saw that neighbors helped neighbors, and it was neighbors who took an active role in building community.

Who or what has shaped your leadership journey?

I have had amazing leaders in my career always willing to support, encourage and give me grace to have a healthy balance between work and home. In early 2020, my dad had been diagnosed with stage four cancer. In the thick of the pandemic, I watched him battle with his health, all while having to stay isolated because of COVID-19.

It was difficult for our family to not be able to see him in person as he endured this challenge, and I saw his mental health decline. Through this experience, I took time to reflect on the importance of the community and how we all need support and care from others at various times in our lives.

When my dad passed away last July, I began to think more about the opportunity we all have to create the type of community we want to live in, and the type of community we want our children to be a part of in the future–it shaped my decision to take the next step in my leadership journey and questioned what more I could do for others and how our family values play a role in our careers.

When I was recruited to serve in this leadership position for United Way, these questions, realizations and experiences fueled my passion for community, and I knew it was the right time to take on a new challenge that was meaningful for myself and my family.

What challenges do you see on the horizon for our community?

I know there may be “COVID fatigue” for many in our community, but I know what will bring us through as a community is a focus on collaboration. I can see a strong feeling of comradery, excitement and generosity throughout our business community. I am so glad United Way can foster that collaboration and be the strategic partner that can create a better tomorrow for all of us.

United Way is very focused on innovation–what are some of the newer projects you are working on?

United Way is committed to innovative solutions toward community issues like homelessness.

Currently, our goal, by 2023, is to prevent 90% of local families and children from becoming homeless, and we are on track to meet that goal.

At United Way, innovation is important to us when we work to solve our communities’ biggest issues – in addition to trying to solve a problem that exists, we are working to prevent the problem from ever happening in the first place.

The solution was a new approach – Housing Stability Specialists who could provide the right help at the right time – preventing families from entering what is often times a downward spiral of homelessness.

Housing Stability Specialists specifically help people who are on the brink of becoming homeless – they help people, specifically families with children, who are housed, but in need of resources to avoid eviction and/ or becoming homeless. They also help families who are at imminent risk of homelessness and are likely to lose housing in the next 14 days. These specialists focus on helping families get connected to existing services and find resources to help fill the gaps.

For example, a Housing Stability Specialist may help a family access a food pantry or some assistance programs so they are able to allocate the resources they have to paying rent, or they may help with temporary assistance until a family member starts a new job – the focus is on preventing families from becoming homeless and ever having to enter a homeless shelter or experience what it is like to have to sleep in their vehicle or somewhere unsafe for their family.

What is your leadership philosophy?

I lead with kindness and integrity first. I believe that a good leader can be effective and successful while still being kind. Leading with authenticity is important to me and I focus on building relationships as the foundation.

What does United Way mean
to you?

I have been a part of the local community living and working in Fargo for the last 20 years and have witnessed the power of community through United Way. To pass the values of community and helping one another on to my children and to other young people is so important to me.

As a neighbor and parent, I look forward to continuing to grow this organization to make a better tomorrow for everyone. I see the tremendous potential our community has to create positive, lasting social change.

What inspires you?

Last week, my son came home from school and told me about a new word that he had learned that day. He described a situation where someone was walking along and saw a piece of trash on the ground and just walked by without picking it up. He said to me, “Mom, what is that called? When someone just keeps walking by even though they know they could have helped?” We dug through his backpack together and found a worksheet about the word they learned that day which was “initiative” and we had a great discussion about what the word initiative means for all of us.

We read the definition: “the power or opportunity to act.” This interaction inspired me because I thought about the tremendous amount of potential we have as a community to take action. I know I myself throughout the years could have taken more initiative to help others. And it’s exciting to think about how I can help others find initiative and also be inspired to take an active role in improving our community.

Our hope is that United Way is a kind, relatable place where it’s easy to take action. You can give a gift online on LIVE UNITED Give United Day on October 15, make a blanket for our Home for Good program that we provide to families transitioning out of homelessness, or choose to show this year’s United Way video “We Are All Connected” during an upcoming team meeting. I believe when leaders take the initiative to help our community succeed, we’re all positively impacted. That’s what it means to believe UNITED and succeed UNITED.

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Brady is the Editorial Director at Spotlight Media in Fargo, ND.