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Elise Buik: Creating Pathways to Success

August 03, 2017
Elise Buik, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Los Angeles
Elise Buik, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Los Angeles

The president and CEO of United Way on impacting change and ending homelessness.

Elise Buik is the first female president and CEO of United Way of Greater Los Angeles (UWGLA). Through her efforts, UWGLA has started several initiatives, such as Pathways Out of Poverty, that fight homelessness in Los Angeles County; since 2011, Buik and UWGLA have successfully moved over 36,000 people into permanent supportive housing. United Way of Greater Los Angeles also educates people on how to maintain financial stability, and has helped over 57,000 kids receive real-life work experience to equip them for careers later on in life. East West Bank is a long-time partner of UWGLA to support their efforts in ending poverty and homelessness in Los Angeles.

What first got you interested in United Way?

I’ve actually been at United Way for 23 years, which is amazing. I’ve been in the CEO role for 12. I’m originally from Atlanta and was actually in the private sector. I got transferred to LA with a job—I was working for a medical software company. Once I got out here, they wanted to relocate me to Charlotte, N.C. At that point in my life, I wasn’t feeling as fulfilled in my job. I just realized it wasn’t my passion to sell another computer system, if you will. I never really considered the nonprofit sector as a career but felt like I really would love to give back if I could.

I joined United Way as the vice president of marketing. Even at that time, I wasn’t sure how long I would be in this space, but I really grew to love it—really grew to love being in the nonprofit sector, coming into work, and being able to help people every day. It’s turned into a great journey for me—really rewarding and fulfilling.

How did you adjust from a corporate job to working at a nonprofit?

When I got to United Way, there were a lot of challenges facing the organization. Luckily, within probably the first year I was here, a new CEO came in, Joe Haggerty. He was really my first mentor. I would come to him with things I was seeing in the organization. He would encourage me, “Put together a plan, put together a recommendation.” I would bring them in, and then he would say, “Well, go do it.” That was great learning. I tell my team that a lot; sometimes it’s really easy to focus on the challenges, but the tricky part is to come back with the solutions, to take the initiative, put forward your thinking and implement it.

The participants at the 10th Annual HomeWalk fundrasier walking the streets of downtown LA
Elise Buik giving a speech at UWGLA’s 10th Annual HomeWalk
"Even at United Way, we really need to make sure that people feel connected to the work that we’re doing."

-Elise Buik

There were a lot of skills from my corporate job that are applicable to United Way. My very first job was at a marketing communications firm, and, when I went to the medical software company, I was doing marketing for them. I think marketing is such a universal skill because you’re really trying to translate your product to an audience. Even at United Way, we really need to make sure that people feel connected to the work that we’re doing. I think the difference is that giving is more intangible. We want to be creating more of an emotional connection. Although, if you look at the way the world is going, emotional connections and experiential opportunities are starting to permeate the for-profit world, as well. I do think that you see good nonprofits wanting and needing to bring good business practices into their organization without it stifling the mission of the organization.

What do you think are some of the most effective strategies in fighting homelessness and poverty?

Dominic [Ng, CEO of East West Bank] was actually a part of that—he chaired a taskforce for us in 1999, where we really started to look at what community impact means. He kind of architected moving away from being a fundraising organization that just funded a network of nonprofits, to really thinking about impact. When we got to 2007, what we realized was that if we’re really going to have impact, then we need to move into the policy arena. Why I say that is because the only way you can get to scale is to change policies that affect our schools, or affect housing laws—the big issues that we work on. There’s also the dollar piece of it. The County of Los Angeles’ budget is $30 billion. We need to affect how those dollars get spent—I’d love to raise $30 billion, but I don’t think it’s going to happen (laughter).

We’re also trying to create better understanding and more empathy. There are a lot of myths about poor people and homeless people. I don’t think people realize how hard it is to be either. There’s this myth that people want to be homeless, or aren’t working hard to get out of poverty. Sure, you have some of those people, but that’s the exception, not the norm. Most of the families I talk to are working two or three jobs, and their kids are working, too. It’s really just trying to survive, and it’s getting tougher in LA with the rising housing costs.

"There are a lot of myths about poor people and homeless people. I don’t think people realize how hard it is to be either. "

-Elise Buik

Elise Buik giving a speech at UWGLA’s 10th Annual HomeWalk
East West Bank volunteers teaching financial literacy for Operation HOPE’s Banking on Our Futures. (Photo credit): Operation HOPE

What are some of UWGLA’s biggest challenges?

What’s hard for people is looking at these issues for the long-term. One of the challenges we face in Los Angeles, in particular, is that we have a lot of transience in leadership that makes holding that long-term view hard. With term limits, you may get a mayor who’s really supportive of homeless initiatives, but then they’re out and you have to start all over again. We see that on the corporate side, too. That’s what makes leaders like Dominic special. For institutions like United Way, we really have to hold the long-term view and keep everybody focused on that, while bringing in new people and continually reeducating them.

LA’s homeless population has increased significantly over the past year. Why do you think that is, and how can we hope to change it?

In some ways, I think the count has gotten more accurate, but definitely there’s more at play. There are multiple drivers that we see. We have the mentally ill, folks struggling with addiction—usually as a coping mechanism for something traumatic that they’ve experience—veterans, youth, families. Our challenge is that there’s no “one size fits all.”

Having said that, I think there’s a couple things. I definitely think the lack of affordable housing is pushing more people into their cars and onto the streets because they just can’t afford to live in LA. We know that is really putting pressure on people. If you’re going to make a budgeting choice, paying $2,500 for a one-bedroom apartment, putting your whole paycheck into housing—that’s just not happening.

There also hasn’t been the funding for the service side of how we help our homeless neighbors. To me, what we’re thrilled about with Measure H (which added a 0.25 percent sales tax in LA County for the next 10 years to help fund homeless services), is that it is going to allow us to invest more in street outreach teams, and mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment. Whether or not you like the Affordable Care Act, a lot of that money was allowing us to treat people with mental illness, which I think is so prevalent in our society.

Here’s the thing: if you’re dealing with someone who is mentally ill, it may take you six months or a year for them to come in off the streets, [or] to trust people. So many of those people have been arrested, have been abused. They’ve had some bad experiences when they come into contact with any type of authority figure. Now we will have money to do street outreach teams, to really work with these people to get them into housing—but it takes time, and they have to build trust with dedicated outreach workers. Measure H allows us to do more on prevention. Hopefully we’ll see those numbers decline, but it’s not going to happen overnight. That’s going to be our messaging challenge.