The promise of her “dream job” lured Maine native Elizabeth Cotter Schlax away from Iowa to become the new CEO of the United Way of Greater Portland.

The nonprofit charitable organization chose Schlax, who is currently chief advancement officer at the United Way of Central Iowa, from a pool of more than 100 applicants.

Schlax, 43, said Monday that she is excited to take the helm at the Portland-based nonprofit, which has 37 employees and attracted nearly $8 million in contributions and grants in its 2013 fiscal year. Her first day in the new job will be Jan. 5.

While she’s lived in the Des Moines area for the past seven years, Schlax is no stranger to Maine. She grew up in Waterville, where her father, William Cotter, was president of Colby College from 1979 to 2000. After graduating from high school in 1989, she left Maine to attend Harvard University, where she graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in sociology. She hasn’t been back except to visit since. While her parents now live near Boston, her husband’s family lives in the Lewiston area and she still has many friends in the state.

“I love to get back whenever I can. … It’s still home to me,” she said Monday. “I love the state and its beauty, and the general spirit of how people do things in Maine really appeals to me.”

Although she wanted to return to Maine, she said she wasn’t actively looking to leave her job at the United Way of Central Iowa.

“A friend in Portland texted me the news article when it came out in July and that’s how I learned that Suzanne (McCormick) was leaving,” Schlax said. “And I knew it was my dream job.”

The United Way of Greater Portland’s board held a national search for the organization’s CEO, according to Victoria Loring, who chairs the United Way of Greater Portland’s board.

“Liz’s values-driven management experience in both for-profit and nonprofit sectors really sets her apart,” Loring said. “We are looking forward to having Liz lead United Way of Greater Portland and its outstanding staff in making a real impact in our community.”

Besides her nonprofit experience, Schlax has also spent time in the private sector. She received a master of business administration degree from Columbia University in 2002, after which she worked at John Deere for seven years, both in Germany and Des Moines. Six years ago, she left John Deere to lead fundraising and marketing efforts at the United Way of Central Iowa.

The organization she’s leaving is larger than the one she will lead in Maine. In the 2013 fiscal year, the Iowa organization brought in nearly $27 million in contributions and grants, a $3 million increase from its 2011 fiscal year. Schlax said she and her team are responsible for about 90 percent of that figure, although she stressed that the central Iowa community was already very engaged when she assumed that position in 2008. By comparison, the United Way of Greater Portland had nearly $8 million in contributions and grants in the 2013 fiscal year.

Schlax said there are a lot of great opportunities in fundraising, but it was too early to discuss any specific endeavors she would undertake in Portland.

“One of the things that makes the United Way so strong in communities, and both in Portland and Des Moines, is that the strategies really come from specific community needs and priorities,” Schlax said. “So, yes, there are definitely some things I’ve noticed wearing my Des Moines lenses of places that could be areas of opportunity, but until I really have a chance to talk to people who are already doing great work in Portland and see how those things align with the community’s priorities, I’m really not sure on specifics.”

Schlax’s salary will be $150,000. She replaces McCormick, who in July announced she was moving her family to Florida to become CEO of United Way Suncoast in the Tampa Bay area. McCormick, who made $150,292 in 2013, had been CEO of the United Way of Greater Portland since 2010.

This will be Schlax’s first time as CEO of an organization, a new challenge she said she’s ready to take on given her experience in management at the United Way of Central Iowa, which she said is an inclusive organization that strives to tear down silos.

“While it will be my first time as the president or CEO of an organization, I’ve just been lucky to have great training in the decision-making process we’ve used here,” she said.

Schlax was in Maine last week visiting friends and family for the holidays. While she was here, she and her husband began looking at real estate and investigating schools for their two daughters. Nothing is certain, but Schlax believes they’ll land in Yarmouth. She and her family plan to move to Maine during the Christmas holidays.

Schlax said she’s excited to return to Maine not just because of the strength of the local United Way, but because of the positive vibe she gets from the Greater Portland community. In Des Moines, she said, residents had a large amount of pride in their community and it has helped to shape the community’s growth.

“I’ve felt the same thing in Portland, and in my conversations with people there it’s been affirmed,” she said. “People are excited about Portland’s future, its upward trajectory, and I’m just thrilled I’m going to be able to be a part of it.”


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