Arlene Kaukus, MBA ’87, parlayed her interest in social work into leading the largest human services agency in Western New York.
After working in a variety of capacities for the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County for more than 20 years, she rose to its presidency in 2001 not only because of her qualifications, but “because I was in the right place at the right time,” she says.
She obtained her undergraduate and graduate degrees in social work from Buffalo State College, and started at the United Way in 1979, working with the agencies that are funded by the organization. “It was a wonderful opportunity use my commitment to social work and my understanding of social work practices, but do it with agencies in the community,” she said. On her longevity at the organization, she says “I’ve had a breadth of experience with the United Way, and at the end of the day, having done so many different jobs before becoming president has really helped me. I can be more helpful to people because I’m not speaking about it as though I don’t know it, I’m speaking about it because I’ve seen it and I’ve touched it and I understand the challenges they face.”
The United Way of Buffalo & Erie County touches the lives of one in four Western New Yorkers each year, and the methodology by which its mission is fulfilled, to deliver on a high quality of life for everyone, has changed over the years–collaboration is now the key to success. “The biggest change is an absolute recognition over time that our work has to be done collaboratively with others. Although we may have realized it earlier, it was easier long ago to do your own thing and add value. What has become absolutely imperative, in spite of what value your own organization can drive toward a community solution, is if all of us who share in a common outcome actually bring our institution’s good will to a collective table.”
She says even without the economic reality of limited resources that spurs cooperation, she would advocate for partnerships. “The results are always better – richer, more comprehensive, more inclusive, more thoughtful…when you’ve got multiple partners.”
Despite having one advanced degree already, Kaukus felt she would benefit from UB’s MBA program. “I could see that there were things I would need for my career, and the MBA was a wonderful opportunity for me to garner some additional skills,” she says. “The single-most important skill I took out of the MBA program was learning how to think from a systems standpoint. In the context of an organization like the United Way, and in the context of the United Way in the community, approaching problems and opportunities from a systems standpoint is critically important because you learn that the solution is not one dimensional. It’s multiple levels and multidimensions simultaneously. Having an appreciation for that and having been trained how to think systematically have been essential.”
Though he wasn’t one of her professors, the late James Meindl from the School of Management was “a major influence in helping me to understand how to take a complex organization like United Way and create structure that would help us accomplish our goals, and cultivate the talent of our people at all levels of the organization toward achieving those outcomes. He was an incredible resource for me in that regard and I learned a lot from him.”
Kaukus also praises Sanford Gunn, who taught an accounting class geared toward nonprofit organizations, a subject she “dreaded” yet knew was essential. Gunn “made it so user friendly and gave us such a good grounding. He told us that you don’t have to be an accountant, but if you’re going to be in a management position, you need to know how to analyze a financial statement and how to talk to an accountant. The important thing is not to know how the numbers got on the paper, but how to analyze them once they’re there. He was without a doubt the most influential person in all the classes I took.”
She has been and continues to be involved with UB. Previously she served on the School of Management alumni board, and now she is a member of the School of Social Work Dean’s Advisory Council. “This is a huge opportunity for us to forge close working relationships between the school and the United Way and to maximize the synergy between what we do and what the School of Social Work does.”
Her dedication to the field of social work and her desire to help people does not end with her role as president of the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County and her affiliation with the School of Social Work’s DAC. Beyond that, Kaukus is involved with the Western New York Women’s Fund, Western New York Grantmakers and Western New York Good Schools for All organizations. In 2002 she also inducted into the Western New York Women’s Hall of Fame.
Her husband, Ron Maier, PhD, EdM ’72 and EdD ’83, is also a UB alumnus. “He was lured to Buffalo by UB, and it shaped his entire life–if it were not for UB, I’m certain that a guy from Queens might not have made his way down the [Interstate] 90 to Buffalo and chosen to stay here,” Kaukus says.
As a community leader, Kaukus understands and values UB’s presence in Western New York. “I applaud the university and especially [President] John Simpson’s interest in defining the role of the university in the context of the community. UB is a powerhouse of talent, innovation, human resources and capital...it is critically important to the future of this community.
Wanting to give credit where credit is due, Kaukus notes that UB leads the nation in giving to the United Way. “UB staff, faculty and employees are extraordinarily generous to our campaign. So many of my colleagues across the country call to ask me how we are afforded such generosity from the employees at UB. I tell them that it’s not about us, it’s about the employees at the university believing that they have a role in giving back to the community, and it’s not just something they say, but something they do. We appreciate and value it.”
Written by Barbara A. Byers, APR
Update: After 30 years with the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, Kaukus joined the University at Buffalo as director of career services in February 2010, where she is responsible for serving the career planning needs of UB's undergraduate, graduate and professional student body, as well as alumni.