Up Close and Personal with Amy Lindner, United Way’s New CEO

United Way’s new CEO, Amy Lindner, can jump your car and hopes to jumpstart the nonprofit behemoth as it navigates the digital age.

The parking lot outside Waukesha’s Kilpatrick Engine and Transmission features cars awaiting work, engines on mounts, a red 4-wheeler and a black race car trailer with decals reading Kilpatrick & Stegall Bad Judgement Racing. Inside, one wall of the immaculately kept front waiting area shows the shop’s black dragster in action. Another features an autographed photo of Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. 

Into this sanctum of stereotypical maleness walks a woman. Her name is Amy. She’s noticeably short. Her skin is a shade browner than most who pass through here, owing to her Latino heritage from her mother, maiden name Llanas. Her easy smile comes with a no-nonsense demeanor. She embraces her resemblance to America Ferrera, the Honduran-American star of “Ugly Betty.”

She just finished college in Madison. She’s thinking about law school. But she needs a year away from the books and bills to work and think. A gap year, you could say. Two decades later, she’d tell her just-out-of-college self that an aspiring lawyer might choose a better way to spend this year – hustling papers for a law firm or working for a judge. Others in her position might even opt for a leisurely winter as a ski bum out West or riding the waves in Hawaii. But she can’t imagine not living close to her Waukesha family, and she doesn’t really have anyone in her life to guide her in a more career-oriented direction. She’s the first to go to college. Her mother didn’t finish high school.

Lindner and her parents at her college graduation in 1999; photo courtesy of Amy Lindner

So here she is. She’s never turned a wrench and doesn’t know much about cars other than how to drive them. But a family friend told her that Jim Kilpatrick lost his service manager and needs help. Hire me, she tells Kilpatrick. He’s reluctant. A woman has never done that job. You could use some office help, she replies. Fine, he says. You can be my office manager. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ll take a chance,’” he says today.

A week or so into her tenure, she’s not only done everything asked of her but also rewritten the shop’s legal disclaimer. A few weeks later, Kilpatrick comes to the shop to find his new hire sitting at her desk reading a book. It’s midmorning.

“And I say to her, ‘What about those 18 things I asked you to do today?’” She has finished the list and documents each task. The office manager job takes her only a few hours, so she’s started making trips to the library and checking out books about car repair to read in the hours she’s getting paid with nothing to do.

Before long, she’s heading back to the shop, asking the mechanics to give her real-world examples of the stuff she learns in the books: CV joints, alternators, radiators, chassis and clutches. These impromptu confabs with mechanics teach her an important lesson: People love talking about things they’re passionate about. You can’t really stop them sometimes.

Amy convinces Kilpatrick she knows enough to add to her duties the role of service manager, a key cog in the business who must talk with one voice to the customers, mechanics and parts suppliers. He agrees, and gives her a raise. The shop enjoys its most profitable year ever, and Kilpatrick asks Amy to stay. The offer, flattering as it is, prompts another life lesson: She’ll never be satisfied in a job that she can master in just a year.

“Thanks,” she tells him politely, “but I’m going to school.”

Lindner at the United Way’s annual gala in December; photo courtesy of Front Room Photography

Off she goes to law school at Notre Dame. She returns to Milwaukee after graduation to work as a corporate lawyer, first at Reinhart Law, then at The Schroeder Group. She then takes over the top job in 2012 at Meta House, a nonprofit that works with women struggling with addiction and abuse. She does so well there that, when the top job opens at United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha, the board hires her in 2017 despite her relative youth – she had just turned 40 – to helm the region’s largest and most impactful nonprofit agency.

Color Jim Kilpatrick unsurprised. “She was a model of efficiency,” he says. “I was just amazed at how quickly she could adapt for someone with absolutely no automotive experience. She was just a treat to have around here.” 

He’s also not surprised that, when a United Way staffer or visitor needs a jumpstart or a spare tire installed, they may seek out Amy Lindner, the CEO, to get the job done. “Other duties as assigned,” she explains.

Up Close and Personal
with Amy Lindner

HOMETOWN: Waukesha

photo courtesy of Amy Lindner
photo courtesy of Amy Lindner

LIVES IN: Wauwatosa

HUSBAND: Jason Kleist, a packaging engineer. They met on Yahoo Personals and early on bonded over patents – she from the intellectual property lawyer angle, he from the engineer-applying-for-them angle. They wed in 2012 at Stout’s Island Lodge on a secluded, rustic island in northwoods Wisconsin, and then welcomed the wedding party back to the same island for a fifth-anniversary celebration.

DOG: The couple still mourn their recently departed shelter dog, Bernard, who looked like a sled dog but was oh-so-refined. Lindner imagines he’d speak in a posh British accent.

RECENT READ: Hunger by Roxane Gay: “One of the best and most important books I’ve read.”

EARLY LITERARY HEROES: Ramona Quimby, Sara Crewe, Anne Shirley: “As important as any in-real-life friend I had as a kid.”

“I’m Amy,” she says, reaching her hand out to a young boy dressed sharply in a blue polo with white stripes over khakis. The boy, like nearly all of his schoolmates at Jackson Elementary, is African-American. The school resides in the infamous 53206 ZIP code; 99 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Lindner is here in the school’s library, dressed in a black business dress and blazer, over lunch hour to help kids pick out books. It’s a rare but cherished opportunity to do the work United Way is known for – volunteering in the community – with one of the hundreds of programs that get United Way funding and support.

She explains the research behind the program: Third grade marks a critical age for academic achievement, when kids, ideally, should transition from learning to read into reading to learn. Failure to reach proficiency by this point starts them on an academic downward spiral. To encourage reading for pleasure, the My Very Own Library program visits schools like this four times a year, erecting a Scholastic library-within-the-library not lending but giving students books to keep. Each kid gets three free books per visit. Volunteers like Lindner help them peruse the stacks to make sure they’re picking the right books – ones they can read.

Lindner opens a Goosebumps title, holds it up for the boy and asks him to pick out three words he knows on the page. He can’t. They move a couple shelves to the left. She holds up another book.

“Do you know his name?” she asks with a grin. “He has a funny name.”

Captain Underpants,” the boy replies quickly, blushing a bit. But it’s not a fit, either. They cycle through The Incredible Elastigirl and I Survived the Attack of the Grizzlies before finding winners, including The Biggest Christmas Tree Ever and Yeti, Set, Go!

She high-fives him, helps slide his books into the silver United Way tote bag provided to all kids and moves on to another boy; he’s got a Minecraft book open.

During a break between classes, Lindner exhales. “Whew, I have a minute to do something that’s not fundraising,” she says about her trip here. It’s a somewhat rare opportunity for her to do the on-the-ground volunteer work core to United Way’s mission. It sponsors 220-plus programs and more than 110 partner agencies, with a focus on issues of health, education and financial stability. In 2018, volunteers from throughout the four-county region – Milwaukee plus the collar WOW counties – logged 42,126 volunteer hours, a new record for the branch.

Lindner’s time at the school comes at the end of a 20-hour stretch that nicely defines her work at the United Way. The previous night, she took the mic at the nonprofit’s annual gala that concludes the frenzied, three-month dash for donors that is the annual campaign. Mary Lou Young, CEO of the nonprofit since 2009, sent Lindner up to the stage.

“I only knew two jobs where you made a lot of money: doctor and lawyer. … I didn’t think I would like being a doctor. So I just started saying I wanted to be a lawyer.”

“I want to introduce my successor,” she exclaimed to cheers from the roughly 1,000 people filling the chandeliered ballroom at the Italian Community Center. The two women hugged onstage before Lindner began her brief remarks.

Immediately, the microphone crashed when she tried to lower it, causing a cacophonous bang.

“Sorry, I’m shorter than you, Mary Lou,” Lindner said, pivoting humorously off what could have been an awkward moment.

The night built toward the “big reveal,” when a check for more than $56 million got unwrapped to cheers and celebratory music. They’d made their fundraising goal.

The crowd, sipping cocktails and eating hors d’oeuvres, included a healthy sampling of the haves of Milwaukee, the people and corporations who fund and donate hours to the programs aimed at elevating the lives of Milwaukee’s have-nots.

It’s not every executive, even in the nonprofit world, who can move effortlessly between the bright lights and slick marketing videos of the donor class one night and impoverished schoolchildren the next morning.

“I think that Amy really can be a great bridge between all sorts of different perspectives, different populations and different points of view,” says Renee Moe, CEO of United Way of Dane County. “You have to have the ability to see things through other people’s eyes. She can do that very well.”

Lindner speaks with co-workers at the United Way offices. Photo by Sara Stathas.
The other kids got grapes all year round, while she and her brothers got them only as a treat in season. The other kids had Ziploc bags, but the Lindners had the fold-over bags that don’t zip shut. Those were markers of wealth and prestige that elementary-school Amy Lindner noticed during her upbringing in Waukesha.

“Now, I’m like, ‘Amy, who cares?’” she says. “But at 7 and 8 and 9, when you’re feeling self-conscious about your clothes or your shoes or you can’t participate in that activity or whatever it is, it felt like big stuff.”

Her mother raised them alone, with a heavy assist from their grandmother, before meeting and marrying their stepfather, who adopted the kids and imparted the Lindner name. Lindner says she recognized her mother’s struggle to pay the bills, month after month, from an early age.

“I was really young when I thought, ‘Gosh, I’m not quite sure how to do it yet, but I really want to make sure I have enough money when I’m grown up,’” she says. “I only knew two jobs where you made a lot of money: doctor and lawyer. I didn’t know investment banker as a child. I didn’t think I would like being a doctor. So I just started saying I wanted to be a lawyer without really knowing what that meant.” The fact that her skills, later in life, lent themselves exactly to the legal profession was merely a coincidence.

“I think if you gave me a year and a good teacher, I could fly a space shuttle.”

Her path through life, as she tells it, can sound like an uninterrupted string of positive experiences. She gushes about elementary school at Lowell, with its suicide sledding hill, and about a neighborhood and community where the well-heeled, grapes-year-round children lived and went to school among the families like hers who lived in duplexes. “That economic diversity meant that we were in a very safe neighborhood with an awesome school system where I just got the best of the best in terms of teachers and individual attention and nurturing and all of those things that make such a difference for any kid,” she says.

Still, her success was hardly guaranteed. She remains very close with her twin brothers, who have at times struggled with addiction and legal troubles.

Lindner danced on Waukesha West High School’s pompom squad, becoming co-captain as a senior. Principal and former college football player Ted Bear joined the team for one practice, producing plenty of laughs with his attempts at high kicks and twirls – and setting an example that Lindner says has carried through her career. In her first leadership job as a professional, at Meta House, she started by shadowing various staffers, inspired by Bear spending a day practicing with clubs and teams throughout West High.

“I wasn’t going to do any of those jobs, but to understand them as people and them as part of the organization, was an important part of how I tried to become the best leader I could be,” she says.

She points to another, more painful, leadership lesson from her pom squad days. A teammate had created a holiday routine that Lindner and others didn’t particularly like. With the coach out of town and a performance looming, Lindner pulled the plug on the routine at the last minute in favor of a familiar routine that they knew and liked. She doesn’t forget seeing her teammate’s face.

“Man, did that just crush her,” she says.

When the coach returned, she ordered the team to perform the routine they’d vetoed, and it was extra awkward doing a holiday-themed routine a week after the holiday passed. “I know now that the coach did exactly the right thing,” Lindner says. “The time to speak up about this routine was not the night before the performance. Don’t let folks down like that.” 

Bullshit. It’s a word that’s said with relative impunity, and some regularity, amid the chaos and extremely long hours of corporate law offices – the only workplace Lindner knew, post-law school, prior to Meta House. Shortly into her tenure at the nonprofit, she casually dropped the word in a meeting.

“It’s something I said in meetings for a lot of years,” she says. “It was so clear so fast what a mistake it had been. I knew I was really going to have to soften my style.”

Lindner’s move from corporate law to nonprofit leadership came as a surprise, especially to her. The jobs at law firms felt like a forever fit. “It was intellectually interesting. I loved my colleagues. I was being compensated at a level that nobody in my family could have ever imagined previously. If they’d offered to implant my key card in my wrist, I might have taken them up on it.”

Lindner speaks with reverence toward mentors at Reinhart, including David G. Hanson and Anne Reed.

It was visits to her office from Reed, she says, that changed the trajectory of her life. Initially, Reed invited her to a fundraiser for Meta House, where Reed was on the board of directors. Lindner went to the event, wrote a check and went back to work. A year later, Reed again invited her to the fundraiser, in part because Lindner seemed unusually suited to the cause.

“It’s easy to get going in corporate law and lose track of the larger concept of the city you’re working in,” says Reed, who’s now president and CEO of the Wisconsin Humane Society in Milwaukee. “She was clearly somebody who had an orientation to and an understanding of the needs of people in need. It was something she cared about.”

At the event, a woman took the stage and described her journey from childhood poverty and neglect to her current role as responsible mom, full-time employee and church volunteer. She credited Meta House for taking her in during the depths of her despair. Then the woman’s daughter took the stage. She had been the first baby born at Meta House when the nonprofit started admitting pregnant women. Now she was headed to college, on scholarship.

“It struck me so hard,” Lindner says. “I still get teared up today. These two lives would not have been possible in the same way if that mom hadn’t been able to get to Meta House when she did.”

She wrote a bigger check than originally planned, and checked a box indicating she’d be interested in helping in other ways. She started on their fund development committee, and got promoted to the board. She was chair when CEO Francine Feinberg announced she would retire the next year, in 2012. A search firm returned resumes of qualified candidates, and the board was busy deliberating before a break in the action. Lindner was the last member to return to the room, sat down and got some unexpected news: The other members wanted her to apply for the job.

“I think I said something like, ‘I’m sorry, what?’ It was so out of nowhere field. I can’t even say left field.”

She stammered a bit, explaining to them all the reasons she wasn’t qualified. Another board member, Jan Rhodes, cut through the excuses with a question: “Do you think you could do the job?” “Well, for good or bad, I think if you gave me a year and a good teacher, I could fly a space shuttle,” replied Lindner. “So yes, I do think I could do this.”

She called her husband, Jason Kleist, and Reed, who by then had made her own transition from corporate law to nonprofit leadership. Each supported the move. Reed persuaded her on the ability to make a lasting impact.

“If you do [nonprofit leadership] well, you can take a wonderful organization, and figure out how to make it better, and leave its impact stronger,” Reed says. “I knew that piece of it, the lasting impact, would really be something she’d like and that she could do. It was an enormous fit for her skill set.”

So she resigned from the search committee, submitted her application and interviewed for the job. When the committee was ready to announce a decision, Lindner had a gracious concession speech prepared. Surprise! She got the job.

“I was like, holy cow!” she says.

The job at Meta House gave her exposure to United Way, a significant funder and supporter. When the United Way job opened in 2017, Lindner hesitated a bit, owing to her youth and unease about leaving Meta House, but ultimately went for it. She calls the CEO job “the coolest and best vantage point in the city” to accomplish the most good and have the greatest impact.

“The tipping point for me was, I realized that if someone else my age applied for this job and got it, I might never have a chance,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Man, I would just kick myself if I didn’t at least try.’”

United Way hired Lindner, who spent a year transitioning into the role with Young still in place. In January, she fully grabbed the reins.

Nationally, the United Way has hit some rough sledding in recent years as competitors for fundraising dollars have surged, employing the latest tech tools that appeal especially to younger people who would rather make targeted donations to specific causes and do so on a clickable platform.

In 2016 and 2017, United Way got knocked off its familiar perch atop the Philanthropy 400, an annual list of charitable recipients of private donor funds, by Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund, a nonprofit affiliate of Fidelity Investments.

A New York Times story summed up the changed landscape: “Giving to United Way is a reflexive action for many Americans whose employers solicit contributions via payroll deduction. But it’s obvious that an increasing number of donors are asking a perfectly reasonable question now: Who needs a charitable middleman when causes and data galore are at our fingertips?”

Lindner gives Young, her predecessor, and the board of directors credit for steering their chapter through a massive merger – the Waukesha and Milwaukee United Ways joined in 2014 – and for investing in future-facing technology that allows it to compete more fairly with the newly emboldened competitors.

Lindner at a motivational lunch at St. Joan Antida High School during her tenure at Meta House; photo courtesy of Amy Lindner

“I am grateful to have joined an organization that has been thinking carefully and critically about both changing community needs and the changing face of philanthropy for a long time,” she says. “Even though we help the community raise tens of millions of dollars every year, we saw that annual undertaking was getting harder. We knew we had to continue to evolve to be able to continue to work toward the change our community needs.”

To underscore the point, the Milwaukee/Waukesha branch’s $56 million campaign total in 2018 was down $4 million from the previous year, and even reaching the lower amount came with nail-biting, down-to-the-wire drama, Lindner says.

The national United Way has rolled out a new online tool called Philanthropy Cloud, and Milwaukee/Waukesha was chosen as one of 22 branches nationally in 2018 to pilot the program. Developed in partnership with San Francisco-based Salesforce.org, it moves away from the traditional once-a-year giving and provides users an opportunity to quickly research giving and volunteer opportunities, then click to pledge support on their desktop, laptop or smartphone. 

“Our task at United Way in the coming months and years is to get this tool into hands all across our community,” Lindner says. “We will continue to evolve in order to deliver the change our community wants and needs.”

Lindner has won admirers among her peers in sister branches, who say she’s the right person for this moment. “She obviously is a woman with a plan,” says Moe, the Dane County branch CEO. “She’s got perseverance, she’s got grit, she understands the role of United Way is getting the right people at the table to help a community address its own issues.”

Reed, the Humane Society CEO and mentor to Lindner, notes her attention to detail.

“I love to watch her choices, big and small,” Reed says. “She’s so wonderfully intentional. She thinks everything through but doesn’t over-think it.”

“This is never going to be Kit Kats.”

Her United Way office is relatively small and decorated in a way that looks off the pages of Real Simple. A small orange bowl filled with Starbursts sits on the meeting room table, among the first things a visitor sees upon entry. It’s a throwback to her corporate law days, when Lindner noticed that partners in the firm, the people she wanted face time with, were more likely to be drawn in by the lure of candy. But the candy can’t be too good, which is why there are Starbursts.

“I probably eat one or two a week,” she says. “And it’s a nice little something. But it’s not a calling-me-to-it candy. This is never going to be peanut M&Ms. This is never going to be Kit Kats.”

For Lindner, even candy has a purpose. And tells a story.

“Amy-Able” appears in the March 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning Feb. 25, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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Daniel Simmons grew up in St. Paul, Minn., the “good twin” city. He started his writing career covering the midsection for the Mayo Clinic. Since then he’s written about human smuggling by sea in San Diego, the coyote invasion of Chicago and the political circus in Madison. He also got to write about his childhood idol, Larry Bird, for Runners World. He’s the managing editor.