Get to Know: Karen Schaufeld

September 12, 2019

Karen Schaufeld: Former VPP Board Member; Co-Founder, All Ages Read Together; and Founder & President, 100 Women Strong


Washington area philanthropist Karen Schaufeld and her husband Fred are investors in VPP. Karen served on our Board from 2013 to 2019. Shortly before the end of her term, Karen sat down with us to tell us about what motivates her philanthropy, what her experiences as a VPP investor and Board Member were, and what her relationship with VPP has taught her about philanthropy in our region.

What early influences shaped your life? 
The funny thing is: There’s no way I could have predicted that I’d be here right now. The only thing I can think of that is that my parents were both very hard workers. It was made very clear that there was always somebody who had it worse off than you so you have nothing to complain about. There was an ethos around just getting up, putting one foot in front of the other, doing your job, and doing it well.

When my generation was growing up, we were led to believe that at 18, when you left the house and went off to college, you were basically in charge of your own financial future at that point. It would have felt like a failure to move back into your parents’ house. I understand that it’s very different now. Parenting is very different now. But at the time, it was expected that you go off into the world. This whole issue of following your passion wasn’t so much a concern as the need to put food on the table and have a place to sleep.

What sticks with me is something my parents always said: Because you did have a roof over your head, clothes on your back, good food, a good education and many opportunities, you have an obligation to make sure that other people have those same opportunities.

Another thing that always stuck with me is that a lot of people use the argument, “Well, everybody else is doing it.” My parents always would always say things like, “Well, we’re not like other people. We don’t do something just because everybody else is doing it: We do it because it’s the right thing to do.” I always keep that in mind because sometimes the easiest path is something that everyone else is doing but if it’s not ethically right, you shouldn’t be doing it.

You’ve spoken about how a scholarship made it possible for you to attend Lehigh University. How did this experience affect your outlook on giving and philanthropy?
I benefited from the Class of 1955 Scholarship. Lehigh University didn’t start admitting women until 1971. I can pretty much guarantee you that the white males—because that was the only demographic at  Lehigh for a long time—who set up that scholarship probably never thought it would benefit somebody like me. But I wouldn’t have been able to go to a school like Lehigh if I didn’t have that scholarship. It was absolutely transformative.

I wasn’t particularly intimidated by going into a school where the ratio was four males to every female. It actually served me really well because when I went into the business world, I was completely used to being the youngest person and the only woman in the room. It felt like an adventure to me.

The way that I learned to think and just having to work really, really hard to get my degree—Lehigh’s a tough academic school—was great. I was very well-prepared when I left. But it was all because of somebody’s legacy. This is the thing that we have to understand about philanthropy: We think that if we’re very intentional, we know what the effect of things we do will be. I know and appreciate that VPP and many other organizations are very focused on understanding what your impact is and trying to evaluate that. But really, on a fundamental level, you never really know what the seeds that you scatter are going to grow into. You hope you know.

I’m pretty sure the members of the Class of 1955 would not have predicted me, would not have predicted anything in my life or where I would have gone with that. I’m just very thankful that somebody felt like passing it on.

As someone who has done a lot of work investing in where you live, Loudoun County, can you talk about why it’s important for people to invest in the Greater Washington region?
Several years ago, I went to a dinner for the The See Forever Foundation and Maya Angelou Schools. At that dinner, (where I also met Maya Angelou, which was amazing), Bill Clinton got up and spoke. He was talking about how education is so important: It’s so foundational to society. But he spoke about it in terms of the loss of human capital. If we don’t invest in people, it’s a loss of human capital—and that has far-reaching effects. It’s not just about this concept of feeling good because one child got a decent meal. It’s something much more practical. That is, that if you don’t invest in the people in your area or region and give them real opportunities, you’re actually losing out on talent that can be valuable to everybody.

In our region, I think we have a particular responsibility because this area is supposed to have the best, the brightest people, and to be a beacon to the rest of the world for those who believe that American ideals should lead the world. So how can we not do the best we can for the people who live in our own community?

When I think about my work in Loudoun County, I feel lucky because I’m restricted to a geographic area so I can look deep at what changes a community.

Interestingly, VPP is so good at taking a deep dive and understanding how best to serve people in a particular area. It’s not this top-down approach of “we’re going to come in and tell you what you need.” It’s more grassroots where you have to listen to a community say, “This is what we really need. Can you help us achieve this thing?” Loudoun County’s a lot like that. Every area is unique, so I get to be very involved in the different challenges that we have to try and solve the issues there.

Can you tell us about your work with 100Women Strong? You have previously spoken about a vision of the organization collaborating with for-profits and government. Why do you see this sort of cross-sector collaboration important for social change?
I borrow and steal shamelessly from wherever I find good ideas – and VPP is a wealth of good ideas on how to put something together to be really effective.

I hate fundraising so when I thought about doing it for 100WomenStrong, I thought, “Why don’t we just have, much like the VPP model, investors come in who want to invest in the health of the community?” And you have them give a certain amount of money so that you don’t have to go out and spend your time fundraising when what you really want to be doing is your mission.

100WomenStrong members put in $10,000 a year. We started with 12 members and now we have 56. We keep growing. Our county’s also growing but we’re still a substantial piece of that philanthropy. The key to our success has been finding people who wanted to use their skills to strategically think about the community and create the change in how we grant to nonprofits. We wanted to make those nonprofits better and see our unique position in the community as a convener of different sectors. .

Why is it important to bring together partners from different sectors?
It’s just the realities of the world. No one sector can solve the issues we are dealing with. It requires the for-profit world, the not-for-profit world and government entities.

If you’re trying to change education, especially where you have limited or constrained resources, you have to bring in partners who can help you. You don’t want to duplicate efforts either – there are some things that government does really well; there are some things that nonprofits do really well; and there are some things that for-profits do really well. If you can use all those skills and pull people together to make it happen, you can go a lot farther a lot faster.

Have you found an approach or strategy that works best when trying to pull different sectors together to collaborate?
Success tends to work best. There’s a saying, something like, “Failure’s an orphan but success has many fathers”– or maybe we should say mothers! But that’s very true.

What we’ve had to do in a couple of different instances is try to run pilot projects that demonstrate our approach. Once you do that, people respond, “Oh my gosh, this is working!” And then other people want to participate. Just recently, we brought the community schools model (which was started on a nationwide basis by the United Way) into Sterling Elementary, which is a Title I school in Loudoun County. We had a champion: a school principal who wanted us to come in. We also hired a community school coordinator to bring in and distribute resources. We had all the inputs that we could give our kids: extracurriculars, homework help, nutrition club, science club, lacrosse, soccer, and after-school programs. We also brought in family nights and other things that allowed the parents in that community to feel comfortable coming into the school so they’d be able to advocate for their kids. Our measures of success, on a more micro-level, were things like a reduction in absenteeism, reduction in tardiness, less disciplinary problems, which then leads to better performance on standardized tests for instance, better engagement, more parental involvement. It had potential to create this wonderful cycle.

But we had to prove that it would work because people are always skeptical. It worked beautifully, and that program involved the Loudoun County Public Schools and the Loudoun Education Foundation. We granted money to the Foundation, which allowed us to get into Loudoun county schools and to fund the staff position. There are about 20 different for-profit organizations and faith-based organizations, and some nonprofit organizations that came in to provide services to these kids in their own schools. That collaboration was so successful that the school system has now expanded it to all six of their Title I schools. We are in the midst of a challenge grant to fund it, but the project has been taken internally now into Loudoun County Public Schools because they recognize that it’s such a valuable program.

This was something where we had to bring the skeptics along by demonstrating success.

What motivated you to get involved with VPP?
For anybody who’s looking for the gold standard of how you invest in philanthropy and in a community and how you evaluate whether or not you’re achieving success and how you can strategically help an area—where else would you go? There really isn’t another organization that does these things with the skill, finesse and impact that VPP does. It was a no-brainer. Again, I shamelessly borrow or steal from wherever there are good ideas – and VPP has always had good ideas.

For me, it was: Yes, I wanted to make sure my philanthropic dollars were working really well but I also wanted to steal a lot of great ideas!

How has VPP influenced or informed your approach to philanthropy and running nonprofits?
VPP has taught me to pay close attention to metrics and to ask the hard questions. It’s easy to get down-in-the-weeds as most nonprofits do with performing their mission, like “We fed 600 people today.” That’s important but what are we actually aiming for? Are you making a dent? Are you reaching the right people? Should you be doing something else? Can you be more efficient? There are just a lot of questions that need to be asked to see if you’re on the right path. And you can’t just ask the questions once: You have to keep on asking. It’s both more episodic and it’s not, “Oh, we have this five-year strategic plan and we’re going to put it on a shelf.” You have to keep asking questions and adjusting as you go along. VPP’s very good at navigating those waters and showing people how to do it.

How has VPP evolved during your time on the organization’s Board?
What’s really interesting and so ironic when you think about it, is that when I joined the Board the organization was transitioning from being founder-led to being staff-led. There were some really big conversations around, “Well, what do we do now? Do we say we showed the way and we’re just going to fold up our tent and go away?”

And there were several of us who felt that not only would it be sad, but it would be just wrong to take all of this goodwill, expertise, everything that the founders and the organization had worked for to just see it go away. Where would it live then? How would you be able to spread this message if you didn’t have this organization around? What was so ironic about it for me, was that having been on the board of several different organizations, you always have to beware of the founder’s syndrome or cult of personality. If VPP was looking at an organization and saw there was this founder who was going to roll off, they would ask, “What was your succession planning? How was this mission going to work? How do you continue to spread your message?” It was weird because this organization that was so good at this had to look inward and apply those same lessons to itself. That’s where we were when I came in, and I was like, “No, you can’t lose this magic!” That would be an incredibly sad thing. Thank goodness, we are here now and VPP is going strong, better than ever, continuing to spread its message, having deeper roots in the community than ever before. That’s satisfying.

What was the key to that successful transition to get VPP to where it is now?
Great leadership. Carol [Thompson Cole, VPP’s President and CEO] was front and center in all of that, wanting to hold tight to the true core and the mission and saying, “We shouldn’t lose this.”

It was also the Board at the time realizing that there wasn’t any place else where this would live. It wasn’t just about serving the people in this community—which was important—but it was also about being able to use best practices and taking those messages about metrics and evaluation to the nonprofit world and continuing to have it out there. That would have gone away, because nobody else would live it and breathe it the way VPP does. There are two components: Obviously there’s the white paper version of “here’s the best practice.” But, you also need to show how those practices work in real life. You needed both parts of that. You could have written a nice report, put it in a binder and maybe people would read it. But it’s so much more compelling when you have both the paper version and the real world implementation.

As you transition off of the VPP Board, what are your hopes for the organization’s future?
Just that it continues to grow and thrive. There’s a whole new generation of leaders in the Washington area and I understand the compulsion to do your own thing or start your own, especially with the really smart people that are in this area who have their own companies. They’re like, “Well, I know how to do this.” But I hope that the people in this next generation who are very smart and have functioned beautifully in the for-profit world will invest in a place like VPP, learn best practices, seek to understand the nuances of what’s different—and then take that learning for whatever they’re going to do personally as well as invest in VPP to continue its mission.

What are your own plans looking forward?
It’s really interesting because my husband, who does too many things, tells me that I do too many things—which is probably true! But I’ve been wearing my new Valentine’s Day present to myself, my Shinola watch, on which I had engraved “time is your only asset.” I am rolling off of several nonprofit boards right now but I have a lot of other projects that are filling my time.

How to Eat a Peach, my third book, came out in April. It’s a different writing style than a typical children’s book. Children’s books are generally written in simple language so children can read the books. My books are meant to be read to children so the language is a little elevated which leads to greater language acquisition. What we know about childhood development is that the number of words that are spoken to you as a child, and the different types of words that are spoken to you allow you to gain vocabulary in a really important way. Reading to a child, and especially a book that prompts questions— “Well, what does that word mean?”— is actually an effective way of helping the human brain acquire language. It’s well-proven. The problem is that children’s literature hasn’t caught up to that concept, which is why you still see “Ages 3 to 5” on children’s books. The way my books are written is that depending on your age, you will interact with that book differently. They’re fables. If you’re a young child, you’re going to look for the little insect on every page, and you’ll like the pretty pictures but you’re going to be hearing the words, the beauty of the English language being read to you. There are some words that over time you’ll start understanding from context. When you get a little bit older, you’ll follow the story. When you get a little bit older, you’re going to understand the message that’s below the story.

Also, I’m still working in Virginia on legislation creating transparency around what happens in the general assembly because what happens in the state government has a bigger effect on your life than what happens on the federal level. And then I’m also trying to make sure there’s a thriving market for solar energy in Virginia. And my team at Altor Locks just created the world’s strongest bike lock – so it was exciting to do the impossible.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your reflections of being a member of VPP’s Board?
VPP is great. I love it and am very thankful for the opportunity to serve on the Board. I learned so, so much!