Adria Johnson of Metro United Way Looks to Bring About Lasting Local Impacts
Writer / Jessica Able
A common theme has emerged in Adria Johnson’s nearly three-decade-long career – her ability to build community support. This skill has served her well in her new role as chief executive officer at Metro United Way.
Johnson took over as CEO of Metro United Way in August of 2021. Since that time she has continued to lead the transformation of the 105-year old nonprofit from a fundraising organization to a community pillar that inspires change.
“We’re continuing to lean in with the intent of being very focused in the ways of supporting the community, of bringing about greater transformational and lasting changes,” Johnson says. “We’re really pushing to support those things that bring about equity, and to start to get into some of the systemic issues that shape our state of affairs as we all navigate this world.”
Prior to her role as CEO, Johnson was the organization’s chief impact officer for three years. She worked with community leaders from the seven counties served by Metro United Way.
A native of Louisville, Johnson earned a degree in accounting from Ball State University and later completed Master of Business Administration courses at the University of Louisville. Her career has spanned the private, public and nonprofit sectors.
She began her career in various accounting roles at Humana as well as Louisville Gas and Electric. She then served as an analyst and finance manager at Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, before joining Louisville Metro Government as a capital planning analyst.
“I had a really rewarding career in the private sector,” she says. “It allowed me to widen my expertise and skill set. I wanted to find a way to fill the passion for what fuels me as an individual, for what feels like purpose on this planet.”
When she stepped into city government, she realized she had the opportunity to impact lives more directly.
Later at Louisville Metro Government, she held several executive positions in the Department of Housing and Family Services (later named the Department of Community Services and Revitalization).
“All along the way I was learning and honing my leadership skill set,” she says. “I was able to take those talents, skills and abilities to understand how to effectively lead an organization.”
Her executive experience later led her to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, where she served as deputy commissioner from 2012 to 2015 and later as commissioner from 2015 to 2018. As commissioner, she led a staff of 4,600 and an operating budget of approximately $1 billion. While there, Johnson led the formation and implementation of a comprehensive child welfare reform initiative.
“I’ve been very fortunate to work with a variety of stakeholders,” Johnson says. “I’ve been able to develop meaningful relationships and work collaboratively with people across aisles, demographics, and from varying philosophies and stances. We worked together for the greater good we are all striving for, to solve the community’s greatest challenges.”
She serves on the boards and advisory councils of numerous area charities and nonprofits including Kosair Charities, Coalition for the Homeless, Social Current, Community Foundation of Louisville, Evolve502, Center for Nonprofit Excellence, University of Louisville’s Project on Positive Leadership, and Fifth Street Baptist Church.
She also took part in Leadership Louisville in 2022 and will complete Leadership Southern Indiana in 2023.
Metro United Way began in 1917 as a volunteer-driven organization primarily to solicit donations to address the social needs of the day. Throughout the years, the organization became synonymous with its annual fundraising campaign that supported numerous community foundations and charities. Today it serves Bullitt, Jefferson, Oldham and Shelby counties in Kentucky, and Clark, Floyd and Harrison counties in Indiana.
While in her role as chief impact officer at Metro United Way, Johnson led the Community Impact department. In that role she studied the overall approach and strategy for implementing programs and addressing disparities across the health, education and economic sectors.
“When we look at the history of Metro United Way, we know that it has supported a wide variety of community organizations,” she says. “It’s a fierce fundraising engine.”
What is taking place now, Johnson says, is a monumental shift from viewing Metro United Way as simply a “community-chest pass through” to an organization intent on investing in solutions for the community.
“We can’t be everything to everybody,” she says. “We began looking around across the seven counties and were not seeing improvement in certain areas the way we would like. We began to ask, ‘What are the greater needs? What are the roots of these challenges? How can we bring about change in the communities we so desperately want to see?’”
The organization asked its constituents, donors and community partners what needs were most pressing, and if they saw Metro United Way taking an active role in solving those challenges.
A couple of common themes that came from these discussions, Johnson says, was a lack of educational and economic success.
“We’re just not seeing the level of educational success we’d like to see across various ages and grades,” she says. “We also began to hear we’re lagging in terms of the ability people have to prosper economically, to amass wealth to break the cycles of poverty.”
While Metro United Way will continue to play a vital role in meeting the basic needs of the local community, it also seeks to address the root causes of bigger systemic issues.
“We will continue to support those organizations that serve those who struggle with food insecurity, transportation and mental health,” Johnson says. “Everyone deserves to have those needs – basic needs, basic human rights – met. All that aside, we are focused on investing in solutions.”
Johnson says she draws inspiration from two things – her own personal experiences and her family.
“I experienced poverty growing up, and I know the pain and the shame that often come along with the struggle, along with what it takes to lift out,” she says. “That personal experience offers tremendous inspiration to use my time, talent and treasure to help others.”