Laura Keenan is the best kind of leader — smart, thoughtful, compassionate, willing to change and eager to collaborate.

So it makes perfect sense that the 2022 Augustana College graduate is the first in the new United Way Quad Cities position of Emerging Leaders manager. The native of Elmhurst, Ill., who majored in communications studies and graphic design first had a 20-hour-a-week internship with United Way this past spring, starting in February.

She supported the communications team, generating stories of people who have been impacted by the nonprofit’s work. They’re released mainly through social media and United Way’s e-newsletter (once a month).

Rene Gellerman is president/CEO of United Way QC.

“She’s a rock star — we’re really lucky to have her,” United Way president/CEO Rene Gellerman said Thursday of Keenan. “One thing missing in the Quad Cities is a young leaders group,. With the challenge with workforce and talent attraction we’re facing in the Quad Cities, it’s really important to have a place where young people can network, can learn about our community, what the process fis or elected officials.

“It’s also to get closer to causes that matter to them, provide them a platform to give back,” she said, noting United Way before COVID did have a young leaders donor group that met every other month.

“They did volunteer projects, worked with kids, had social events,” Gellerman said. “This is an evolution. We’re raising the bar on it. There’s such need and such a call to get people involved in our community.

“You look at community leadership and boards of directors and there’s a gap,” she said of not many of those 40 and under. “We have tremendous leaders in our community, who push the needle, challenge the status quo, but there’s a gap in leadership. We’re helping cultivate leadership and I think United Way is the perfect partner for that.”

Gellerman sits on the Q2030 board and executive committee, and said Keenan’s role is in alignment with the goal of increasing the QC population of ages 25-44.

“This is a great retention strategy for companies. Young people want to be involved in their community,” Gellerman said. “They want to work for companies that invest in and care for our community.”

She said Keenan already has “exceeded all expectations. She’s a terrific writer.”

In fall 2021, Keenan was honored as Augustana’s student laureate of The Lincoln Academy of Illinois. Each fall, a senior from each of the state’s four-year colleges and universities and one student from community colleges in Illinois is awarded the Abraham Lincoln Civic Engagement Award, becoming student laureates.

Laura Keenan, during her senior year at Augustana last fall, was honored by then-president Steven Bahls as the college’s student laureate of the Lincoln Academy of Illinois.

She was the president of the Augustana Art Collective, project manager for the Web Guild, has served with the Student Government Association, and was active with Advertising Developers (ADs).

United Way has been closely aligned with the Q2030 strategic plan for the region, and that piqued Keenan’s interest.

“Not being from the Quad Cities, being a transplant, I think Q2030 is an awesome initiative and I wanted to get more college students and young adults aware of it,” she said Thursday. “Just knowing that United Way has such a macro lens on the community’s needs, I like to think big picture.”

Building QC talent

The new Emerging Leaders initiative is an opportunity to help build the QC talent pipeline, and keep new college graduates in the area, as Keenan has done herself.

She wants to get them connected to the community, which overlaps with Q2030.

In Keenan’s graduating class, about half her friends from outside the QC moved away and half stayed in the area.

“A lot of them were working in the area, and it made sense to stay,” she said. “They came to Augustana for college, they got plugged into the community and decided to stay.”

Augustana College in Rock Island (with its iconic Old Main) has 2,500 undergraduate students.

In her job, she’ll work with all the QC colleges to give students opportunities to be involved in the community through volunteerism and networking.

“It’s a time in your life you really want community – you’re getting a first job, getting an apartment,” Keenan said. “I think it would be awesome to provide that age group with peers, networking, opportunities.”

Another group she wants to work with are people who grew up in the QC, went away to college and come back. “The leaving and coming back is really powerful,” she said.

“There’s a charm to the Quad Cities and when you’re thinking of volunteerism and giving back to your community, we’re at an advantage in not being as big a city as Chicago,” Keenan said.

In the QC, you can see change on a weekly basis, and people can have a voice in shaping what the area looks like, she said.

Targeting those 40 and under

Emerging Leaders is aimed at those between 18 and 40.

“Everybody has a different perspective and insight to bring with different experiences,” Keenan said. “I really want to create a thought leadership platform, where young minds can come together and share their ideas, what they’re experiencing, what they’d like to see the Quad Cities grow into.

“I just think there’s something powerful about people from different walks of life in this designated creative space – having the ability to collaborate, share ideas and then take action on that,” she said.

There are other Emerging Leaders groups in different United Way affiliates and other organizations around the country, which Keenan has researched.


She also hopes to work with the Quad Cities Chamber, which used to have a Young Professionals Network as part of a “culture of collaborations and partnerships.”

“I think that’s the nature of United Way – I mean, it’s in our name,” Keenan said. “I’ve been trying to meet as many people as I can and brainstorm ways that we can collaborate instead of compete with each other.”

Her responsibilities include revitalizing and expanding United Way’s former Young Leaders group.

“I have a personal interest in generational studies and I love looking at the way millennials interact with the world,” Keenan said. “So, when they hired me, I mentioned I have this strange rabbit hole of knowledge on generational studies.”

Millennials and Gen Z don’t want to just give money to worthy causes, they want to be involved, she said.

“I think that’s absolutely wonderful,” Keenan said. “We just felt this would be a good position for me to take on.”

She still works for the United Way communications team in part.

Building next generation of leaders

“The goal is really to build the next generation of community leaders,” Keenan said, noting civic engagement is vital.

Kennan originally planned to be an art teacher, but changed her major junior year to communications and graphic design.

People don’t need to be leaders at work to be leaders in the community.

“What makes somebody a good leader is somebody who cares about their community,” Keenan said. “My hope is this Emerging Leaders group will cultivate the next generation of community leaders to do that.”

“The topic of leadership has always been fascinating to me – what does it mean to be a leader?” Keenan said. “I think there are a lot of leaders out there who don’t have the title of leader. I want to empower those people to see themselves as leaders.”

“I really believe anybody can be a leader, if given the opportunity,” she said. “At United Way, we care a lot about giving opportunity to people, so this is an opportunity to explore leadership.”

People think they have to have a certain title, degree or salary to be a leader.

“The ordinary person who wakes up and chooses to offer somebody a hand; they choose to drive a friend somewhere because they needed it – that’s a leader I respect,” Keenan said. “Respect is not earned from a title; respect is earned from actions.”

Getting younger people to serve on nonprofit boards is a goal – to inject fresh, new ideas and energy.

“They’re looking for a place to channel that energy and I think it’s so meaningful too, when you have an active role to shape the community you live in. It would be wonderful to just empower more younger people to think that way – that I have the power to transform the Quad Cities and help our community grow.”

Sometimes, it feels overwhelming to tackle issues.

“This would be a platform and a space for them to learn, this is how you actively get involved in your community and become a change agent,” Keenan said.

Connecting with QC nonprofits

Her job is ideal for United Way since they support so many nonprofits in the QC, through funding and volunteer partnerships.

Keenan interned at United Way this past spring and started her new job June 22, 2022 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Emerging Leaders can create more partnerships, giving people the ability to learn by doing, Keenan said.

“In college, you learn all these theories, but to actually have a project to work on – hands-on, have the whole thing, I think people would grow a lot by being part of that,” she said.

At Augie, her senior inquiry project was a speech on what it means to be authentic to yourself, and how her journey in college taught her that power.

“I had entered wanting to be an art teacher, and halfway through, felt being pulled in a different direction,” Keenan said of becoming a communications and graphic design major.

“I think the most effective, persuasive thing you can be is to be true to yourself and who you are,” she said. “I have a personal passion of helping people discover what are your strengths and how you can lead into that.”

“It’s common that we focus on what we’re bad at,” Keenan said. “How can you focus on your strengths?”

She wants to put out a QC survey, asking people what they want out of an Emerging Leaders program, and create a steering committee to fulfill those goals.

Many ways to be involved

There are many ways to get involved in Emerging Leaders, even if it’s in occasional events, she said.

“Letting people just be true to who they are, respecting the commitments they have, there’s definitely enough younger folks in the community looking for a group like this and have the energy and talent, and want to get involved,” Keenan said.

“I always say, you can have time for anything if it’s a priority for you,” she said.

One of her first goals is to assemble a committee and meet on a regular basis, empowering them to help revitalize and expand the program.

Originally, Keenan was attracted to the “organized chaos” of an art classroom. “It was a space you were allowed to mess up and I really liked that,” she said.

Keenan at United Way Cities Aug. 11, 2022 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

In communications, she was passionate about helping people embrace failure.

“The beautiful opportunity of the art teacher is, you get to reward students when they fail,” she said. “You don’t get to do that in math or science. When I switched to the communications and graphic design world, I can bring that same entrepreneurial philosophy to the workplace, the corporate world.”

Keenan was attracted to the nonprofit world and bringing that creative thinking there.

“It felt like I was being called in that direction, and really, nonprofits need to be entrepreneurial and innovative,” she said. “You need to be creative when you are tackling these important issues. If I can bring this innovative, creative lens to this industry that needs it, I get a sense of fulfillment from that.

“I wake up every day and get to go to work and it matters,” Keenan said. “It’s important work, and it’s always been important to me that I love my job.”

Brainstorming new ways to get people involved also involves that creative, artistic approach.

Millennials and Gen Z really want to do good in the world, so it’s a matter of connecting to them, Keenan said.

“Some of the challenge is to figure out how do we get the message to them,” she said, emphasizing digital. “They want to be involved and to make change, and they care. But if your method of communication is paper mail, and they’re not receiving paper mail, you’re not gonna get to them.”

“It’s overwhelming – you don’t just care about one thing. You care about 10 things,” Keenan said. “It can be overwhelming, like which group am I gonna put my love into?”

One of her strengths is finding links between things people wouldn’t think go together.

Keenan will work with the United Way African-American Leadership Society and Women United to improve diversity of young leaders in the area.

United Way Quad Cities in January 2022 gave out $2.9 million in new grants to 51 area organizations.

“There’s a wonderful opportunity collaborate with them,” she said. “There’s an opportunity down the road to take those people and have collaboration among the donor networks. I just think there’s always power in collaborating. There’s strength that comes out of that.”

“There’s a lot of really exciting directions this group can take, and it’s my job to take the ideas and make them happen.”