Karen Wolk Feinstein could have remained a professor at Carnegie Mellon University on the tenure track. Could have stayed at United Way of Allegheny County, working her way up the administrative ladder. Probably could have made a career out of the YWCA, where she interned locally as a teen.
But the call of issue advocacy was irresistible.
Ms. Feinstein, CEO of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation of Pittsburgh and co-founder of the Pittsburgh Regional Health Initiative, came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, schooled herself at Brown University just as Rhode Island was desegregating its public schools and the women's movement was gaining momentum in New England.
Soon, she was immersed in the civil rights issues of the day -- the war on poverty, the deinstitutionalization of the country's mentally ill.
It was a thrill, she said, to be "working on something that seemed to be so inarguably worthy ... There was an amazing stirring of equity and justice in this county. Once you get involved, [you] get a lifelong taste."
Twenty years after getting that first taste, she took the helm of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation. That was 1990, and Ms. Feinstein has spent the past quarter-century developing a reputation as one of the region's health care leaders and one of the nation's top voices for patient safety and women's health.
It was an awkward fit at first, at least in her own mind. Groomed in the politics of the Vietnam era, she thought change came about via popular revolution, not philanthropies.
But when one of her new colleagues told her, "You can be a revolutionary -- with an endowment," she was sold.
As the head of a health philanthropy, Ms. Feinstein is as much a thought leader as she is a leader of people. But, like a corporate leader, she has control over a big budget -- more than $5 million in grant funding each year, with net assets of about $90 million.
Whether she's leading on the fundraising side or the issue side, she is guided by those "inarguably worthy" causes that led her to advocacy in the first place.
"If you ask me what we do here, we sell ideas for a better society," she said. "Whether I'm writing or speaking or selecting staff who will fit in here well, it's all really mission-driven."
-- Bill Toland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2625