Kara Rutowski thought she wanted to be a lawyer -- until she was a paralegal.
"I majored in English because I thought [being a lawyer] was exactly what I wanted to do. But then when I started working as a paralegal, I quickly realized that I didn't want to be a lawyer," she said.
Armed with excellent writing skills and knowing that she liked working with people, she started working with a nonprofit while still a paralegal. That's when she realized that might be the career field for her.
"I liked the nonprofit world. It seemed like a good fit," she said.
It was a good fit, indeed. Ms. Rutowski, 42, of Upper St. Clair was recently honored for her work with nonprofits with the Outstanding Fundraising Executive honor from the Association of Fundraising Professionals of Western Pennsylvania.
After she graduated with an English degree from Robert Morris University, Ms. Rutowski worked as a paralegal from 1991 to 1996. Her first job with a nonprofit was at Glade Run Lutheran Services in Zelienople, where she worked as a contract administrator.
"It was a great job and I had a wonderful boss, Charles Lockwood ... and he let me spread my wings there," Ms. Rutowski said.
With encouragement from Mr. Lockwood, Ms. Rutowski started doing grant writing and then public relations for the organization. She became director of resource development and marketing with Glade Run in 2000.
In her new position, she led a major capital campaign at Glade Run and realized that she wanted to become an executive director at a nonprofit.
"I loved it so much and knew I wanted to keep going, so I went back to Robert Morris to get my master's degree in nonprofit management," she said. She completed her degree in 2006.
In 2005, Ms. Rutowski accepted the position as director of development at The Early Learning Institute, a nonprofit that provides early learning support services in Allegheny and Washington counties for children from birth through 5 years old who have special needs. The Early Learning Institute has administrative offices in Crafton, the Ohio Valley Learning Center in Kennedy and the Harmony Learning Center in Wilkins.
"We serve approximately 1,200 children a year," she said.
Ms. Rutowski moved into the role of executive director in December 2008, just in time for the fiscal crisis in Pennsylvania in January 2009, when the year started with no signed budget.
"That meant that we weren't receiving money from the state, and nobody else was, either," she said.
While that meant that many of the services couldn't be paid for, the board of directors didn't stop helping the children and families served by the organization.
"We have been providing children with needed services since 1958. There is a very small window to provide these necessary services for our children, and if we miss it, we may miss helping them. We weren't willing to take that chance," she said.
With donations and loans, the institute weathered the financial crisis until the budget was signed.
Ms. Rutowski was honored by the Association of Fundraising Professionals for her role in overseeing fundraising efforts at the institute.
"We look at philanthropy as more than just writing a check. We look at it as giving any way you can," Ms. Rutowski said.
It is a role she relishes.
"It is a beautiful thing in Pittsburgh -- and I know this sounds corny -- but we have wonderful companies who work with us along with individuals and foundations, and they all give what they can," she said.
For some, that may be writing a check. For others, it is the donation of time and services, Ms. Rutowski said.
She came to her philanthropic mind-set early through her parents, she said.
"My dad was a farmer and we didn't have a lot of money, but we were raised to help others. He would often grow produce and deliver it to the local nursing homes," she said.
Her late father Mike and her mother, Joey Ann Mostowy, often gave of their time and talents and raised her to do the same.
"My father would say that he can't vie money but he could donate his time," she said, "and my mom was always baking pies for the fire department."
The honor means a lot to Ms. Rutowski professionally and personally.
"It is given to me by my peers. Many of them have served as mentors for me," she said. "I know my dad is smiling down on me."neigh_south
Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: email@example.com. First Published February 14, 2013 10:30 AM