While Covid-19 was difficult for many people, Kionta Carter said that was what ignited her passion for helping others in the community.
Carter will soon to take on the role of CEO at the local nonprofit Civic Heart Communities — previously known as Change Happens — and organization dedicated to supporting those in vulnerable or disadvantaged communities. She officially begins Jan. 3, 2024.
The role appealed to her after she shifted focus from operations to outreach and social services at the YMCA, where she worked for the past 15 years. She most recently served as vice president of community impact and operations at the YMCA.
Carter said her work stretched all the way from Third Ward up to Montgomery County. But once things went back to normal — or the “new normal” — her focus went back to operations, and she found she missed the outreach piece.
“I don’t think you pinpoint who you need to serve,” Carter said. “You don’t know what people have in their background; you don’t know what’s going on. You just help who needs the help. I saw that front and center during [Covid-19].”
That’s what pushed her to find a role that would allow her to continue serving the community.
Carter will soon succeed outgoing Civic Heart CEO Helen Stagg, who has been with the organization for 23 years. During Stagg’s tenure as CEO and throughout her time with the organization, she oversaw a $13 million annual budget and helped lead Civic Heart to achieve a 240% increase in community investment.
With the help from a wide range of partners, Stagg also expanded the work of the organization to more than 25 programs, serving 65,000 people across 59 counties. Stagg’s work earned her recognition as an honoree of Houston Business Journal’s 2021 Most Admired CEOs.
Carter said starting with her first day, she plans to tackle two things on her action items list — the first being the need for support when it comes to the $67,000 worth of in-kind items the organization needs to sustain its programs. The second, is asking the community for help. She said currently, there is a need for about 235 people to volunteer as mentors for the organization. The goal, she said, is to prioritize this in Q1.
Moving forward, at the end of the day, Carter said she hopes to continue to uplift the mission of the organization, ensuring it flows throughout the various programs the organization currently offers.
The Houston Business Journal sat down with Carter to learn more about her and her goals for her new position.
You made the decision to leave your job for something bigger within the nonprofit sector. What drew you to Civic Heart?
I think the good work [it does] in the community. I have partnered in the past with several different organizations in the community, and I think this one stood out amongst the rest because of the longevity of the organization, the impact and then also — you have measurable outcomes in every program that you deliver.
I think oftentimes, some of the outcomes really are centered around how many people are in the program. Say you have 100 people in the program. Great. But what happened to the people in the program? Did the child learn how to read? Which then impacts other things in their lives because they learn to read between this stage and this stage.
This organization in particular follows that curriculum and you can see the outcome. That’s impactful. I chose this organization really based on those metrics and those key performance indicators that really are helping the community at large. It’s helping Houston.
We’re helping people in a big way and you can see that it changes lives.
Although you start in the new year, you’ve been doing some work already with Stagg. What has that been like?
I really am so appreciative to the staff and also Ms. Stagg to allow me to come in a month early, and during Christmas time and [during] a close of business time. Everyone is really busy in December trying to close the account for the year — the budget for the year — but also finish out projects, and then everybody goes on vacation, including myself.
[Everyone] has been so generous with time. Ms. Stagg has also been introducing me to her network of people and inviting me to different things.
I was also able to meet with the staff recently to see where their passions lie and just kind of meet them as a person first. I’ll get to the details of what exactly they do as a job, but I wanted to be really interested in them as a person first and try to build relationships and just have a conversation with them. It’s been a great time so far.
What do you foresee being one of the biggest challenges you’ll face once you step into the role in January?
I’ve got a plan to see all the programs in action — that is most important. My role as a CEO really is to go out and talk to people in the community to tell them about this organization and the good work that it’s doing. So I think a challenge would probably be time.
What impact do you hope the organization leaves on the community?
The hope is that you have such an immediate impact and sustained impact in the community, that people are no longer needing your services — you almost want to make yourself go out of business.
That won’t be the case because there’s always someone you have to help, but the mindset really is: We want people to grow, thrive, and be sustainable on their own. I want the impact to be: If you ask someone about Civic Heart or the leadership here, I would love them to say, “They helped me when I was at my lowest, and I’m now back on my feet. I’ve turned it around and I either volunteer, or maybe I donate, or maybe I sit on the board,” and they’ve come full circle and have a great impact story for us to then go out to tell others in the community.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.