Liz Kuoppala wins Wipfli innovation excellence award

In a Caesars Palace ballroom filled with accomplished nonprofit leaders from across the country Tuesday evening, Liz Kuoppala, executive director of the MAHUBE-OTWA Community Action Partnership in western Minnesota took home the Evelyn Wright Moore Award for Innovation Excellence.

In presenting Kuoppala with the award during Wipfli’s 2022 Stronger to Serve nonprofit training conference, Wipfli principal Tammy Jelinek described how Kuoppala transformed the agency’s service delivery model by employing a whole-family approach. The approach focused on equity to create multi-generational, upward mobility for low-income and elderly residents in five Minnesota counties.  

The Evelyn Wright Moore Award includes a $5,000 award to support the life-changing efforts of the agency. The award recognizes Moore, a Head Start leader from Angleton, Texas, who attended the conference for 17 years until her passing in 2017.

Kuoppala, who assumed her leadership role in 2017, said she and her team soon after began focusing on restructuring the agency “to put families at the center of their work” rather than the funding.

“The agency used to look at regulations as the ceiling of what could be done. But we shifted our view. If the regulations we have to follow are the floor, we began to look at where we could launch from that,” Kuoppala said. “If we see what families need, but government funding doesn’t support it, we go to private sources.”

The agency with a $19 million budget serves 7,000 households, including 16,000 individuals over a sprawling 5,000 square-mile area.

She cited the struggle that many low-income residents in her rural region have with obtaining and maintaining a car. Many people used their tax refunds to buy inexpensive but unreliable cars year after year.

“Our winters are cold and when they needed new batteries, they couldn’t afford it,” she said. “They would accumulate cars that were just junk.”

Her agency was able to offer a program that provided winter maintenance for people’s cars.

“And they could use the tax refunds to start building savings for the first time.”

The five tiers of its service mission include:

  • Crisis
  • Benefits
  • Relationship-based coaching
  • Savings and asset building
  • Leadership development

Kuoppala said her agency intends to use the award money to start a college scholarship fund for former Head Start participants.

“If they have $500 or $700 set aside for them, they are more likely to go to college,” she said. “If college is a hope for them, the funds will help.”

Jelinek cited MAHUBE-OTWA Community Action Partnership as a shining example of how seemingly small but coordinated actions can have an outsize impact and break the generational cycle of poverty.

“We’re seeing more people move out of poverty than ever before,” Kuoppala said.

Liz Kuoppala, executive director of the MAHUBE-OTWA Community Action Partnership

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