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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Here’s what you learn about Rodney Prunty within seconds of entering his office: He is a giant Los Angeles Rams fan.
Along with the usual family photos and framed certificates, he’s got an assortment of Rams bobbleheads, a large painted portrait of two players, a team pennant and a Rams hoverhead that levitates and spins.
“If somebody says that they know me, all you have to do is ask them one question: What is his favorite football team?” says Prunty, the new president and CEO of United Way of Central New Mexico.
He blames his obsession on his dad, a recording artist who often left his young family behind in Rockford, Ill., to try to crack the big time in Los Angeles.
“He was a very good singer – he actually made vinyl records,” says Prunty, 51. “He would always say, ‘I’m going to make it big, and we’re going to move to L.A.’ So I picked up the Rams because they were in LA.”
But Prunty credits his mom – who raised five kids with an often-absent father – for providing the inspiration for his long career in nonprofit work.
“My mom always raised me to see the world as it should be, not necessarily as it is,” says Prunty, who started his new job in June. “That really fueled my passion to want to do work to create change where change could be created.”
Prunty came to Albuquerque from Racine, Wisconsin, where he was president of that area’s United Way. His career with the organization also includes leadership positions in his hometown of Rockford.
Prunty says the downside of his mom’s advice is that some people are too idealistic and don’t understand that change can take a long time. They burn out and leave, he says.
“It is tough work, and the reality of it is you will not necessarily see the fruits of your labor immediately,” he says. “There will be some quick wins you’ll be able to see, but in terms of long-term change … it’s going to take a lot of time, and it may not even happen in my lifetime, but the seeds will have been planted.”
Prunty says few people know about the roots of his passion for education: He was a preschool teacher in his early 20s – “when I had the energy.”
More recently, he was an arm-got-twisted volunteer coach for his son’s flag football team, a position that taught him something about “being grounded.”
“There was a little guy, he was probably my son’s age – 7,” says Prunty. “I said to him, ‘OK, now on this play, the quarterback is going to give you the ball, and I want you to run that way.'” Prunty will never forget what happened next.
“And then the play runs, and he goes in the opposite direction. I blow the whistle, and I say, ‘Jo-Jo, what’s going on? I wanted you to go the other way.’
And he looked at me and said, ‘You know what? I’m only 7 years old, OK?'” He’s looking at me, like, ‘Don’t bust my chops.’ ”
“I was a little more tightly wired then,” says Prunty, who despite Jo-Jo’s misfire, went on to win rookie coach of the year.
You mentioned burnout when it comes to nonprofit work. How have you managed to avoid it?
“Oh, the gym is my best friend. It’s my happy place. I started this whole fitness thing back in 1998 when I had a job working in a residential home for boys at risk. These were big aggressive kids from Chicago, and so I thought, ‘Well, I’d better go to the gym.’ I wasn’t a small guy, but I’d better get some weight on me and lift weights. I really became enamored with it and really become one of those gymhead kind of guys. Well, when that job ended, I just kept doing it because it became a natural part of my lifestyle. Now that I’ve gotten older, it is really more so for the mental. It’s the mental acuity, the clarity, just the peace of mind.”
What made you decide to take the United Way job in Albuquerque?
“Actually, it started back in 2016 in terms of just the location. We did an old-school family vacation (and) … Albuquerque was a stop on the way back. We had never been here. We just loved it. There’s something about the community that just resonated with us.”
And from a professional standpoint?
“I was doing research on collective impact (an approach to social change), and this United Way (of Central New Mexico) popped up on my radar in terms of being one of the pioneers in that effort with the advent of Mission: Graduate (a program that aims to increase the number of New Mexicans with college degrees and certificates.) So I was a fan way back then. That whole concept around alignment, focus on data, using data to improve and how can we be the best at getting better.”
Did your kids inherit your passion for the Rams?
“My son, who is probably worse than I am when it comes to fandom, he’s a Rams fan. That was his first waking memory being on this planet was a Rams logo. We go to the games. It’s a big deal.”
What were you like as a kid?
“I was probably a little bit of a rebel, I guess, more of a maverick. I was the middle child of five. I’m a first-generation college graduate in the family, but no one would have pictured it. If someone would have come from the future and said to all of us, when we were all in our younger years, ‘One of you is going to be the president and CEO of United Way’ … no one would have looked at me. They would have said, ‘Oh, it’s got to be the older sister.'”
What about your dad? Did he ever make it big?
“He came close, I think, but by this time I was getting ready to leave the house at the end of my high school years, but he never, never quite got there. He feels as though he’s got a renaissance now, though. He just had a birthday. He’s 75 … and he’s still making music. He’s putting out little song bites of his music on Facebook.”
What are your favorite foods?
I love filet mignon. I’m not a very exotic food guy. By and large, when it comes to diet … I’m on this keto thing. I’ve been doing keto since 2016, so heavily protein, heavy meat – chicken, steak, eggs, lot of salads.”
What are your hidden talents?
“I don’t know if I’m still as good at this as I used to be, but … I can draw very well. I used to do more of it when I was younger. When I was working in preschool, I used to draw these hats for kids and make different kinds of things. And then in my spare time, I would just do comic art. In terms of musical talents, although I didn’t inherit my dad’s voice, I was a good drummer (and) played in a band for awhile.”
What makes you laugh?
“Actually, I have a pretty good sense of humor. When I take this jacket off and I’m at home, I love to laugh. One of the earliest pictures of me, it’s me to the core, my dad has me on his lap. I’m a baby, and I’ve got this huge grin on my face. I was so thrilled with the world. That’s the inherent spirit I have.”
POSITIONS: President and CEO of United Way of Central New Mexico; previously president of United Way of Racine County, Wisconsin; vice president and resource development manager of United Way of Rock River Valley, Rockford, Ill. Has worked in the United Way network for 12 years; president of the United Way of Wisconsin board.