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Karen Olson

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Nationality  American
Organization  Family Promise
Name  Karen Olson

Karen Olson
Occupation  Founder and President of Family Promise

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Karen Olson is an American philanthropist, Founder and President of Family Promise, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to helping homeless and low-income families achieve sustainable independence and to redress the underlying causes of poverty and homelessness.


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Early life

Olson was born in Norwalk, Connecticut. She was raised and attended public school in Darien, Connecticut. She attended Lasell College in Auburndale, Massachusetts, where she studied Business Administration.

Marketing career

After college, Olson spent seven years in marketing, the last three at Warner-Lambert (now Pfizer) in Morris Plains, New Jersey. As a marketing executive for Warner-Lambert, she developed promotional campaigns for consumer products such as Schick razors, Listermint mouthwash and Lubriderm lotion.

Engaging the Homeless

In 1982, an unexpected encounter with a homeless woman began an effort that has now touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of homeless and low-income families across the country. Rushing by Grand Central Station to a business meeting in 1982, Olson noticed a homeless woman she'd passed before. This time, she decided impulsively to buy a sandwich for the woman. When she gave it to her, the woman reached for Olson's hand and began a conversation.

For Olson, the conversation broke through a generalized conception of "the homeless" as she connected to the woman on a personal level. "I learned a little bit about her life, and a barrier was sort of broken. Up until that point, I had just thought you just don’t go near homeless people,” Olson said.

She and her two young sons began frequent trips to New York to hand out sandwiches to the homeless. “For a couple of years,” Olson said, “every other Sunday, we would go in armed with sandwiches and got to know [homeless] people by name.”

National Interfaith Hospitality Network/Family Promise

Olson learned that there were hundreds of homeless people, including families, in her home community of Union County, New Jersey. She turned to the religious community for help, convinced that there were many who shared her concern and that together they could do what they couldn't do alone. Since running a shelter requires extensive resources, a group of faith communities would share the task, rotating on a weekly basis to provide coverage throughout the year. Within ten months, eleven area congregations came forward to provide hospitality space within their buildings. The local YMCA agreed to provide showers and a day center for families. A car dealer discounted a van. On October 27, 1986, the first Interfaith Hospitality Network opened its doors. As word spread, ten more congregations formed a second Network. Programs for transitional housing, childcare, and financial literacy followed - outgrowths of increased awareness and involvement.

From working in her local area, Olson began a countywide mobilization of religious communities to provide homeless families with shelter and meals and help them get back on their feet. The success of the first Networks led other congregations to seek help in developing similar programs. In 1988 this became a national nonprofit organization, the National Interfaith Hospitality Network.

In 2003, the organization changed its name to Family Promise to reflect a broader range of programs and reaffirm its core commitment to helping families realize their own potential.

Through Olson's leadership, a vast network of volunteers has been created - and is still growing - that connects people in need with those who want to help. Their community engagement model provides a local solution to a national issue.

Olson retired in January 2016. She remains involved with Family Promise as President Emeritus. She continues making speaking engagements, meeting with Affiliate leadership and volunteering locally with the Union County, New Jersey program.

Awards, Works and Recognitions

Olson has received numerous awards for her work, among them the 1992 Annual Points of Light Award from former President George H.W. Bush, the New Jersey Governor’s Pride Award in Social Services, and the Jefferson Award from the American Institute for Public Service. She has been profiled by The New York Timesand the Christian Science Monitor,published in The Huffington Post, and she is featured in the book Courage is Contagious, Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things to Change the Face of America, written in 1999 by Ohio Congressman John Kasich.

Olson serves on the Family Homelessness Task Force of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and the New Jersey Interagency Council on Homelessness. She is a frequent speaker at meetings and conferences on the issues of poverty and homelessness. She has spoken at the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas on Mobilizing Communities to End Homelessness and the University of Kansas.

Olson believes that each individual has a responsibility to join the fight against homelessness, a belief that has informed her philanthropic work:

"It's up to each one of us to develop a public will to make a difference and to solve this tragedy of homelessness. It doesn't have to be."


  • “Poverty and Homelessness in the United States,” an essay from Just Preaching (Andre Resner Ed. for Family Promise, Chalice Press 2003)
  • References

    Karen Olson Wikipedia

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