Five Questions: Theresa Lipo

12/12/2016 11:34 AM | Ed Graziano (Administrator)

Theresa Lipo
By Elizabeth Richter

Our “Five Questions” series highlights the expertise and individuality of our member consultants. Members are interviewed by an ACN peer. We hope this series will reveal the breadth, depth, and overall expertise of our membership!

Tell us about yourself and what makes you unique.
I have been working in and with Chicago’s nonprofit community for almost 30 years. My work centers on development and helping build quality programs that have maximum potential for funding support. What sets me apart is the unique perspective that I can bring to nonprofit clients through work I’ve done in community and family foundations. I’ve been fortunate to have had the dual experiences of grant-seeking and grant-making, which allows me to be an effective advocate for the nonprofit community and those supporting them. My clients and employers have ranged from large government agencies and social service institutions to small grassroots arts organizations. I’ve built a practice focused on helping providers effectively shape their case for support, which leads to funders that will be excited about what they are doing and motivated to help.

At what point does an organization need you?
Organizations need skills like mine at several different points. Organizations need me when they want to start a fundraising program and their existing staff is overworked and needs help. They need me when they have a new project, initiative, or program they don’t have the resources to pursue and they need someone to research potential funding sources that they’re unaware of, such as government grants within their area of service and expertise. For example, I once managed a grant for the Columbia College film department. The project was actually funded through the US Department of Defense to develop animation to be used in homeland security – not the usual place for a film department to seek money!

Organizations also need me when they are looking to diversify their funding sources. They may have programming in place that they feel could have potential to attract other funders. I recently met with an organization providing mental health services to a very specific low-income population. They had never looked beyond their immediate community for funding support. Meeting with them, I realized the potential opportunities available to them in part because of the Affordable Care Act and the significant unmet need in their community. Facing a lack of capacity to think beyond the day-to-day challenges, they hadn’t thought strategically about their funding base. We are starting with a case statement to take to current funders and jump-start the process. Although they knew they needed to expand their capacity because of the ongoing demand for their services, they had not documented unmet need and the demographics in their communities using the existing research. I was able to guide them a new direction that will help them generate a diverse portfolio of funders.

How do you deal with a small start-up that has zero fundraising experience?

I’ve actually done this successfully several times. Many small organizations want to begin with writing a grant proposal – one performing arts group just gave me the season schedule and thought I could raise money based on that! You need good programs in place first. There needs to be a staffing plan, an evaluation process and a thoughtful, sustainable budget. Organizations need a staff and board structure in place that can support fundraising and grant administration. These are essential components before you start asking for money.

What makes a great client?
To me the perfect client is one who is prepared for you. It’s critical that the board knows what you are doing and approves of your project and the budget. It then needs to communicate that to the staff, so that everyone is on board with your role and welcomes you. Internal miscommunications can be debilitating – it’s a waste of everyone’s time and money.

You’ve worked on both sides of the funding fence. Having managed grants and guided donors for a community foundation, what perspective can you bring your clients?
Focus on quality programming rather than the number of people served. The donors with whom I have worked want to see a good initial small project. They will then be there for the next level. It’s not always about scale but about quality of service and impact within your area of expertise. It’s easier to grow the program than to scale it back.

What brings you the most satisfaction in your work?

I’m hard pressed to say which I enjoy more, finding the money or giving it away! One thing I’ve come to appreciate through both philanthropy and development is the impact that can be made with even a relatively small level of support. I work with a family foundation that was responsible in large part for the creation of a network of community gardens on the west side. These were small grants provided for several years that funded seeds, technical assistance, and small scale gardening equipment. Those gardens are now a force for positive community development in an area that really needs it. Whether you are developing the program or helping sustain it through funding support, it is an incredibly satisfying experience to see it become successful and potentially have long-term impact beyond its original expectations.

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