She Made a Business Out of Giving Back

The US nonprofit sector is going strong: it currently employs more people than the automotive, electronic and oil and gas industries. Lisa Dietlin, the founder of a company that connects nonprofits with charitable entrepreneurs, chats with More about how philanthropy came into her life and why it’s a valuable career path.

by Samantha Lear
Lisa Dietlin transformational philanthropy

More: Can you explain what you do at Lisa M. Dietlin and Associates?
Lisa Dietlin: I used to fundraise at universities and colleges. Donors would tell me that after making a donation, sometimes it felt like they never heard from us again until we asked for more money. It felt like a transaction, and they really wanted to change something or transform it. So now I say that we help change philanthropy from a transactional feeling to transformational feeling.

More: How do you do that?
LD: We work both with the nonprofit organization and the donor to set reasonable expectations for what each party wants out of the relationship. Usually, a nonprofit group might not contact a donor again for a year for fear of messing up the relationship. In the meantime, those who donated the money are wondering where exactly their money went.

We’re trying to bridge what seems like an abyss between the nonprofit and the donor. Don’t just write the check—get involved. You have to keep open lines of communication and not worry that every time you talk to the nonprofit they’re going to ask for money. Develop that relationship. Get involved yourself by serving on the board or volunteering. For example, you could read to kids in the exact library where you helped to put books on the shelves.

More: Did you always know you were going to start your own business?
LD: I was never going to be a business owner—I was going to be a university president. I started in political fundraising and then moved into higher education, raising money for public universities in Michigan and Illinois. I was the person who met with alumni and corporations and solicited funds.

At a certain point, my friends on nonprofit boards started coming to me for advice. Of course I had a full time job, so I’d have them buy me a cup of coffee and we’d talk over whatever their problem was. They started paying me for advice, and then one day my evening and weekend earnings were more than my gross take-home, and I thought to myself, “I have a business here.”

More: What advice would you give to women who are looking to start their own business?
LD: Have the courage to do it—there will be lot people telling you not to and to keep your day job. People give up so easily. My dream is to have a TV show dedicated to philanthropy. I was able to talk to the head of NBC and he told me that the sector was too small. At first I felt defeated. But then I did the research and realized that there are 12 million people in this field. It has a huge impact on the economy. His pushing back didn’t make me give up; it made me do my homework. Now I appear on NBC in Chicago. Don’t give up.

More: What would you suggest to a reader who has no experience with nonprofits but is looking to get involved?
LD: First, think about what you have in your life or what you may be lacking that you want to share with others. For instance, if you love animals but you don’t have any pets, you could volunteer at a shelter. Try many things at first, but when you make a commitment, stick with it. If you don’t have a nonprofit in mind, do a search online. Charity Navigator, GuideStar and the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance are all great resources.

You should also make a budget every year for what you can afford to contribute. I don’t recommend getting involved in more than three organizations as you’ll likely get overwhelmed and burned out. Make sure to set a little money aside for those unexpected requests—charity walks, awareness months—that can arise from neighbors and family members. And it’s okay to say no. Don’t let guilt drive your philanthropic decisions.

 Related: Gifts with Strings Attached

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