Michele Lord is one of the two presidents of NEO Philanthropy (her co-president is Berta Colón), an innovative non-profit that advances social change. Together, Lord and Colón have created an organization that offers a range of services—organizing collaborative funds and spearheading donor advised funds, to name two—that help donors make visible and lasting change in the social justice space. The goal, Lord says, “is to meet people where they are, and maybe by going there, and going a little deeper there, they may be interested in doing something else. That’s how we see our value-add. It’s a much deeper conversation.” To continue plumbing the depths, read on!
When I first heard of your organization, you were being rebranded. What prompted that change?
The organization has been around for 30 years. Before I came on fourteen years ago, it had a reputation of being a fiscal sponsor. It didn’t have any staff. It didn’t have any budget. We were the backroom for lots of organizations that didn’t have their own 501(c)(3).
What do you mean when you say backroom?
We provided financial support, management support and legal support. A lot of groups didn’t want to get their own 501(c)(3). So they couldn’t get foundation dollars. We were able to do it for them. We did their HR as needed, their accounting, all of that. We were known as Public Interest Projects then. I had been working for a very wealthy family in their family office, and I’d become very interested in the whole collaborative idea, of foundations coming together and capitalizing a fund, so that they could do their grantmaking together around a particular strategy. When I came on board, I was very interested in creating a model that would do it differently and better than where I was. We started with one collaborative fund, and now we’ve done over twelve of them. We still work as a fiscal sponsor, and we also do donor advised funds.
So that shift in focus is what inspired you to change the name?
The name Public Interest Projects was essentially picked out of a hat. The original founder, Donald Ross, wanted the organization to be under the radar so that people wouldn’t necessarily know what it did. Before I came, we were always in the back, never in the front. Once we started developing our work, the name became confusing to people. It didn’t say who we were, and it didn’t say anything about our values.
It didn’t give you a concrete identity.
Right. We had just gone along with it for years and years and years because we were so busy building the organization. We started with zero, and now we have a budget of $52 million. We have over 40 staff members, we’ve done 12 collaborative funds, we have almost 40 fiscally sponsored projects and donor-advised projects. A couple of years ago, one of our board members said, “Your name doesn’t say anything about who you are.” So we thought, okay, let’s consider a rebranding process. The whole idea was to think through, “What do we want people to think about us? What values do we care about? What things are important to us? Who is our audience?” It was almost like doing a strategic plan, but doing it in a different way. It was about connecting the dots for people, to be able to show them that there are many different ways of being involved with us. You could have a donor advised fund, you could support one of our projects, or you could join one of our collaborative funds.
How do you see those three things—donor advised funds, donating to projects and collaborative funds—working together? How do they create a robust brand narrative that you guys can stand behind?
We have folks who have a donor-advised fund with us, and they fund one of our collaborative funds. There are many ways to get money out the door. But we’re not a transactional shop. There are lots of places that have donor advised funds where the donor calls up and says, “Write these checks to these organizations.” We do it very differently. The donors we tend to work with often want to go deeper, and they want the program expertise that our staff has. Our staff is full of highly developed program-rich people, and it’s a much richer model. We can be transactional, and we have been. The rebranding helped us get to the place where we are now. It helped us figure out how to talk to people about our strengths. We know where our niche is and our space. If we had gone through a very traditional strategic planning process that many people go through, I don’t think we would have gotten to the other side. We wanted something radically different from other people in our field.
How did you end up in philanthropy?
It was a circuitous path. I’m a lawyer by training. I was a public defender, and then I went down to Texas, and I was a legal services lawyer doing immigration and asylum work in the early 80s. I hated Texas. After that I went to work on the Hill in Congress, and I was the director of the congressional caucus for women’s issues, which was a group of bipartisan women in Congress. We worked on legislation—a platform for women. We worked on the Cobra legislation and we worked on family and medical leave. I did that for a bunch of years. Then I moved to New York. When Mayor Dinkins was elected, I got pulled into his administration. I was the director of Health and Services there. When he wasn’t re-elected, I was looking for a job, and my mentor said, “There’s a family that I worked for in philanthropy. You would be great.” And she handed me over to them. I worked in their family office for six years and ran their foundation.
What are three pieces of advice you’d give to someone who wants to get involved in philanthropy but has never done it and is afraid to get started?
- Figure out what you’re passionate about. If you’re not passionate about it, why do it at all?
- Find someone good to help you think it through—someone who is immersed in the work. You also have to figure out what you’re comfortable doing. Is it advocacy? Is it social services?
- Just get out there. A lot of people see it in a very abstract way. So even if you want someone to help you think it through, don’t let them think it through all the way. You’ve got to get your hands dirty. Remember what philanthropy is all about—noses in, fingers out. You’re not actually not doing the work. So don’t dictate how the work is done.