Advancing Philanthropy

Member Spotlight: Teresa Vasilopoulos, EMBA, CFRE

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AFP’s 2022 Outstanding Fundraising Professional talks about her career

Teresa Vasilopoulos, executive director of The WoodGreen Foundation, is AFP’s 2022 Outstanding Fundraising Professional, and she was recognized at AFP ICON recently in Las Vegas.

Bill MacKinnon, WoodGreen’s chair, says Vasilopoulos’s efforts have been transformative.

Teresa Vasilopoulos,  EMBA, CFRE
Teresa Vasilopoulos,
EMBA, CFRE

“Wherever she goes, it seems good news—and good deeds—follow Teresa,” MacKinnon said after Vasilopoulos won the global award. “Her reputation as someone with a gift for making things better has now spread beyond Toronto, beyond Canada, and finally onto a global stage.”

During her long career, Vasilopoulos has helped to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for a wide variety of causes and even written a children’s book about philanthropy—What Can You Do With Just One Dollar?—with all the proceeds going to WoodGreen Community Services. She talked about that effort after AFP caught up with the longtime fundraiser at AFP ICON. AFP also asked her about her career, her favorite moments, and any guidance she has for those new to the profession.

AFP: Tell us a little bit about The WoodGreen Foundation.

Teresa Vasilopoulos: The WoodGreen Foundation is the fundraising arm of one of Toronto’s largest social service agencies that focuses on fundraising for the unmet needs in our city, including poverty; lack of affordable housing; safer futures for women and children fleeing abuse; support of those with mental health issues or addiction; programs for youth at risk or those aging out of foster care; elder health crises and food security; child care; newcomer services, employment and skills training; and financial stability supports.

AFP: How did you get involved in fundraising?

TV: I started out on the clinical side of health care as a phlebotomist, then I ran a small business while raising my children. When I returned to the workforce at Toronto East General Hospital, now Michael Garron Hospital, my informal fundraising efforts caught the attention of the hospital foundation CEO, who asked me to join his team. I loved it. I mean, I really, really loved fundraising and seeing the way donor investment could truly create transformational change. So, I went back to school to study fundraising and then continued on to complete an EMBA at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

AFP: What is the secret to the fundraising success you’ve had in your career?

TV: I think the secret to my success has been listening. I know it sounds simple, but if you take the time to really understand the donor and the motivation behind their giving, that is when the real magic happens. Donors have many different reasons for giving—it can be because of a loss, perhaps they were helped at some time in their life, or they may be wanting to give back or make an impact. Others are excited by innovation or have a passion for a very specific project or program. Many feel fortunate and want to help make someone else’s road a little easier. Whatever the motivation, once you understand what is meaningful to them, it is exciting to see if their interest matches the need we have or the work we do.

Often, giving is emotion-driven, and this applies regardless of whether the donor is looking to give millions of dollars or minutes of their time to a cause. Gifts don’t always have to be monetary; it is about the act of giving and how it makes people feel and the pride a person can take in knowing that they have made an impact. It is wonderful to witness that level of humanity.

AFP: What is the biggest issue or challenge that fundraisers and the profession must address?

TV: I think the biggest challenge is ensuring that donor dollars are respected and utilized in the manner in which they are intended. Ethical fundraising is paramount. People have many things they can do with their money. If they choose to give it to a cause to help ease pain and suffering or to advance innovation, it is so important that their dollars are utilized properly and that there is strong fiduciary oversight and accurate reporting on the impact they make.

AFP: What are you most proud of in your career?

TV: I think the one thing I have been recognized for, and for which I am most proud, is the ability to attract and retain stellar and highly engaged staff and volunteer teams. My feeling is that you spend a lot of time with the people with whom you work or volunteer, so it is important to make the experience fun and enjoyable. For our staff team, people often remark that we work hard and play hard—and we do. We also remember to celebrate everyone’s successes, no matter how big or small—we celebrate our accomplishments as a team.

We also take time as a team off-site to strategize, ensuring everyone is engaged in the planning, so we all have a sense of shared ownership. For volunteer boards, I think it is critical to have highly professional and highly skilled board members who are connected, ask the right questions, and offer sage advice. You need to have a board that offers credibility, diversity, and seasoned expertise so there is a layer of objective oversight and proper checks and balances.

AFP: Do you have a favorite or insightful fundraising/donor relations story?

TV: My most memorable donation is one that came with such love and emotion that I will never forget it. Myron and Berna Garron donated $50 million to our Toronto hospital in memory of their late son, Michael, who died as a child. The 12-year-old had worried that since he was dying at such a young age, he would be forgotten. His mother, Berna, promised he would never be. With the generous gift to the hospital, which was renamed in Michael’s honor as the Michael Garron Hospital, his mother’s promise was fulfilled. I still tear up every time I talk about it. The gift made a huge difference at Michael Garron Hospital—not only was it the largest single gift to a community hospital in Canada, but it also propelled the hospital to new heights, supported many new health care achievements, and allowed the hospital to continue incredible work in its very diverse community.

AFP: What is one thing you wish you had known at the beginning of your career? Or what is some advice you have for those who are new to the profession?

TV: What I have discovered is how paramount the relationship element is in successful fundraising. Authentic relationship-building is key. As a fundraiser, you become very close to some donors because you are a part of a very personal decision. It is a privilege to be a part of this giving journey with them and their family, so you must be sure to not lose sight of the importance of the process or the moment. So, the advice I would offer those new to the profession is to be sure to help the donor fully understand the impact their gift will make, and wisely steward the relationship that will develop through the giving process to ensure the gift has the intended outcome.

AFP: You have been a mentor for many female fundraisers. What advice do you have for female fundraisers aspiring to leadership positions?

TV: Be prepared and willing to work hard, and remain honest, sincere, and trustworthy. Seek out organizations or projects that you are passionate about so you can speak authentically to the cause. Don’t be afraid to articulate a bold vision—think big. Donors, staff teams, and boards will be excited by a strong and ambitious vision, and if it has tangible impact, it will help galvanize support and teamwork. These traits will help you maintain confidence in your work and will allow you to convey that confidence to your donors, board, and staff teams. Also, don’t be afraid to make a mistake, and if you do, own up to it, apologize, and try to fix it. The way you recover from making a mistake is far more important than the error itself. It is what people will remember, and it is what you will be measured upon.

AFP: You have recently written a book about children’s philanthropy. What inspired you to write that?

TV: Throughout my 30-year career in fundraising, I talked with many parents and grandparents who were looking for a way to teach their children and grandchildren about the value of giving back and helping others. These conversations, and the experience of teaching my own children about giving, inspired me to write a children’s book on giving.

What Can You Do With Just One Dollar? is a book that focuses on diversity and inclusion and shows that all kids, no matter their background or circumstances, can enjoy the wonderful feeling of pride and accomplishment one receives when giving. The book’s illustrator, Vic Guiza, is an award-winning illustrator with experience with top brands such as Disney and Marvel. Together, we collaborated to create a visually inclusive and representative story so readers of different cultures, situations, or experiences could see themselves in the characters and dream about how they could give or help others as it relates to their own life. The story invites conversation around spending, saving, and giving. The book is self-published, and all proceeds go to WoodGreen Community Services. It is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

AFP: How has the Canadian fundraising profession changed during your career?

TV: The fundraising profession has evolved into a more professional sector and is an integral part of the socio-economic landscape. Today, donors are giving at unprecedented levels, and their gifts are truly creating change across every aspect of the country. There is also more scrutiny, and that is a good thing. I think there is better governance and fiscal oversight by fundraising organizations and boards. I feel that fundraising is a highly regarded and necessary field, and thanks to AFP, there is an opportunity for idea exchange between many outstanding fundraising professionals across Canada and across borders.

AFP: How has AFP and the AFP fundraising community supported you during your career?

TV: I have learned so much at conferences and mini-educational sessions over my career. The networking and collaboration that is accessible through AFP is incredible. I also feel that the CFRE courses and study groups provided me with the opportunity to hone my skills, and the CFRE accreditation and presenting at different conference events helped to keep me relevant with ongoing learning. I wish I had become more involved with AFP earlier in my career, and that is what I would recommend to new fundraisers. I have enjoyed the work on the AFP boards so much, and I have met so many wonderful colleagues.

AFP: What are some of the causes and organizations you volunteer for and support outside of work?

TV: Food insecurity, mental health, health care, affordable housing, and poverty tend to be the organizations that I support outside of work. I am very interested in seeing if our communities can do better in supporting the most vulnerable members of our society.

AFP: What was it like to receive the Outstanding Fundraising Professional Award?

TV: I was overwhelmed and humbled when I received the Outstanding Fundraising Professional Award, especially since this is a global honor. There are so many more deserving candidates. I was so extremely grateful and honored to have been chosen, so it is certainly something that I cherish. As I said in my acceptance speech, I feel this award is a tribute to the generous benefactors I have been so fortunate to work with, and a reflection of the stellar staff and volunteer teams I have been a part of over the span of my career. This award ultimately acknowledges the donors, volunteers, and staff who have played such a vital role in making some incredible things happen.

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