Wherever she goes it seems good news — and good deeds — follow Teresa Vasilopoulos. Her reputation as someone with a gift for making things better has now spread beyond Toronto, beyond Canada and finally onto a global stage.
The Executive Director of the WoodGreen Foundation has been named the global outstanding fundraising professional by the Association for Fundraising Professionals. Vasilopoulos says she is “overwhelmed and humbled” by the award. It recognizes the efforts of an individual who raises funds for non-profit charities such as WoodGreen Community Services. For the organizations with whom Vasilopoulos has worked, her efforts have been nothing short of transformative.
From the front line to finding fundraising
Known for handling multi-million dollar donations and campaigns, Vasilopoulos has a unique talent for showing others that just one act of giving can infinitely multiply the good that is possible in the world. It’s something she has seen up close on a 25 year journey that started with collecting samples of blood and led to her collecting millions of dollars in donations for Canadian charities.
Vasilopoulos started in front line healthcare as a phlebotomist, then ran a small business while raising children. She returned to the workforce at Toronto East General Hospital and branched out into communications and volunteerism. It was her informal fundraising efforts that caught the attention of the hospital’s foundation, whose leaders asked her to join them.
“I moved over and I loved it. I mean, I really, really loved the fundraising side of things,” says Vasilopoulos. She returned to school to study fundraising management, worked in the field and then continued on to complete an MBA at Queen’s University.
Meaningful, memorable donations
It didn’t take long for Vasilopoulos to make her mark as a successful fundraiser when, in her first week as President of the Toronto East General Hospital Foundation, she secured a $1 million donation. That was the start of big things to come. Perhaps her most memorable donation is one which, while impressive in its sheer size, came with such love and emotion that Vasilopoulos will never forget it. Myron and Berna Garron donated $50 million to the Toronto hospital in memory of their young son, Michael. The 12-year-old worried that when he died that he would be forgotten. His parents swore he would not, and the hospital was renamed in his honour.
“It was fulfilling a mother's promise to her son,” says Vasilopoulos, “so that was just such a special gift.”
“It made a huge difference at Michael Garron [Hospital} because it really turned around the organization and allowed it to do incredible work in the community.”
Real change happening right next door
After retiring from the hospital, Vasilopoulos turned her interests to international development and ways to help people lift themselves out of poverty.
“I had a thought: Could you take an International Development model and have it work in an urban setting?”
That’s when the lifelong East End Toronto resident learned that something just like this was already happening very close to home, through an organization she knew only by name; WoodGreen Community Services. Vasilopoulos says she didn’t realize the extent of what WoodGreen does for the community, especially through its unique Homeward Bound program.
“Providing people not just a key to a house, but support and mental health counselling or financial empowerment or skills training, daycare, all the different things that help somebody actually make that transition and have it be sustainable change. So that was what led me to WoodGreen... and I really fell in love with the organization.”
Vasilopoulos’ decision to lead the WoodGreen Foundation made headlines as the skilled and talented fundraiser’s track record for growing organizations from where they are to where they can be, is the envy of many charities. She has already led an unprecedented $20 million dollar campaign that not only achieved, but actually exceeded, its targets a full two years ahead of schedule.
Donors seek connection
What, then, is her secret to success? What does she say to donors that convinces them to contribute to her organization? She starts by not saying anything at all, but instead, she listens.
“If you take the time to really understand the motivation behind the donor... seeing what it is that drives people and then seeing if what they're interested in matches what work we do. Then you can really make incredible things happen.”
This emotion-driven approach to fundraising is one Vasilopoulos applies regardless of whether the donor is looking to give millions of their dollars or mere minutes of their free time to a good cause.
“It doesn't matter the size of the gift or whether you have capacity or not; it's about the act of giving and how it makes people feel and the pride people can take in knowing that they've made that impact.”
She says some of the smaller gifts are especially meaningful; kids donating money they’ve raised from a lemonade stand or a senior who doesn’t have much but still donates because WoodGreen cared for her husband. Volunteering one's time is also a vital part of giving.
“Gifts don't always have to be monetary, but it's really nice just to see that level of humanity.”
Creating a culture of giving
This positive outlook is something Vasilopoulos says is a definite perk to being a professional fundraiser.
“Even on your worst day, you're dealing with people that are philanthropic and altruistic and who you know are really trying to make an impact,” she says.
It is her ability to tap into this spirit of giving back to one’s community that truly distinguishes Vasilopoulos as an exceptional fundraising professional. She seeks to foster a culture of philanthropy at every level, assembling strong and ethical governing boards. She has taken that commitment one step further at WoodGreen with the Young Leaders Council, made up of emerging leaders who are championing social change and building awareness of the critical role social service plays in Toronto – addressing homelessness, poverty and inequality.
Vasilopoulos says there is a fascinating trend in the attitudes of younger people around philanthropy.
“People will say they're not into giving. I don't agree with that,” she says.
“I think they're very giving. But I think that they are much more thoughtful about it, and they don't give just for the sake of giving; they want to be invested in the organization. And if you do get them engaged, they are very powerful because with social media, they can actually build so much of a network and they can tell your story in a big way.”
And it is in this approach that we see Teresa Vasilopoulos’ exceptional abilities to turn fundraising into something so much more than raising money; her skill is in raising profiles, raising philanthropists, raising possibilities, and raising spirits.