The word risk can have negative connotations. It implies the potential for danger and loss. But Lisa Tessarowicz doesn’t look at it that way.
“Risk is doing things you’re uncomfortable with when you’re not sure what the outcome will be,” she explains, “but it also means doing things that no one else is willing to do and leading the way for others.”
Her definition is less doom-and-gloom and more empowering for people like her—those inclined to be adventurous and take chances, two qualities she’d like to see more widely adopted by funders. Risk is part of the mantra driving her tenure as president of the CALM Foundation and a concept she embraces as an impact investor.
“Risk means doing things no one else is willing to do and leading the way for others.”
After graduating from the University of Denver with a degree in international business and finance, Lisa was working on mastering the science of making corporate money. In fact, she was quite satisfied doing so until a family favor changed her mind. “My aunt runs a women’s day shelter in South Bend, Indiana, and she was getting ready for a big donor event when her database crashed. She’d just lost an employee and asked if I could come out and help. I said, ‘Okay, fine, if I have to.’”
She laughs about her reluctance now, because those 3 months on the shelter’s frontlines changed her life. When her family started the CALM Foundation—an apt acronym of the first letters of each of their names—she threw herself into the work of giving money to local organizations that fostered community attachment and pride.
She loved the giving back part, and she was energized by her business mindset. At her brother’s recommendation, she completed a 9-month course in strategic philanthropy at the Philanthropy Workshop. Lisa took her personal theory of change and her fine-tuned passion back to her home in Colorado Springs, where she had been raised by entrepreneurs. She quickly established herself as an entrepreneur in her own right and, as an impact investor, began providing capital to fund the startups of other entrepreneurs and nonprofits.
“I make uncollateralized loans at super reasonable interest rates. Some people think it’s unethical because you should only ever give money to nonprofits. It’s all about giving, giving, giving. Well, I say bull. You want to start a business and make money? That’s great. I’m not writing you a check. I’m not giving you a donation. I’m going to treat you like a business,” she insists.
In her program-related investments, Lisa gravitates to organizations and projects that share her same enthusiastic vision of growing the Colorado Springs metropolitan area into a hub of business opportunity. For example, the Colorado Springs Conservatory came to her with the idea for a for-profit music venue where students and alumni could perform that would double as a cool cultural venue. It was a win-win-win for the borrower, the lender, and the city they share.
“I love it when nonprofits want to be more business savvy, when they’re trying to find ways to be more sustainable so they can rely less on grant money and money from donors,” she says. “I can loan a lot more money than I can give away because, if I loan it, I’m going to get it back. So I’ll often say to a nonprofit, ‘I can write you a check for $5,000 or I can loan you $20,000. Which one is it going to be?’”
“It’s okay to feel uncomfortable, and it’s okay to not know the answer. I wish foundations would be okay with failing.”
The most glaring risk in Lisa’s business model is the unknown. Most of the loans’ durations range from 3 to 5 years, and none has been fully repaid yet, making this an experiment in success. As a business owner herself—she owns Epicentral Coworking, a hub for Colorado Springs’ entrepreneurial culture—she’s intimately familiar with the tremendous risk of putting finances, reputations, even sometimes ego and pride on the line to actualize a profitable plan. The same risk exists for nonprofits, she says.
“It’s okay to feel uncomfortable, and it’s okay to not know the answer. I wish foundations would be okay with failing. We need to experiment more and think critically about how we give away money and the impact we’re trying to have,” she adds. “If we support each other through that and share our lessons learned, we might be closer to actually solving some really big problems. We should all be failing a little bit, or we’re not trying hard enough.”