10 Questions or Less for Helen Ishii


10 Questions or Less is a feature here on the Forum’s Forum in which we get to know regional association staff members a little better—their work, what drives them, and more. This week,  Helen Ishii, Director of Member & Government Relations at Southeastern Council of Foundations.  If you would like to suggest someone for a profile through 10 Questions or Less, contact Dan Brady.

Earlier this month, you attended Foundations on the Hill as a delegation captain. What issues did you talk about with your legislators?
After years and years of discussing it, I was thrilled to see how many Congressmen are aware of the private foundation excise tax issue and most importantly are willing to support a flat rate.

Limit on charitable deductions—I am somewhat comforted by universal dismissal of the decoupling of the deduction for charitable donations from the personal income tax rate, but am not totally convinced it is a dead issue as it continues to make an appearance in President Obama’s budget.

In your role as Director of Member & Government Relations you keep SECF members abreast of federal and state legislative issues. What tools or programs do you use to stay informed?

COF’s Public Policy Updates, Alliance for Charitable Reform’s newsletter, Independent Sector legislative briefings, subscribe to various state Budget & Policy Institute newsletters, regularly scan Chronicle of Philanthropy daily updates.

Walk us through a typical day in the SECF office.

Fight traffic, answer email, meet w/rest of staff to ensure we’re all on the same page regarding programming and communications; answer email, work a little on member recruitment, answer email, get on a conference call or meeting, get a little done on government affairs, answer email, attend another conference call or meeting, continue work on special projects in education, answer email, and answer more email.

What would you say is SECF’s most popular member program?

By leaps and bounds it is our Annual Meeting! Some of our members have been coming for literally decades and we are Southern so for many it is like a homecoming. They see folks they see only once a year and catch up on what is new at their foundation, in their communities, and with their grantmaking.  Most of our members have small staffs or no staff at all plus we have high trustee participation. This is the one time of the year they are with a large group of peers and have the opportunity to learn and share with each other.

Is there anything you’re working on now that is particularly exciting?

The Campaign for Grade Level Reading is interesting and exciting to me – bringing funders together on a single subject is one of our member benefits. I think it is also important for funders to come together as a body to have impact. I’m also working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on an initiative with education funders in our region to share with each other their learnings with the ultimate goal of having significant impact on education in their communities and across the region.

What’s one thing you do in your position that the Forum network can help with?

Prospecting data! Which foundations in our region are active versus directed by a bank trust department; have directed giving, etc. Good contact software that allows us to easily move prospect through the sales cycle from not interested to active prospect to member!

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

Working with members! Learning about their grantmaking – great grants they’ve made; the subjects about which they are passionate.  It is rewarding to connect them with another project or funder that enriches or expands upon their grantmaking. I’m constantly amazed at how few funders know each other so it is with great joy I introduce people whether in-person or electronically!

Outside of work, what are you passionate about?

Daffodils from Helen's garden, with picture of Bella.

My dog, I mean four-legged child Bella, who has matured from Princess to Empress. Reading mostly mysteries, nothing intellectual and a real book no Kindles or iPads!  Flowers! In my garden, hyacinths, daffodils, and tulips are blooming right now, with azaleas and iris not far behind. Ever blooming roses, hydrangea, and later crepe myrtles keep color until fall. I keep the local nurseries in business! In-door plants are not so lucky, alas there I have discovered silk are best.

Anything else we should know?

I am mad for March Madness! And come fall I’m all about Alabama football – Roll Tide!

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