A Conversation with Vivienne Lee
Vivienne Lee, founder of vvnlee consulting, has been working with nonprofit and philanthropic organizations for nearly two decades. She is an expert in strategic development, program design and organizational development. She also serves as a Principal Consultant to REDF, the only venture philanthropy in the U.S. that invests exclusively in the growth of social enterprises focused on employment.
Vivienne’s commitment to systemic change began early on during one of her first classes as a freshman at Occidental College, “Women of Color in the United States.” With a major focus on race, class, and gender inequalities, the course persuaded her that systemic change is needed to create equal access to opportunities and equity for those communities most marginalized. As a result, Vivienne’s focus throughout her career has been to improve, enhance, and leverage these systems in order to break a cycle of powerlessness and exclusion — “to create more equality and equity.”
Vivienne initially put her goals into practice as a volunteer through AmeriCorps VISTA by helping low-income communities build wealth through a matched savings program in Hawaii. After completing graduate school at MIT, Vivienne came back to Los Angeles to work for Citi Community Development managing their charitable giving in Los Angeles. In addition to making grants in housing, economic development, and financial inclusion, Vivienne had a goal to make better grants — to not only find the business value in the grantmaking, but to also guide the team toward making better strategic investmentsm, leading to greater access and better equity in the communities they served.
At REDF, Vivienne was really able to put her ideals to work by “leveraging the larger ecosystem to create an integrated approach to social enterprise and workforce development.” She put her stamp on LA:RISE (Los Angeles Regional Initiative for Social Enterprise), an innovative approach to job creation and employment. Recognizing that change doesn’t happen in a vacuum and that it takes partnerships of people and organizations to drive change, the program was funded with a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor and developed in partnership with the City of Los Angeles and other local nonprofits.
It’s the relationships with both people and organizations that Vivienne finds most rewarding. She recognizes that many variables affect the issues involved in “breaking the cycle” of inequity, and that the solutions require shared vision — they can’t happen in isolation. A “collective force" is needed "to create economic opportunities and the infrastructure for people to thrive.” Relationships need to be based on an understanding of what each partner requires, and how their work is part of the bigger puzzle to make equality an integral component to change.
Vivienne understands that donors need time to understand the components to systemic change. “Donors first have to be educated about this issue. This requires engaging communities.” Community organizations and philanthropic institutions also need to have a strong process in place for their work that includes “supporting expected impact and evaluation.” Vivienne sees opportunities for “donors to take a little bit more risk.” For instance, “R&D money and risk capital” could be deployed to promote and support the core elements of community economic development. In order to “make change happen, there need to be resources for longer-term impact. We don’t know the shape or form it will take. However, we have to give it a start. It’s not only for the richest of the rich to be involved in philanthropy — we all have to be good stewards of our communities. That’s what makes change happen.”