Founder & President of In a Perfect World Foundation
By Sheila Barry Driscoll
Manuela Testolini, the founder and head of In A Perfect World Foundation has a full, impact-driven history in the generous space. Manuela has spent much of the past 20 years working to build effective, solutions-oriented approaches to empower the next generation. Under her leadership, In A Perfect World has created and supported programs that provide education, mentoring and artistic expression to underserved and at-risk youth around the world in places including Mali, Malawi, Senegal, Haiti, Nicaragua, Nepal, among others, and also right here in the U.S. from Los Angeles to Washington, DC and beyond. In addition to In A Perfect World’s work of building schools, providing grants to inner-city classrooms in need, and helping to facilitate youth-driven moments of service, Manuela has created a unique Youth Ambassador Program in which she trains young people to be philanthropists and community leaders themselves.
Of Egyptian and Italian descent, Manuela was raised in Canada and spent her summers in Egypt where first-hand exposure to societal challenges deeply moved her and for some, a need for so much. After receiving a degree in law and sociology at York University in Toronto, Manuela became involved with several nonprofit organizations and philanthropic projects including Love4One Another, Free Arts Minnesota, and the Young Women’s Empowerment Network. From this work, experience, and passion, In A Perfect World was born and has since been widely recognized with honors including the Award of Service from United Communities Against Poverty, the GuideStar Platinum Seal Award, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s Fearless Leader Award. Manuela’s commitment to service is a family affair: she and her husband, Eric Benet, have traveled together to places like Haiti to build schools with In A Perfect World, and their daughter Lucia Bella, as Junior Ambassador for the organization.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Manuela for the Billionaire Chronicle’s inaugural edition, and I am delighted to share her inspirations, insights, and philanthropy with our readers.
Billionaire Chronicle: The first question that I have for you Manuela, is how did you come up with the title of your non-profit “In a Perfect World?’
Manuela Testolini: Many years ago, I found myself doing some consulting for foundations and in my work to identify community groups that needed support, I used to spend time with children and have them do art projects where they would tell me “in their perfect world.”, So, “in a perfect world” what could I give to them? What could I make their experience either in foster care or an abuse treatment facility or in transitional housing, more palatable or easier to accept? Alternatively, easier to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Moreover, there was one little boy who when I asked that question, he said, “in a perfect world” he would just like a “blue crayon.” So, I asked him again, “In a perfect world” tell me, if I could give you anything, what would it be? “And he went back again and just said, “I just want a blue crayon.” I said, “So I can give you a pack of crayons” and he said, “I just want a blue crayon.” When I went to his mom and asked her or told her his answer, she said that they had left a domestic abuse situation in the middle of the night. She thought she had gathered all of the things that were important to him, like his Tonka truck and his teddy bear and his box of crayons. She realized she had left behind his favorite “blue crayon.” So for me what I took away from it was that this kid was carrying around a void. Something that reminded him of that night and while the mother thought that while being out of that domestic abuse situation and being on the right track was enough, it wasn’t enough. She did not ask him what she could do for him to make their current world, in this shelter easier to deal with. I continued from there, to make it a point to ask kids, “in a perfect world…”
Billionaire Chronicle: That’s beautiful. How do you feel when you connect with the mission of “In A Perfect World?”
Manuela Testolini: WOW! That’s an interesting question! Reaching children and seeing light bulbs go off is so gratifying for me because I think that there are many voices that we don’t hear. We assume children don’t have opinions or that they can’t have an impact maybe because of the situation that they’re in. However, that little boy with the blue crayon led me to conduct workshops, specifically around the idea of “in a perfect world” and reaching children through art so that they can tell us what they envision. But not only that, but that when we could look at those answers, and see what we could help them to accomplish so that they feel empowered. When we have children in “at risk” communities, who are never asked to participate in the betterment of their society or the improvement of their lives in a shelter or something like that. It’s empowering in and of itself for them to know that we want to hear from them. However, then to take their ideas and translate them into action, that is much more impactful.
So, we talked about a little girl who told me in her “perfect world” she would love to have a picnic with her family and that’s what she drew for me. I asked her why she couldn’t have a picnic with her family in the park, and she said, “because the park was dirty.” Moreover, so, we took this little girl who’s in a homeless shelter in Minneapolis and said, “why don’t you be the leader of the community clean-up of the park?” Also, so, for a girl whose life is feeling disenfranchised by her life that is not stable at that time, to feel like she is a force for change, was empowering. However, the other takeaway that I got from that was, that when we enlisted the other people in the homeless shelter to participate in the community clean-up of the park, they thanked me for asking them to help with something. Because they are so often looked at as solely recipients and “people in need” that we were overlooking the fact that they needed to feel valued and they needed to feel like they could have an impact also.
Billionaire Chronicle: What is your dream or better yet what do you want to accomplish for “In a Perfect World?”
Manuela Testolini: My dream for “In a Perfect World” is to move beyond “programs” and toward the “movement.” What we are doing is great. We go into schools, we go into these “at-risk” communities and provide access to education, and mentoring and the Arts. I want to be able to provide a curriculum so that there is a standardized method to disseminate the information that we have and disseminate our lesson plans so that a movement is created and the ripple effect takes place. We are here with teens whom we mentor in Los Angeles and Washington, we have our “pint-size” activist crew which is led by my six-year-old daughter, but those things are great models for what other families and other communities can be doing. So I want to be able to hand that off to them so that they can be part of the more significant movement.
Billionaire Chronicle: What is your philosophy on completing the circle of giving and how do you do that?
Manuela Testolini: Completing the circle of giving. I think that I have a vibrant heritage and background. Growing up and having spent time in the mountains of Italy for half a summer and then a third-world country for the other half, was very eye-opening as a youngster. To understand that not everybody lives the same, we are not all given the equal opportunities but also that where you’re born should not dictate your circumstance. If I can, from my perspective, complete the circle of giving by taking what I know to be what I have as my own life experience and to implement that. I am bridging these worlds together, so some people have resources and knowledge. If I can help them to pass that on to the people that don’t have access to those things, because where they’re born, that completes everything for me.
Billionaire Chronicle: So now, moving into the realm of fundraising, how do you approach a portfolio of Donor Prospects?
Manuela Testolini: Ah! That’s a trick question! Well, we were self-funded for the first eleven years of our existence, and we’re in our re-birth of sorts in that realm to become fundraising, a public-facing organization is a new territory. We have taken a step back to see what it is to identify what our needs are real. how we can scale, and what our growth plan is, so that we can enlist people that are not only “armchair philanthropists” who write a check and hope for the best, but people who invest in the ideas that we are working towards. We are looking for people who are, who see their ROI on their investment in something like “In A Perfect World” as much as, that the ROI is the impact that’s being made. However, we want them to be participants in that impact. We want input, and we want them to be active in what we are doing. So, while funding is excellent, I do look for partners in collaboration so we can move together, move forward along.
Billionaire Chronicle: How would you like donors to become involved with “In a Perfect World?”
Manuela Testolini: We have a “wish list!” I think that the key areas that we are looking for support it would be to in our global work. We are looking to create self-reliant communities. We are working on a pilot project now that will be a community self-reliance project where we are setting up the community up for success. We built a school, and we spent all this money on funding a school, so we want to be able to eliminate the barriers that remain in education. We have, with our assessments over the last year, discovered that lack of clean water, lack of parental support, and that means moral support not financial, lack of food all of these things impact the number of time kids spend in a school, but in particular girls. We see if there’s no clean water in the community or at least close to the school, then girls are tasked to fetch water. So, then that means our school is not reaching the girls as much as we would like to. We want to provide an umbrella under which other NGOs can come and collaborate, to bring clean water to a school, to bring solar lighting so that kids can study at night and adults can be educated. Those educated adults will go on to support their children educations. They will teach sustainable farming practices so that the community where we have 90% of our members are farmers can then be successful.
However, then, the kids are not hungry and missing school for those reasons. There are so many things that become a ripple effect. For donors who are interested in education, and community self-reliance we would love to have support to replicate the model that we now have started in Malawi and different places. Each one of our schools is set up around a self-reliant community, set up in the middle of an autonomous community. Then for our domestic work, as much support as we can get from donors to formalize a curriculum that we can hand-off into the school system to other grassroots organizations, to other community groups working with young people to really empower them and bolden them to feel like they can make change whether they are six or sixteen or sixty. Everybody should be able to participate and have an impact. My final goal for support would be to bridging domestic work to empower these young changemakers. We are working towards having our teams be supported financially to be able to go and participate in the school building process. People know what it’s like to be in a rural village in Guatemala or Malawi or Nepal. Not everybody lives the same, not everybody is born into the same circumstance, but you can have an impact whether you are the kid in Guatemala or Malawi or you’re the kid in Los Angeles who wants to be a changemaker.
Billionaire Chronicle: What are the three ideal characteristics of a five-star Founder of a non-profit?
Manuela Testolini: Somebody who can get their hands dirty, willingly! Somebody who understands that the vision and the strategy are equally important, and then also someone who can, this was a hard one for me to learn, I had to learn that I cannot save the entire world. However, I can set up a, set up this ripple effect so that if I can clean up my little corner and take care of the people that I can take care of and inspire others to do the same. So, it’s really about not being territorial about the people that you support, not being territorial about the work that you do but also inviting collaboration. The quickest way we are going to get these things done is to collaborate. When we talk about the work we are doing, in Malawi with our pilot project now, it’s not about us becoming a water charity or us becoming an adult learning charity or a meal service organization. We are about bringing all those other organizations that are experts in those fields to our school that is already built to ensure the success of the community and then the students at our school.
Billionaire Chronicle: So, the biggest complaint I hear from Executive Directors is the following: “My Development Director is not out asking for money,” or “Why is my lead fundraiser always at her desk?” How do you balance the need for managing fundraising efforts and the need to be out and meeting and asking?
Manuela Testolini: So, that’s maybe a trick question for us because this is again new territory and we don’t have a fundraising development lead and we don’t have a Development Director (laughing), so I am wearing many hats. I think that I value the cultivation of relationships more so than the “asks for checks.” So again, that goes back to collaboration. I am here to receive help regarding guidance, learning from folks that have been it and done it already so that we can point our resources in the most efficient directions so that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I think spending time cultivating relationships and finding those key supporters and partners is more about the support of the mission and can be more about the help of the purpose with time versus money. So then once those relationships are developed, then you have the opportunity to spend time with the donors who are interested in the mission and indeed vested in it to go back and ask them what aspect of what we are doing would they like to support. I think that there is an art to development, there is an art to fundraising and it is not my forte. My forte is the pickaxe in the mud, digging and building schools. In the trenches differently.
Billionaire Chronicle: Tell us about your experience as a donor. Is there an organization that treats you exceptionally well (and what does that look like)? Have you ever stopped giving to an organization you care about and why?
Manuela Testolini: Without naming names, I would say there was an organization that I stopped giving to because they did not inspire hope and much of their approach was “guilting” people into support. We’re not here to make people feel sorry for the folks we work with. We are trying to show them how we are creating hopeful circumstances for those same people. That was a big difference for me. Also, I am a bit turned off by people who spend exuberant amounts of money on fancy events and then fail to show me the substance of what they are doing, which is probably why for the first ten or eleven years we didn’t tell anyone what we were doing, because we were just doing it. I think that there is an opportunity lost when the authenticity isn’t there. I don’t need to put on a ball gown to understand what you are doing. I would rather go and participate in something and see first-hand where my support is going. So that’s where I have lost interest in an organization or two. The organizations that resonate with me again are the ones that allow for collaboration. I see that where their growth is. By inviting other successful nonprofits to participate and “In A Perfect World” has many great partners, and we’ve all been doing our part towards a common goal versus working independently of one another. I think that’s important.
Billionaire Chronicle: Is there anything else you would want us to know about “In A Perfect World” and how can we help donate to your cause?
Manuela Testolini: “In A Perfect World” is in a beautiful place of a growth phase right now where we have taken what we are doing, we have proven what we are doing is valuable and it’s time now to scale-up and to grow across our programs. If there are donors out there who would love to come and get their hands dirty, you are welcomed to join me in a hut in Malawi somewhere. If other donors are here to pass on knowledge and the wisdom of their own experiences with their philanthropy, that’s useful. If people are interested in funding some of the expansion work that we’re doing with this community self-reliance projects to help us to bridge the domestic work with the global work, we would love to able to take our Ambassadors and show them first-hand what it’s like to participate in a school building. What it’s like to shadow a family in a village and to understand from their perspective. “In A Perfect World,” for me deep down it is about developing empathy. We’re in a crisis right now of a lack of understanding or a lack of empathy, and it needs to be reinforced as much as we can. And meeting people, different circumstances, getting down and doing an art project with a kid living under the poverty line or being in a community overseas.