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Lawyer leads foundation to national prominence

4_neih1027_BORGESBy her own admission, Lisa Borges had zero nonprofit experience and knew next to nothing about autism.

So how did she land a job as executive director of the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism?

“I honestly think it was my law degree. I do,” Borges, 43, says. “They felt that having that training and discipline was important in managing a foundation.”

Borges thinks other lawyers — particularly those with good relationship skills and business or corporate governance experience — could find a good fit in the nonprofit sector, including those who may be looking for an escape from traditional practice at a firm.

Borges found a way to parlay her lawyer skills into a job that combines her passion for sports with the Flutie Foundation’s altruistic mission “to improve the quality of life for people and families living with autism.”

“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” she says.

Not that there aren’t sacrifices. Borges, who has two kids and a husband who works in sales, says it was tough paying back law school loans on a charity’s salary. She earned about $55,000 in 2012, according to the foundation’s publicly available tax return, while Massachusetts lawyers make an average of $135,000 annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The occasional evening fundraiser or weekend golf tournament excepted, Borges says the flexibility of her schedule helps take the sting out of the lost earning capacity.

“If I need to take my child to the doctor, I’m not losing out on billing,” she says.

Kate Neville, a Harvard Law School graduate and founder of Washington, D.C.-based Neville Career Consulting, agrees that the nonprofit sector could be a good fit for transitioning attorneys “depending on what’s driving their search.”

If they want to maximize income, they should look elsewhere, Neville says, but, if they are looking to do something more meaningful, their skills could be put to great use running a charity.

Fundraising functions such as planned giving closely relate to estate planning law, for example, and experience with government relations and lobbying could prove invaluable to advocacy efforts and winning government contracts, Neville says.

“Whether it’s connections on the Hill or clients you used to have, contacts, generally, are very valuable,” she says. “Also, persuasive arguments; not necessarily arguing all the time, but analyzing information and putting it together in a way that is persuasive.”

‘It felt right’

Boxes of Flutie Flakes decorate every room of the Flutie Foundation’s Worcester Road headquarters in Framingham, Massachusetts.

The dormant cereal brand’s profits were donated to the foundation, which was established in 1998 by former Boston College and NFL quarterback Doug Flutie Sr. and his wife, Laurie, in honor of their son, Doug Jr., who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3.

The launch of Flutie Flakes was one component of a perfect storm of publicity that rocketed a modest fundraising campaign to national prominence and necessitated the hiring of a full-time executive director. The others were Flutie’s January 1999 appearance on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” and his MCI commercial featuring Doug Jr.

At the same time, Borges was soul-searching and looking for a new job after being laid off from the legendary former Boston sports management and marketing agency Woolf Associates. Borges had been hired by Woolf after completing an internship there during her final year at New England School of Law. It seemed like a logical fit.

“I never really wanted to practice traditional law in a law firm,” Borges says. “My ideal job would have been working for a professional sports team. … That is the direction I thought I wanted to go initially: sports law. I learned fairly quickly that it wasn’t necessarily the route for me.”

When a prized football player client dropped the agency in favor of a rapper looking to break into the sports management industry, Woolf cut the football division Borges worked in.

“That whole experience put a bitter taste in my mouth in terms of the agent side of the sports business,” she says. “Just really seeing that it was almost a babysitting job, it felt like. And the constant lure of these professional athletes by agents. And seeing that it was definitely a cutthroat world. It’s not what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be chasing down these professional athletes or potential professional athletes and wooing them with whatever I could.”

Borges was familiar with Doug Sr. — Woolf handled his endorsements — but didn’t meet the Flutie family until 1999 on the film set of the MCI commercial at Foxboro Stadium while she was vying for the foundation’s executive director position. She recalls being impressed by the family, particularly then-7-year-old Doug Jr., who, though nonverbal, was affectionate, full of life and “had the biggest smile on his face.”

“And I also saw that [autism] is very challenging for families,” Borges says. “It was obviously going to be a challenge without nonprofit experience in managing a foundation, but I was ready for it. … It felt right.”

‘Crash course’

Borges won the Flutie Foundation job, and thus began her “crash course” in autism and nonprofit management. It wasn’t long, however, before she was able to put the lawyer skills that made her stand apart as a candidate to practical use.

Flutie had seeded the foundation with $12,500, half of his signing bonus from the Buffalo Bills. Soon donations were surging with the foundation’s growing popularity.

The Fluties “never expected it to take off as well as it did,” Borges says. “But there were very few professional athletes who were willing to talk about something like [autism]. It had taken off pretty fast and could stand on its own.”

In her first year, Borges oversaw the foundation’s transition from a donor-advised — which comes with administrative conveniences and tax advantages — to a standalone charity, which allows for more control over a fund’s management.

“It obviously had some history. We had already raised over a million dollars,” Borges says. “At the same time, we were starting over and picking a board of directors and writing policies and procedures. I definitely think my legal training was helpful in a number of ways.”

With five employees and responsibilities ranging from fundraising and grant-making to public relations and human resources, Borges says she often feels like a business owner or entrepreneur.

In all, the Flutie Foundation has brought in more than $14 million from fundraisers, corporate sponsorships and donations in the 15 years since she took over as executive director.

There’s also the unique quirks of running a celebrity-affiliated nonprofit, including dealing with callers who think they can reach Flutie at her office and potential donors with ulterior motives, such as a company that offers a $10,000 donation in exchange for an appearance by Flutie.

In such situations, Borges has to discern whether the intentions are pure, or simply an attempt to land Flutie at a discount.

“I would love that $10,000, but is that really worth me asking Doug to fly all the way up from Florida to spend a day when he can charge $25,000 to $30,000 for a personal appearance?” Borges says. “Over the years, you live and you learn. You get screwed sometimes on stuff like that. It’s my job to figure out: ‘Is this something I want to bother Doug with?’ As the director, I want to bring in as much money as I can, but how much value is it in the long run?”

Such experiences led Borges to found the New England Celebrity Foundation Forum, a professional networking group of celebrity and professional sports team foundations where members can exchange stories and share best practices.

Throughout it all, Borges says her lawyer skills, from simple editing to contract negotiation, have proven invaluable. They’ve also saved the foundation a lot of money. Between Borges and two lawyer board members — Thomas R. Burton III and Tina M. Cantu — the foundation hasn’t needed to hire outside counsel in a number of years.

“She’s just been a real terrific leader in helping the Flutie Foundation find best ways to put our grant money to work in the most effective way possible,” Burton says.

That trend looks only to continue with the Flutie Foundation’s latest initiative to serve not just families with autistic children, but autistic adults too, via a program that provides them with jobs.

“One thing we need to look at is the liability issue. We would probably create a separate entity so that the 16-year-old foundation is insulated,” Borges says. “That would be our first time getting into more direct services. It will be a challenge, but I think that with support and visionaries, we can make it happen.”

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