New Member Spotlight: Reader’s Digest Partners for Sight Foundation

Friday, September 11, 2009

Reader’s Digest Partners for Sight Foundation  Susan Olivo

We are delighted to feature one of Philanthropy New York’s newest members, the Reader’s Digest Partners for Sight Foundation (RDPFS), in our Member Spotlight. We asked Susan Olivo, RDPFS’s Vice President and General Manager, about the foundation and its latest initiatives.

What are your primary areas of focus?
Reader’s Digest Partners for Sight Foundation (RDPFS) is committed to providing support that directly improves the lives of the blind and visually impaired, helping them realize their full potential in society.

We are dedicated to increasing independence, self-reliance, and dignity for visually impaired persons. We accomplish this by partnering with qualifying organizations that assist, support, and train them through extensive in-home and other training programs, educational initiatives, technological advancements, in–school vision testing, and a variety of additional activities and services. We also aim to increase the level of public awareness of low vision services.

Our grant program has provided substantial seed money to launch and support much needed initiatives and develop them into sustainable, far-reaching programs. Past grants have helped:

  • launch a successful eye-screening program which provides diagnoses and free eyeglasses on the spot to the nation’s poorest children in both urban and rural areas, thereby improving their educational performance.
  • launch a national family outreach program to promote braille literacy and develop the next generation of braille readers, thus improving their educational, professional, and personal opportunities.
  • enable a national provider of guide dogs to double the number of people served in its “Special Needs Program,” providing guide dogs to people who are multiply disabled.
  • provide low vision rehabilitative skills and adaptive technology to seniors in many areas of the country, enabling them to remain at-home and independent.
  • launch an ambitious program to provide free self-help services via the Internet.

Additionally, RDPFS is a major large-print publisher, providing high-quality reading material at affordable rates to a vastly underserved population. Our large-print publication “Select Editions Large Type” currently has almost 100,000 subscribers.

What current projects or initiatives are you working on?
We’re working on an exciting project with a New York-area film producer who is creating a documentary about his own experience with vision loss, and the experiences of others who have lost or are losing their sight. Their stories are amazing, and, in some cases, life-changing; hence the mood of the film is surprisingly upbeat in the face of this calamity.

The film is now in the editing phase, and completion funding is needed, but excerpts have been shown to various audiences and we are very pleased and gratified at the results. The film has already garnered attention from World Glaucoma Day, a feature article in the Ophthalmology Times, and presentations at the American Academy of Ophthalmology. The film seems to resonate with ophthalmologists, who have indicated that the film is causing them to look at vision loss from the patient’s perspective; it’s influencing them to start referring patients to low vision services. What the producer had discovered during the process of making the film is that ophthalmologists tend not to talk to patients about their vision loss and do not refer them to low vision therapists who can ease their navigation and functioning in a darkening and blurring world. This has been a huge problem in the vision field and one that is finally being addressed by the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health (a fellow funder of the film) and by the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Are you looking to connect or collaborate with other funders on a particular issue or project?
As the title “Partners” is in our name, we do look for opportunities to collaborate with other funders in order to increase the effectiveness of our grant efforts. We had recently partnered with two other funders in the vision field on a project which itself then successfully engendered a partnership among New York City’s major blindness and low vision service providers, as well as the city’s Department for the Aging. If we try to encourage our grantee organizations to “partner up” where it makes sense, I think it’s good business for us as funders to practice what we preach.

What has been your biggest grantmaking lesson?
We’ve learned not to dismiss ideas out of hand because they don’t seem, at first blush, to fit tightly into our stated mission. Sometimes, the most amazing programs have grown out of such ideas.

What are you currently reading?
For business: Money Well Spent by Paul Brest and Hal Harvey.

For pleasure: I am an avid reader and always have a book going. I just finished Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett and am now re-reading the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters. One of the most compelling and interesting books I have read recently is The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. It’s a very unique book—about some people who set out to do something good and things go horribly awry. (That can happen occasionally in philanthropy as well…)

What essential/interesting grantmaking resource would you recommend to a fellow funder?
Philanthropy New York, of course! And The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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