Tom Leedy, Dekko Foundation

TITLE: President

FUNDING AREAS: Early-to-adolescent childhood development and education 

CONTACT: Visit PeopleFinder for email and phone number (paid subscribers only)

IP TAKE: Don't be afraid to propose a project that challenges conventional ideas for early ed funding; Leedy is a champion of innovative solutions and fresh ideas that put our youngest learners first.

PROFILE: At the Dekko Foundation, there's an x-factor that sets early learning grants proposals apart from the rest: Innovation. That might not be the word Dekko President Tom Leedy chooses, but it's certainly true of its strategy. Simply put, nonprofits that propose outside-the-box projects that challenge conventions are likely to get Leedy's attention.

But first, a little more on Leedy himself. He also serves on the state of Indiana's Commission on Community Service and Volunteerism, which volunteers this info on his bio:

"Tom joined the Foundation in 2001 after working for Group Dekko Services as Performance Improvement Manager for eight years. Tom has served his community through board membership on the local chamber of commerce, library foundation, YMCA and economic development corporation. He has served on the board of directors of Indiana Grantmakers Alliance and Northeast Indiana Corporate Council. He currently serves on the board of directors of Freedom Academy, Kendallville Heritage Association, and Noble County Convention and Visitors Bureau. He is on the advisory committee for Northeast Indiana’s Vision 2020 initiative, serves on the Indiana Achievement Awards steering committee. Tom has also worked as a consultant with nonprofit organizations, assisting with board and organizational development and strategic planning. Tom is a graduate of Indiana Tech and earned his MBA from the University of Notre Dame in May of 2000.  Tom and his wife Kerri live in Kendallville with their daughter Emma and son Jackson."

Now back to Dekko's strategy with Leedy at the helm. Leedy's own words from the foundation's 2012 annual report might sum up that strategy best, with the basic idea being that Dekko prefers grantees that get out of their comfort zones:

"We want to invest in organizations that take the lifelong learner approach. The leaders of these organizations will know the timeless child development principles but not be satisfied until they’ve heard the conclusions of smart new research. They’ll be willing to put with a little organizational discomfort to offer children what they need to thrive."

If you look at Dekko’s recent funding, this innovation-first approach reveals itself too. A majority of grants support non-traditional solutions for 21st-century problems, and it's clearly a guiding principle for Dekko's program staff. 

One example: The Village, an early childhood care center, received Dekko funding for a playground update project. Rather than laying out the big bucks for a new jungle gym, the school invested in a nature-based "playground," where, as Dekko noted in their annual report, children "decide what to do and how to do it." The out-of-the-box idea—which relied on the latest research—fosters cognitive and motor development.

Plenty of other grants are prime examples as well: A school library restocked its library, but before setting out to purchase books, staff first used an online survey system to ask students what they wanted to read. It might seem like a simple solution, but without stopping to include children in the process, the library might have failed to encourage students to read, or accrued books that weren't in sync with their desires. 

Another past grant initiative, a partnership between Dekko and the Foellinger Foundation, highlighted Leedy's approach. The "If Only" grants for early childhood education, which were awarded in 2010, encouraged grantseekers to finish the question, "If only we could..." As Leedy co-wrote in an article about the program, "the possibilities are limited only by the imaginations of [grantseekers]." Although that partnership only lasted one year, the philosophy behind it is still in play in Dekko's funding strategy.

Be ambitious with your proposals, and don't be afraid to approach an issue from different perspectives. Innovation is key.