Executive Spotlight: Liana Toscanini, director of the Nonprofit Center of the Berkshires

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PITTSFIELD Volunteering makes Liana Toscanini feel useful, and her background in marketing gives her the skill set that small nonprofits look for when they're seeking visibility in a crowded Berkshire job sector.

Put those two elements together, and you have someone with the desire and expertise to form the Nonprofit Center of the Berkshires, which Toscanini did in 2016. The Great Barrington-based agency is designed to facilitate growth for charitable organizations through shared resources, affordable services and creative collaborations. The agency's executive director, Toscanini's presence is felt on the state level, too. The former marketing and fundraising director for Community Access to the Arts in Great Barrington, Toscanini currently serves as the Berkshire County representative on the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network's board of directors.

A native New Yorker who currently lives in Sandisfield, Toscanini is also a great-grandaughter of famous Italian music conductor Arturo Toscanini, whom she never met, but knows intimately through her family history.

We met with Toscanini recently to talk about her passion for volunteering, her reasons for starting the nonprofit center, and some interesting tidbits about her famous great-grandfather.

Q: Why did you start the Nonprofit Center of the Berkshires?

A: I came here 25 years ago now, and did so much volunteering that I became the volunteer that can't say no. There was one particular two-week period in 2016 where six or seven people reached out to me for help in writing a grant or getting some publicity, whatever it was. They were cornering me in the produce aisle, mostly grabbing me in the grocery store and saying "you've got to help us." I thought that someone had pinned a sign on my back that read, "ask me and I'll help."

Q: So what happened next?

A: I had a thought that there has to be a better way to get these people the help they need without these attacks in the grocery store. I had had a kind of committee advocate commission idea about a decade earlier, because I knew that people needed all of the things that I knew how to do, just marketing, basically telling your story. ... I spent my entire Christmas vacation writing a business plan for the nonprofit center. Some, but not all of it, has come true. I foresaw having 150 members and I think I'll have 150 at the end of the year.

Q: Why did so many people ask for your help?

A: Because they heard I helped people with this and that and I'm the gal to go to and I always say yes. ... You have to learn how to say no sometimes.

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Q: The Nonprofit Center of the Berkshires will be four years old in April. Did you think it would come as far as it has this fast?

A: I have to say I sort of exceeded my own expectations. I knew that it was needed because I talked to like 50 people before I started it. I think the number of programs that we've launched and the sort of solutions that we've come up with based on the needs that we've seen have been pretty extensive. I'm really pleased with how much value that we've brought to the table.

Q: What are the services that the Nonprofit Center provides?

A: The things that have been most valuable have been that "Giving Back" guide, the directory of nonprofits. Certainly the education workshops — we're now up to two a month — and miscellaneous varieties of education like our nonprofit boot camp. The (annual) Berkshire nonprofit awards is a big deal. ... It should be noted that all I'm doing is looking for the holes and filling them. ... People tell us what they need and we see the hole and we fill it. I wanted a directory of nonprofits when I started and there wasn't one so I created it.

Q: Why are these resources needed here?

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A: I would say it's due to the actual Berkshire nonprofit sector. It's huge, and we're in this funky, trifurcated county, which makes getting together and sharing resources and collaboration more difficult. If you have a collaboration with someone in Williamstown, the solution is to meet in Pittsfield, a 45-minute drive each way. So if you're a nonprofit person with not a lot of resources, taking two hours out of your day just for driving is crazy.

Q: Given the economic impact the nonprofit sector has on the Berkshires already, I would assume that most people know a lot about these organizations already. But that's not the case?

A: Awareness is a huge issue because 75 percent of our nonprofits are small, meaning their annual revenue is under $250,000. That's 700 or 800 nonprofits some of them all run by volunteers. They fly under the radar, and if you're flying under the radar you're not attracting donations. So, those two things are directly related, marketing and fundraising. That was actually my title for 10 years at Community Access to the Arts, marketing and fundraising director. I had seen firsthand how much these things rely on each other.

Q: Is the Nonprofit Center planning to introduce any new programming?

A: What people are asking for is more networking opportunities. They want to have a bonus educational or inspirational component: it could be a speaker series every quarter featuring someone who can bring sage advice to the table so that they're going away with a nugget of something. They won't come out just for a glass of wine.

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Q: Are you musically inclined like your great grandfather?

A: Years ago, I sang in choir and took piano lessons, so I am musical. But I don't really have time to do it much.

Q: Is music a thread that runs through your family?

A: It's a pretty big legacy. My father was called the professional grandson. He literally had to speak at giant events, every anniversary, 50 years after [Arturo Toscanini's] death (who was 89 when he died in 1957). People were always asking [my father] to write articles. So it's a pretty big job. We (Toscanini and her two younger sisters) were sort of relieved of that. ... There's a biographer and basically a lawyer and those two already know everything there is to know and field all the questions. ... It continues to be a responsibility, but my father didn't want us to have to shoulder all of that. I inherited all [Arturo Toscanini's] papers. ... I've already been asked two or three times this year for photos of various members of my family. ... I get to go up digging in the attic and get these things out.

Q: I've read that Toscanini conducted the New York Philharmonic from 1928 to 1936, and appeared with orchestras all over the world, except for those of Italy and Germany during the fascist and Nazi regimes. Is there anything about him that most people don't know?

A: In the 1930s, he conducted the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, their inaugural performance, for free, which saved a lot of Jewish musicians. He did it as a political statement basically. One of the members had enlisted him and he gladly did it. It's a pretty great story, actually. There are pictures of him being presented with oranges and things.

Q: Why was conducting the Palestine Symphony Orchestra a political statement?

A: Basically because he was anti-fascist. And he had so many musician friends who were Jewish. It was really just about doing what was right.

Q: Was he forced to flee Italy during the war?

A: Yes, he got beaten up one day because he wouldn't play the fascist anthem before performances. Mussolini was probably following him and recording him. ... He used to be the conductor for the Salzburg Festival, but after Hitler took over Austria he stopped conducting there. I think it was because Winifred Wagner was a friend of Adolf Hitler. [Wagner and Toscanini] were friends, too. I think I have a little blue porcelain pillbox from Winifred Wagner to Arturo. People gave him gifts from all over. ... He went back to Italy after the war but came back here. I don't know if he ever became (an American) citizen. He died in The Bronx.


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