Berrien Community Foundation Executive Director Lisa Cripps-Downey is focused on family, community development

Crockpots and pressure cookers.

That’s how Lisa Cripps-Downey gets through her busy life as wife and mother, community advocate, playwright and executive director of the Berrien Community Foundation.

This small town girl who grew up in Niles has made her mark on the lakefront town of St. Joseph, where she now calls home.

The University of Michigan alum’s resume is full of titles held in southwest Michigan — ranging from Buchanan High School theater director to news reporter. Today, she follows one of her biggest passions: helping her community prosper.

Lisa grew up on a farm in Howard Township and graduated from Niles High School. After graduation she attended the University of Michigan and majored communications, intending to be a journalist.

“I just loved taking classes. I loved college so much. I ended up with degrees in communications, political science and Spanish,” Lisa says.

Lisa entered the journalism field almost immediately, but later on, as a news reporter for the South Bend Tribune, Lisa’s career in journalism ended following a jarring auto accident she was asked to cover. Faced with the challenge of interviewing a grieving family following the fatal incident, the young reporter decided a career change was in order.

As is a common segue for journalists exiting the field, Lisa transitioned her writing skills from news reporting to marketing.

After a couple of other gigs, Lisa began working with grants and programming at the Berrien Community Foundation.

By this time, Lisa was married and had begun a family. After having her second child, she decided to stay home and see what she could do while being a full-time parent. One day, Steve Upton called Lisa and asked her to come to his home and do some work for the Upton Foundation. She recalls explaining to him that she had a baby she would have to bring.

Initially she would go to Steve’s house and work on foundation business while Steve sat on the floor and played with her daughter. They would put puzzles together while she worked.

“When you are involved where you live and give your time, you get so much more out of your life,” Lisa says. “You always get more from giving than you actually give.”

Eventually the Upton Foundation moved into her house, and, as her children grew, so did her responsibilities.

“As my kids grew and became more independent, I was able to add more work requirements,” she says. “I started adding along with the Upton Foundation some work with the United Way, where I was doing a lot of marketing and strategic planning.”

Then she got the call from the Berrien Community Foundation, asking her to come fill the position of executive director, the final piece to the puzzle she loves, spending her day making resources meet needs.

“I love the Berrien Community Foundation,” Lisa says. “You can think of the community foundation as kind of this savings account we create for our community. They are endowed. If you invest in your community foundation, it’s going to be there forever. It’s going to continue to give back to the community.”

When people think of nonprofits, they may think of food pantries, and basic needs. The Berrien Community Foundation is that, but it is also arts, education and economic development. 

“The nonprofit sector makes all of our lives so much better. Whether you’re taking your kids to swim classes at the YMCA, going out to the symphony or you don’t have enough to eat, the nonprofit sector is there, supporting you, and making everyone’s lives better,” Lisa says. “I am so lucky to be part of finding resources to support that for my community. That’s just the best job ever!”

While Lisa acknowledges that there are challenges in her job, she is also aware that there are challenges in every job, and she feels very fortunate to be able to work with people who are like-minded and working toward the same goals.

“I get to work with a lot of people that have phenomenal hearts for our community, who are looking for ways to make our world better,” she says. “I get to be surrounded by people who are finding ways to love their community. Those are wonderful people to hang around with.”

How does Lisa balance her time between family and her career, other than crockpots and pressure cookers? She admits she doesn’t sleep a lot and credits her high-energy personality as her driving force.

“I juggle, and really understand that especially with my kids, this is such a blip of time, and I want to be there for every band concert, every soccer game, every everything, because it’s going to go away quickly,” she says. “I want to be in the moment enjoying that with them.

“When I look back from where I’m sitting now, at all the steps in between, it feels like everything led me to be able to what I’m doing right now,” Lisa says.