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Lisa Actor Moves Toward Retirement

By Kevin Schindler, Historian & Public Information Officer


In 1928, Lowell Observatory found itself in dire need of someone to lead a renewed search for a new planet. Succeeding in this search would go a long way toward reestablishing the observatory as an important center for astronomical pursuits. Leadership found that person in Clyde Tombaugh, who was profoundly suited for the task at hand and found success where few others would have. Nearly nine decades later, the observatory again found itself in dire need of help, this time for a fundraiser to lead the effort to find the millions of dollars necessary to keep the observatory operating in a sustainable manner. And again, the observatory struck gold and found someone profoundly suited for the task. Those familiar with the observatory know this person is biologist-turned-fundraiser Lisa Actor. As Lisa is nearing retirement nine years and $100 million later, it is safe to say she found success.

Lisa Actor was not always a fundraiser, and she never gave much thought to working at an observatory, though she held a lifelong fascination with the night sky. After earning a biology degree from the University of the South, she got a commission and was the only female officer on an NOAA ship doing hydrographic surveying. She later worked at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle before becoming interested in non-profit work and fundraising. Her first real fundraising job was as director of a publicschool foundation in Washington State. From there she transitioned to Westminster College, where she worked for nearly 20 years.

At Westminster, Lisa was on track to become a vice president but eventually burned out and needed a change. The timing of the need for a new challenge was exquisite, as just then Lowell Observatory was searching for its new philanthropy leader.

Lisa remembers, “This job posting hit my email from a headhunter and it said Lowell Observatory was looking for someone who grew up with a telescope in their back yard . Well, I hadn’t grown up with a telescope in the back yard, but I always loved the night sky.” Observatory leadership was as thrilled to bring on Lisa as she was to accept the offer.

Lisa began working at Lowell in March 2015, and she had a tall order in front of her: to lead the charge in raising $30 million. To fail would mean the very real possibility of the observatory closing within a decade. To raise the money, she needed to significantly enlarge the fundraising team.

When she arrived, she was the fourth person in the department. Nine years later, the team now numbers 10, with staff specializing in major gifts, foundation grants, planned giving, annual fund, and membership. And in that time, they have raised more than $100 million, much of that at the challenging height of COVID.

“Lisa brought a new level of professionalism to our development efforts and helped all of us at the observatory understand the important role philanthropy plays in allowing us to achieve our mission,” says Sole Trustee Lowell Putnam. “She is a genuine and highly ethical person, attributes that f it in so well in our culture.”

The most obvious result of Lisa’s trailblazing career at Lowell is the revolution of the visitor experience with construction of the Giovale Open Deck Observatory (opened in 2019) and the Marley Foundation Astronomy Discovery Center. The latter opens this November, when Lisa will already be in the throes of partial retirement; while she will soon be leaving her full-time position at Lowell, she will continue part-time through the end of the year. She will also work on her own, under the guise of her new company (Lisa Actor Consulting) and welcome a new grandson to the family.

Lisa may not be as physically present at Lowell, but her contributions will be felt for generations to come.

“Lisa is a fundraiser par excellence, approaching philanthropy with sincerity and heart”, says Executive Director Jeff Hall. “It’s been a joy working with her, and I’m tremendously proud of what she has accomplished for Lowell. She will forever be a part of Mars Hill.”