Deborah “Debby” Visser, who assisted nonprofit organizations on community and economic development projects across the United States during a decades-long career in philanthropy and consulting, died Dec. 4 at a hospice center in Rockville, Maryland. She was 66.
The cause was metastatic breast cancer, said her daughter, Joanna Visser Adjoian.
Trained as a city planner, Visser expanded her expertise to include neighborhood revitalization and affordable housing. Her varied professional background, including experience with both grant-making institutions and groups that use grant money for community-development work, made her a sought-after adviser in her field.
“She always worked to understand what organizations were doing and try to help them become better,” Harold Simon, the executive director of the Montclair, New Jersey-based National Housing Institute, said in an interview. “She took the time to actually visit with her grantees, get to know what their challenges are and understand what the possibility is for them. She didn’t approach philanthropy from an ivory tower.”
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In the early 1990s, Visser was a program officer for community revitalization at the Surdna Foundation in New York. In 1995, she settled in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and started Visser and Associates, a Washington-based consulting firm with clients including the Ford Foundation, the Pew Partnership for Civic Change and the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor at the World Bank.
Since 2007, Visser had worked with NeighborWorks America, a Washington organization that supports 240 community-development groups across the United States. She helped oversee Success Measures, a project to help those organizations and their donors evaluate and improve their work.
Deborah Lee Moses was born in Paterson, New Jersey, on July 4, 1949. She grew up in Radburn, New Jersey, a planned community established in the 1920s that featured homes arrayed around culs-de-sac and pedestrian-friendly walkways.
“The physical environment I grew up in really mattered to me,” she said in a biographical sketch on the NeighborWorks America website. “I understood its benefits at a very basic level, and I’m sure that helped lead me to a career in housing.”
She received a bachelor’s degree in art history from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 1971 and a master’s degree in city planning from the University of Pennsylvania in 1976.
Visser began her career as an urban loan manager at First Pennsylvania Bank. In the 1980s, while accompanying her husband on U.N. assignments, she taught English in Mexico and Chile. She served on the board of the National Housing Institute, among other institutions.
Survivors include her husband of 35 years, William Visser of Chevy Chase, Maryland; two children, Joanna Visser Adjoian of Philadelphia and Tim Visser of Washington; and a brother, Paul Moses of Corona del Mar, California.