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Lessons in the New Philanthropy

Giving back: After being helped by Sarah Owen when he was homeless, Tim Peterson was her first visitor offering to help her in her new role at the community foundation. (PHOTOGRAPH BY ERIK KELLAR)“Giving Down”

“Non-Profits Struggling to Keep up with Need”

“Outdated Philanthropy”

These are the headlines that greeted me as I began my first days as president and CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation (SWFLCF) nearly a year ago. In recent years, Southwest Florida has been identified nationally as one of the areas hardest hit by the recession.

The first question most people asked me when I accepted my new position was, “Why?” Why would you take a position that centers on charitable giving when it is at an all-time low? The question was easy for me to answer. I did not really want to focus on the giving for giving’s sake, but rather what it could accomplish in our communities. People give because they are inspired to make a difference. Giving might be down, but inspiration is not. There are endless opportunities for philanthropy to thrive in Southwest Florida. Each of us can make an impact during a critical time in our history and the beauty of establishing endowed funds at the SWFLCF allows the gifts to last forever. I want to be part of making that happen.

Many people see philanthropists as highly visible, ultra-wealthy folks donating large portions of their fortunes to charity. But that image is less true these days. Our troubled economy has created a new type of philanthropist. Giving is not gone. We just need to re-imagine philanthropy in our region. Who are the new philanthropists and how will they change Southwest Florida now and in the future?

As part of my first year, I wanted to seek out the new faces of philanthropy and begin to engage these people in building social and financial capital to meet the needs in our region. Each day in my first year has provided me lessons in giving. Below are just a few of them. They have inspired me and I hope they will inspire others about ways to give differently.

Still giving: Despite health setbacks, Carolyn Rogers was front and center for the foundations Women’s Legacy Fund. (ED CLEMENT PHOTOGRAPHY)Day 1 Women are a Vital Part of the New Philanthropy.

Day one of the new job and I was surrounded by 150 women who care deeply about our community. As I looked around the room at the contributors to our Women’s Legacy Fund (WLF), I realized that many of them had experienced daunting challenges over the past year. They’d faced up to foreclosures, short sales, job changes, loss of spouses and cancer.

I was particularly moved by Carolyn Rogers, a top-flight public relations professional who had been battling breast cancer and was there because the people closest to her wanted to name her a WLF Angel as a thank you for all she has contributed to the community. At a time that she could have clearly focused on herself, she made the decision to focus on others. I was immediately struck by the fact that no matter what Carolyn and others in the room had been through over the past year, they still wanted to be part of something bigger, something that gave back to our community. They realized they could accomplish far more together through collective philanthropy than they ever could alone. They might not individually have $100,000 to contribute to a cause, but they could join with other women and together make an impact. Most in the room would not have considered themselves philanthropists, but I knew differently.

Day 7 listening matters.

You want to hear a cheer when you give a speech. We rarely do because the reality is most of us don’t have anything that major or inspiring to share that would prompt a real cheer—you know, the kind the president of the United States gets throughout the State of Union address. Tonight was the annual meeting for the foundation, and we celebrated 35 years in the region. I got one cheer. Not when I outlined what the foundation had done in the past, or what we had planned for the future, but when I promised the crowd that I would be listening. I flashed up an email address on the two jumbo screens—iamlistening@floridacommunity.com—and told them that I was interested in what everyone had to say. Wish I had thought of this listening concept sooner. I am sure I would be a good deal smarter. Giving differently will not be a result of talking differently or asking for contributions differently. It will come from listening differently.

Day 15 It is Not Just a Few of Us; It’s All of Us.

When I introduced the listening tour in the press and at the annual meeting, I invited people to call, email, text or just stop by the office and I would listen. I really didn’t think anyone would just stop by. Who would care that much? Who would take the time? My first drop-by visitor arrived today by bike. He rode several hours to get to my office and did not look like the usual guest at the foundation. He had the worn look of tough years on the street, and I greeted him with a hug. My unannounced visitor was a friend whom I had originally met through my work with the homeless. He was living in a homeless camp and had no job, no income and no hope for the future. Through his hard work and determination, he found a job and was now a homeowner. But he hadn’t yet bought a car. I still keep a copy of the check he wrote soon after he got his first paycheck. It was a donation to the organization I worked for. He wanted to make a difference then, and he rode four hours today to let me know he was ready to help again. He wanted to volunteer at the foundation or anywhere else I could think of that needed assistance. Talk about the spirit of giving! I realized today that generosity is alive and well, and the future of philanthropy will not always arrive in an imported car.

Day 80
Say Yes, then Sweat the Details.

It is no secret that many people living in Southwest Florida come from many other places and have been generous philanthropists in their previous communities. Today, I met Jerry and Sharon Miller from Austin, Texas. They have recently moved to Sanibel Island, and they came to see me because they wanted to launch a fund for a Trailways Camp for adults with disabilities as they had back in Texas. The Millers had been inspired to begin a camp by their sons Robert and Benjamin, who were both born with disabilities. The parents had learned that there were very few opportunities for adults with disabilities to spend time away from home in a fun camp environment.

Jerry and Sharon were passionate about starting a camp in Southwest Florida. I was excited to learn of their plans, but realized that we were not set up to carry out many of the ideas they had for us. I really had no idea if we could handle their request, but I knew that our community needed a Trailways Camp. I looked at the other seasoned team members around the table and they smiled and gave me a nod. We could figure it out. That day we welcomed two new philanthropists to Southwest Florida, established the Robert V. and Benjamin G. Miller Fund, helped launch a new Trailways Camp and learned that giving differently will happen when we all say yes to the challenges that lie ahead.

Day 113
The Art of Philanthropy.

I had an incredible introduction to the Southwest Florida art world today. I met Cello Bennett shortly after I started here when she offered to volunteer her time and talents as the Foundation’s art curator. Her offer was inspired by her love of the arts, Southwest Florida and her late husband, Gale Bennett. Gale was a beloved Southwest Florida resident and a world-renowned artist. Many Southwest Florida artists studied with Gale here and at his ArtStudy in Giverny, France. Cello’s dream was to create a juried exhibit at the foundation offices that would showcase the amazing artists in our community and generate contributions for a newly established Fund for the Arts in Southwest Florida.

Today, I listened as Cello outlined the exhibit and said that she would be donating one of Gale’s paintings to our permanent exhibit. One would also be for auction at a special exhibition event in December. She offered, too, to contribute a portion of all sales of Gale’s beautiful work to the endowed fund that will support the arts in Southwest Florida forever. She told us that she did not have millions of dollars to establish a fund, but she did have Gale’s paintings and her time and talents to contribute. I am not sure what is more beautiful—the art or Cello’s generous gift. The new philanthropy is an art form and so is giving differently. I can’t wait to see what else we can create.

Day 191It Starts with the Stories.

Today was my second meeting with a mother who lost her son when he was 16 years old. At the first meeting, I learned that he had been killed in a tragic car accident on Sanibel Island while running a quick errand for a friend’s mother. He was a student at Fort Myers High School and a very gifted baseball player. Although it has been decades since she lost her son, his memory is honored by a scholarship funded by the foundation’s program to help students obtain higher education. At our first meeting, I had the privilege of getting to know her son through her stories and memories. At this second meeting, we discussed the fund and ways that it could do the most good for future students. Today, I learned that our funds are not financial accounts, but rather stories realized in their full potential through generous philanthropy. Giving differently will be accomplished through these stories told by mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and friends.

Day 221Giving Matters.

Today, a group of volunteers gathered at our offices to begin their training for our Community Impact Grant review team. Some of them are fund holders and financial contributors to the foundation and many hope to be in the future. They all will take part in reviewing the requests made by local nonprofits for funding. This is the funding that will feed hungry children, rescue animals, create new partnerships, assist abused children, promote education and the list is only limited by the wishes of the donors who originally endowed the funds.

Day 365 and beyond

These entries are still to come and will be shaped by new philanthropists like those we’ve met above. Welcome aboard.


Sarah Owen recently finished her first year as CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation in Fort Myers. Before that she served as executive director of Community Cooperative Ministries Inc.

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