Salut! / The Cause


Leading With Purpose

Once the gavel drops on the last auction lot, NCEF gets to work, allocating grants and building partnerships in support of its seven strategic initiatives.

BY January 1, 2022
(Photo by Tony Zollo)

The Naples Winter Wine Festival is known to make headlines for its million-dollar auction lots and roster of award-winning chefs and wine masters. The numbers are impressive: Since 2001, the festival has raised nearly $220 million for the Naples Children & Education Foundation which has served more than 275,000 children in Collier County. Not often mentioned in the headlines is what makes NCEF so effective. 

The organization awards millions in grants and funding annually to more than 50 children’s charities, and the team looks for ways to maximize its local impact. “After commissioning several assessments of the needs of children in our community, NCEF established seven, multiyear strategic initiatives to drive positive change on the physical, emotional and educational well-being of the whole child,” Maria Jimenez-Lara, NCEF’s CEO, explains. “This allows us to optimize funding and develop innovative programs in collaboration with other charitable organizations that exemplify the highest levels of efficacy and accountability.”

(Photo Courtesy NCEF)

The comprehensive 2005 studyupdated in 2010 and again in 2017—zeroed in on seven areas with significant gaps in services: early learning, healthcare, hunger, mental health, oral health, out-of-school time and vision. To bolster the initiatives and boost their efficiency, NCEF emphasizes collaboration between nonprofits. Looking at the big picture of needs and opportunities, NCEF helps its partners reduce overlapping services, decrease competition for funding and create joint programs that draw from the various nonprofits’ strengths. 

Oral health was one of the first initiatives tackled after the initial study—and it’s proved to be among the most successful. At the time, close to one-third of children in the county did not have access to oral services. In 2008, NCEF partnered with Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida to open the 20,000-square-foot NCEF Pediatric Dental Center at Florida SouthWestern State College’s East Naples campus, with services provided by the University of Florida College of Dentistry’s pediatric residents. The center received more than 11,000 visits in 2020. “We’ve come close to solving the oral health problem,” Lisa Morse, director of community engagement and district initiatives for Collier County Public Schools, says. “Of course, we will always have kids with oral health issues—but now we have a solution.”

(Photo by Louis Venne)
(Photo Courtesy NCEF)

Morse, a longtime festival volunteer, who helped develop some of the strategic initiatives, says NCEF has a unique ability to lead like-minded nonprofits toward a common goal. Another collaboration united the Florida Lions Eye Clinic and the renowned Bascom Palmer Eye Institute to provide vision screenings, exams, eyeglasses and tertiary care to children in need. “Through these strategic initiatives, NCEF fundamentally changed the community,” Morse says. “It was unprecedented to align programs and resources like that. NCEF changed the culture; it challenged the community to be better.”

And, we continue to see this transformative change taking place in every sphere NCEF supports, from covering the basic needs for a child’s physical well-being to providing educational and inspirational resources for kids to grow and thrive.