Turning Twenty-Five

By staff September 1, 2003

Philanthropists are the architects of the charitable castles that inspire and sustain a community. But individual generosity only goes so far. Caring citizens need a firm foundation of support to maximize the impact of their giving. The stronger that foundation is, the more enduring their legacy can be. Community foundations provide that base of support.

At the turn of the 20th century, many charitable individuals and organizations existed in communities around the country, but not one "community foundation" to provide an underpinning for permanent charitable gifts. Wealthy people were starting their own private foundations to distribute gifts to charities, but people of moderate means had no way to make a significant impact on the causes they cared about. Around 1912, the idea of pooling many individual charitable funds for maximum, long-term effect arose, and the community foundation model of permanent endowment, broad, flexible purpose and personalized giving was launched.

By 1978 there were about 220 community foundations in the country, but none in Sarasota. Local businessman and fund-raiser Burt Bershon joined with attorney Ron Skipper, president of the Southwest Florida Estate Planning Council, to create a special tax-exempt organization that would give attorneys, accountants, trust officers and other estate planners a charitable vehicle they could recommend to their clients. That broad-based vehicle became the Community Foundation of Sarasota County: a permanent means for one generation of far-sighted individuals to influence future generations and affect community change.

From its first humble "office" inside a desk drawer donated by the Florida West Coast Symphony in 1979, the Community Foundation has grown to a permanent endowment of $80 million, made up of more than 400 philanthropic funds. In 2004, the Community Foundation will move from its present office in downtown Sarasota to a newly constructed headquarters on Fruitville Road. Thanks to the generosity of Leila Gompertz, a past board chair and chair of the Legacy Society, the foundation will own its own building, large enough to accommodate a growing staff and to host special community events and seminars. An endowment fund will cover the costs of building maintenance so that resources for grants and scholarships will not be diminished. The new building will symbolize the foundation's permanence in the community and its support of the area's many nonprofit organizations.

For the past 25 years, the Community Foundation has worked at the local level to make Sarasota County an even better place to live. Since president and CEO Stewart W. Stearns's arrival in 1988, the it has given $25 million in grants and scholarships and raised the bulk of its $80-million endowment. Each year, it distributes more than $5 million in grants and almost $400,000 in scholarships. Named funds range in size from as little as $10,000 to millions, and because the assets are pooled, donors benefit from economies of scale in investment and administration. Under the supervision of a volunteer board of community leaders, the foundation is able to spark change and respond to emerging needs in the arts and humanities, community development, education, environment, health and human services and animal protection.

"We make it possible for donors to invest in the community in a way that maximizes their access to personalized services, good fund management practices and tax favorable advantages," says Stearns. "Our professional staff has intimate knowledge of the community and the nonprofits that serve Sarasota County. We keep pace with the always-changing needs of our area and in that way, can offer donors guidance on both emerging needs and critical community trends." While some of the foundation's funds have restricted use, many are available to initiate pioneering new programs and services that might not otherwise exist. Here are just a few of the highlights from the Community Foundation's quarter-century of support to the charitable castle builders of Sarasota County.

Aiding Families in Distress

In 1992, Claire and Lionel Kalish created a fund to help those in desperate need with a one-time grant to resolve a crisis situation, such as utility bill payment, emergency dental care, child care and even car repair for working parents. who . Over 10 years, the Kalish Fund provided $230,000 to more than 630 people, offering help with food, clothing, medicine and shelter needs. In February 2002, the foundation's board of directors and a generous donor created the Helping Hand/Friendly Neighbor Fund to permanently carry on the work of the Kalish Fund.

Supporting Community Safety Issues

Drug court was established in 1997 to help non-violent offenders stay out of jail by giving them medical, dental, counseling and job-related services for a year while they go through court-supervised drug or alcohol rehabilitation. Seed money from the Community Foundation established the Drug Court Fund to serve clients of the court in Sarasota and Manatee counties. This fund covers critical life-changing services not otherwise available, and plans are underway for the foundation to establish a Mental Health Court Fund, as well.

Supporting Public Education

In 1997, the Community Foundation provided funds to hire a Fine Arts coordinator for Sarasota County schools at a time when budget cuts were eliminating many of art, music, dance and drama programs. A multi-year grant from the Leslie and Margaret Weller Fund helped the school district hire an overall arts coordinator, thus saving the arts curriculum for public school students throughout the county.

The Foundation then created the Leslie and Margaret Weller Arts Education Program to award teachers in Manatee and Sarasota counties mini-grants of $1,000 to $5,000 each to pay for supplies, field trips, artists' residencies and other enrichment to their curricula. More than $600,000 has gone directly to teachers for creative arts programs and to help students develop critical thinking skills.

Strengthening Families

A $450,000, three-year commitment to the Connecting Fathers & Families Initiative funds free parent education programs that help men become better fathers. The initiative has created a groundbreaking "Boot Camp for New Dads" at Sarasota Memorial Hospital and the "Nurturing Dads Initiative" at Children First, as well as collaborations with local businesses and nonprofit agencies.

In 2003, the foundation joined with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to promote the Season of Sharing Fund, which has provided more than $400,000 to human service agencies in Manatee, Charlotte and Sarasota counties. All the funds collected go directly to prevent homelessness and help impoverished families; none of this fund is used for operating overhead.

Engaging Youth

The STAR (Students Taking Active Roles in Government) program is a unique partnership of the Community Foundation, the Coalition of Community Foundations for Youth, the YMCA Community Youth Development Project and the Packard Foundation that is nationally recognized as a model youth engagement program. High schoolers learn first-hand how government operates by sitting on advisory boards in county and local government as well as nonprofit organizations. They help devise policies and programs that affect the entire community and learn that one voice can make a difference. One of those students also sits on the Community Foundation Grants Committee, which reviews applications made to the foundation's discretionary grant-making program.

Community Foundation grants have been the vehicle for realizing donors' dreams, often launching new initiatives or supporting key community programs like protecting the environment, providing childcare and early education services and enhancing the function of nonprofit agencies. In the last 10 years, more than 5,000 grants have been distributed to a wide range of charities. Here are a few additional major achievements:

Crucial financial and staff support to create SCOPE (Sarasota Openly Plans for Excellence), which grew out of the Human Services Planning Association (also supported by the Community Foundation). Through SCOPE, people in the community create a better future by identifying priorities, researching issues, proposing solutions, creating action and measuring progress.

Founding sponsor of the Sarasota Reading Festival.

Initial partner in SchoolMatch, a comprehensive audit of the educational effectiveness of Sarasota County public schools. Joining forces with the Argus Foundation, the William G. and Marie Selby Foundation, The Venice Foundation and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Community Foundation financed a research project that compared Sarasota County to about 1,500 peer districts nationwide, setting goals for student performance. The foundation then partnered with the William G. and Marie Selby Foundation, The Venice Foundation and the Sarasota County School Board in the Educational Partnership Program in support of ongoing professional staff development focused toward student achievement.

Helped found the Manatee Community Foundation in 1998, a sister organization formed to improve the quality of life in Manatee County and encourage philanthropy.

Initial funder of the JASON Project at Mote Marine Laboratory, an internationally renowned educational program that broadcasts annual science "expeditions" into classrooms around the world.

Created the first statewide directory of environmental organizations: "Donors Guide to Environmental Giving in the State of Florida" to give private foundations a comprehensive view of the work of environmental organizations throughout our state.

Provided funding for Community Outreach for Seniors to assist at-risk, isolated elderly citizens.

Provided financial resources to establish the Foster Care Collaboration, so that foster care could be improved through privatization and inter-agency communication. The Foster Care Coalition Stakeholders group works to reduce the time children spend in the foster care system and to ameliorate the causes of domestic problems that create family conflicts.

With the Community Foundation as the underpinning, individual and family legacies grow and build permanent community capital. "For 25 years, the foundation has brought together people who care deeply about their fellow man, and who believe in local action," says Stearns. "The vision and mission of the Community Foundation's well directed leadership will continue making the region a better place to live and ensuring a future that is 'For good. For ever.'" 


Focus on Unsung Heroes


"When the oak is felled, the whole forest echoes with its fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze."-Thomas Carlyle

Every community has its heroes; the quiet and usually unheralded people who give their time, money, talents and love to causes that make a difference in all our lives. Since 1995, the Community Foundation and its partner, the Wilson-Wood Foundation, has given 31 of these community treasures special recognition through the Unsung Hero Awards. Here are just three of them.

Jencie E. Davis


Thanks to Jencie's efforts, the Newtown community has a police substation at Central Avenue and Seventh Street and more visible law enforcement. She chased drug traffickers off the streets by marching volunteers through crime-ridden areas, and works to improve neighborhoods and alleviate long-ingrained problems with patience and grit. She faithfully attends city commission meetings and remains a strong community advocate.

Tina Riggle


A survivor of alcoholic parents and foster care, Tina Riggle overcame her own addictions to become a mentor to women in trouble through Drug Court. Tina helps them build a better life and strives to get their dealers jailed. She founded Court Watch, a group of volunteers who monitor the trials and sentences of drug dealers and other habitual criminals. Tina is also active in the Gillespie Park Neighborhood Watch program.

Dr. Henri "Bud" Marsh


His official title was "Guardian Ad Litem," but Dr. Marsh was the best guardian angel any child could have. Until his death in October 2001, this soft-spoken retired veterinarian gave voice to abused, neglected and abandoned youngsters whose family's divorce and custody cases were presented to the 12th Judicial Circuit of Florida. Marsh and his wife, Angie, turned many young lives around. He will be remembered for his special rapport with judges, parents, foster parents, social workers, attorneys, teachers, doctors, therapists, and especially, kids. 

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