Corporate Givers

By Hannah Wallace April 30, 2005

Big companies with hefty marketing departments and beaucoup dollars know there are tangible business reasons to be a good corporate citizen-great public relations, for a start. Corporate philanthropy, after all, increases the likelihood that we'll think of particular companies in a positive light. Other reasons exist as well: Deloitte & Touche says 72 percent of job seekers prefer to work for a company that supports a social cause, and a BusinessWeek survey reports that 85 percent say employee morale is a main reason companies give.

But in our community of smaller companies, corporate philanthropists often have other, very personal reasons to give. As Larry Thompson, president of Ringling School of Art and Design, says, "Sarasota doesn't have the larger corporate presence. There are many small companies who give, feeling that the community has embraced them and helped make them successful. There's more a spirit of giving."

Here are five such companies, who were all recently nominated by the Southwest Florida Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), which covers both Manatee and Sarasota, for its outstanding "corporate partner" of the year award. They prove, the AFP noted during the awards ceremony, that "the spirit of giving is alive and well in Southwest Florida."


Ron Carter and Jimmy Neal took up the cause of AIDS when there was still a stigma attached to the disease.

"We go back a long way," Carter, co-owner of Mr. Florist Plants N' Things, says of his and Neal's work with Community AIDS Network (CAN). "It wasn't a popular cause, so people didn't want their name attached to it."

"They have been good friends," says Susan Terry, president and chief executive officer of Community AIDS Network. "They have stayed in it, even though a lot of people think AIDS is done."

Carter and Neal moved from Atlanta to Sarasota in 1972, opening Mr. Florist Plants N' Things. The two became involved with the network in the 1980s when they watched friends and co-workers die from the disease.

"At one time, it was both small and staggering," Carter says.

Carter and Neal started with delivering free flowers to hospital patients. That simple act evolved into a variety show fund-raiser staged first at a barn, then at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall with big-name entertainers like Peter Allen and Hal Linden donating their talents. The show still goes on today. This April, "CAN Goes Golden Oldies" was presented at the Golden Apple.

Members of CAN's board of directors, Carter and Neal have raised more than $1 million with other corporations in 15 years. That hard work contributed in 1991 to the development of CAN's comprehensive care clinic, which offers therapy, case management, dental care, education and anonymous HIV testing to Sarasota County residents. The clinic has 600 active patients, ranging in age from 13 to 80. About 100 of them are women; the remainder comprises homosexual males.

Terry says it is not just the funds Carter and Neal have provided through the years: "It is the donors as well."


Linda Getzen, a partner at the Sarasota law firm of Williams, Parker, Harrison, Dietz & Getzen, was on her way to the annual luncheon of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), when she thought of something she was taught as a young Girl Scout: "Always leave your campsite better than you found it." That, she thought, is exactly what charitable community work is all about-"You have to try and make things better."

When Getzen's firm received the top 2004 AFP award, Getzen repeated that Girl Scout creed to a receptive audience.

Williams Parker, the largest and one of the oldest law firms in Sarasota, has had a nearly 30-year history with the Girl Scouts and with dozens of other local nonprofits. From its founding 50 years ago, the firm has cultivated a culture of responsibility, not only making charitable donations out of its own general marketing budget, but also giving attorneys their own dollars to donate as they see fit. Even hiring decisions include an applicant's interest in community building. "The law firm is looking for people who want to be good citizens," says partner Kim Walker, who estimates that every attorney sits on at least one board and staff members all have their own pet projects. "One third of my work is nonprofit," she estimates.

Attorneys also counsel clients on the importance of planned giving as part of estate planning, prompting one such client to leave a large bequest to seven Sarasota-area charities-the Girl Scouts of the Gulf Coast among them.

Sandy Stewart, CEO of Girl Scouts of the Gulf Coast, says Williams Parker has handled many issues for the organization, including, last year, the complicated rezoning of its new headquarters and a major human resources issue. "What I think most about their contributions is that I never wonder who I am in their great big firm," says Stewart. "I never feel like I'm a little nonprofit that's not important."


Business Week ranked Northern Trust Bank as the 11th most generous corporation on its latest donor list. There's no question about its generosity in this community. Since Northern Trust opened in Sarasota in 1977-now with 165 employees in five branches-the bank has established a strong history of supporting causes through sponsorships, volunteering and opening its community room to a variety of nonprofit meetings.

"Part of the bank's core mission is to serve the communities it operates in," says Phil Delaney, area president.

Stephanie Feltz, executive director of Girls Inc. of Sarasota County, where hundreds of local girls benefit from after-school and summer programs every year, says Northern Trust Bank has provided her organization with sound financial advice. One recent contribution was a line of credit that allowed Girls Inc. to begin a $1.1-million renovation to the building that has served as its home for 30 years.

Northern Trust also has been a long-time supporter of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, including the Schooltime Performances program that reaches 36,000 students in Sarasota, Charlotte, DeSoto and Manatee counties. "These Schooltime Performances allow the children to see a variety of performances from Shakespeare to Alvin Ailey," says Van Wezel Foundation executive director Deborah Rohaty. Delaney is the immediate past chairman of the Van Wezel Foundation.

Northern Trust also was a major contributor to the Van Wezel's capital campaign and has sponsored its "Reach for the Stars" annual fund-raiser.

Delaney says it's gratifying to view all of the good work Northern Trust has been involved in and gratifying that so many in this community, from private individuals to corporations, give so generously. "I find Sarasota incredibly unique," he says.


Opera aficionados have traveled across the world to attend a Sarasota Opera performance, but the opera needn't look any further than its own back yard for support.

"Fifth Third Bank has been essential in myriad ways, such as helping us secure a grant," says Susan Danis, Sarasota Opera executive director. "But it really is not about the money. The bank has really become involved in the life of the opera."

The relationship started when Fifth Third Bank had a branch on St. Armands Circle. Christine Kruman, vice president and manager of the bank's planned giving department, became acquainted with several opera representatives and discovered they were creating a youth opera with original music and lyrics called The Language of Birds. The bank gave the Sarasota Opera $25,000 to help produce the opera for its premier last May.

"The opera has brought a quality of life to a lot of kids," says Kruman. "It has been a wonderful relationship."

When the Fifth Third Foundation was established in 1948, it was one of the first corporate foundations created by a financial institution in the United States. In 2003, the foundation furnished nearly $30 million in community support to organizations across the country. "We are one of the few corporations with planned giving," says Kruman.

Foundation vice president Heidi Jark says the philanthropic foundation focuses on four target areas: community redevelopment, arts, education, and health and human services.

Danis says thousands of children in the Sarasota-Manatee area have been impacted by the Sarasota Opera's unique youth opera program, either through attending performances or by participating in the opera's four youth choruses. "When the arts get cut from the school program, the nonprofits pick up the slack," Danis says. "The opera has enabled children to perform. It lifts their self-esteem and confidence. Confident people go on to be community leaders."

And sometimes the donor finds his or her own life is affected. "I was not an opera fan," admits Krumen, "but the joke was on me. I really fell in love with it, and I attended every opera during the season."


Larry Thompson, president of Ringling School of Art and Design, counts himself lucky to have David Sessions as a corporate giver. Not only has Sessions, through his company, Willis A. Smith Construction, donated thousands of dollars over the years, but he is also a passionate salesman for the art school. "It's one of the top five institutions offering these programs in the country," Sessions enthuses as soon as someone mentions Ringling.

Both Sessions, president and CEO of the Sarasota-based commercial construction firm, and his partner, John LaCivita, remember struggling to make ends meet through college. "We both went to the University of Florida and we put ourselves through school with savings, working part-time, financial aid and scholarships," Sessions says. The scholarships were especially welcome.

So when the partners saw an opportunity to make life a bit easier for other college students, they took it. Since 1991, they've been involved with Ringling School of Art and Design, first as the contractors for several of the buildings on campus, and soon after as corporate givers. They started a scholarship fund as part of Ringling's endowment and have sponsored such annual fund-raising events as the golf tournament, which Sessions co-chaired in 2004, and "An Evening at Avant-Garde."

"Education is an area that's near and dear to my heart," says Sessions.

But Ringling isn't the only recipient of their largess. Since a large number of their clients are nonprofits, Willis A. Smith Construction has donated cash or in-kind services to many of them, including Mote Marine Laboratory and Manatee Community College, and has established a scholarship fund at MCC. "They've helped us, too, by giving us work," Sessions says. The company also encourages employees to give to good causes, and is supportive of workers taking time off to volunteer.

The company doesn't send out press releases about its good deeds. "Just knowing we're quietly behind the scenes helping people is enough," Sessions says.

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