Out of the Box

By staff September 1, 2006

“Think out of the box, get out of the box and make a difference.” That’s what donor Donna Pickard urged the Community Foundation of Sarasota County to do several years ago; and it’s a challenge the foundation—and its donors—have embraced with enthusiasm.

The Community Foundation’s assets have grown to more than $140 million in more than 520 individual charitable funds. Each year, the foundation awards more than $5 million in grants from these individual funds to improve our community’s health and human services, education, animal welfare and the environment. And donors, who create these funds within the Community Foundation knowing that their philanthropic wishes will be honored in a way that is personal, flexible and permanent, are heeding the spirit of Pickard’s challenge with innovative and creative strategies for their gifts to inspire meaningful, lasting change.

Here are just a few examples of the ways the Community Foundation and its donors worked out of the box this year.

Using Technology to Save Students

Sarasota County teachers with college debts.

Most recently, Nobbe’s legacy funded a $407,000 grant for a revolutionary computer-based dropout prevention program, which the Community Foundation and the School District piloted at Booker High School. This fall, the Nobbe Performance-Based Diploma Program will spread to every county high school, giving at-risk students the tools they need to finish their degrees at their own pace and pursue higher education or a meaningful vocation.

Planting a Future

Sarasota businessman Cy Bispham and his wife, Doris, created a donor advised fund to provide sustainable resources for the needy by way of an ingenious Ellenton-made product called Earthboxes.

On a volunteer school-building trip to Nicaragua with his Rotary club, Bispham learned how difficult economic development is in a peasant society with limited arable land, inadequate water and few modern agricultural products. Bispham knew that Earthboxes—containers built of recycled material—grow bumper crops of vegetables that people can nurture in a very small area. He directed that a $50,000 grant from the Cyrus G. and Doris E. Bispham Donor Advised Fund of the Community Foundation be awarded to the U.S. Committee for Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations for a program called the “The Growing Connection in Nicaragua.”

“This project is now being done in several countries, and we hope that it will expand around the world,” says Community Foundation president and CEO Stewart Stearns. “It involves purchasing these Earthboxes, training peasants in how to use them and developing a mechanism to help them earn money from their agricultural products.”

Bispham used the expertise of the Community Foundation staff to make his out-of-the-box thinking a reality, and the future of struggling Nicaraguan peasants is looking brighter. Who knows where else in the world Earthboxes will work their magic?

Innovative Scholarships

When it comes to new ways of helping people realize their dreams of higher education and training for career advancement, the Community Foundation scholarship program is on the leading edge. In the last fiscal year ending May 31, 2006, 413 scholarships, totaling $834,353, were awarded to graduating high school seniors as well as nontraditional students—people who have been out in the working world and have decided to continue their education.

In the months ahead, a groundbreaking new scholarship will offer even more opportunity to nontraditional students and help supply desperately needed workers in the healthcare field. The Fast Track Educational Assistance Program will provide much-needed financial aid to people in Manatee and Sarasota counties who have been accepted to Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) classes at Manatee Technical Institute or Sarasota County Technical Institute. What makes this scholarship unique is the “fast track” component: Since CNA programs are offered multiple times each year and decisions must be made quickly, applications will be accepted by the Community Foundation on a rolling basis.

“This new program is exciting because it offers a realistic chance for people to get the skills they need to earn a decent living wage in the healthcare industry quickly,” says Mimi Goodwill, scholarship coordinator for the Community Foundation. “When they are trained, they can go right to work and become valuable employees in a hospital or other medical facility where trained personnel are in great demand.”

The Nonprofit Resource Center Surges Ahead

The Nonprofit Resource Center, a service of the Community Foundation, continually devises new programs and tools that make local nonprofit organizations stronger, more efficient and better equipped to fulfill their missions. In the past fiscal year, the NRC held 77 trainings attended by 500 distinct nonprofits, reaching 1,000 participants.

“We believe that investing in nonprofit capacity building helps leverage the impact of philanthropic resources in our community,” says Christie Lewis, vice president of nonprofit capacity building.

This past year saw the formation of NRC Consulting Services. This corps of highly trained volunteers with years of corporate experience helps nonprofits in board development, strategic planning, coaching, human resources, marketing, fund raising and finance. NRC Consulting Services has completed 17 projects in just nine months of operation and tallied more than 800 hours of service, getting rave reviews from organizations such as SPARCC, TideWell Hospice and Palliative Care and the New College Foundation.

The NRC also has established the Board Bank, a unique Web-based board placement service offered free to area nonprofits. The online Board Bank successfully connects talented professionals with board or committee leadership needs and fosters diversity and a fresh pool of volunteers for nonprofits. The Board Bank is a partnership with the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Sarasota County and Young Professionals Group. After one year of operation, 58 organizations have registered for volunteer matches, 30 board and committee positions have been posted, 100 registered professionals are seeking nonprofit board positions and at least 15 matches have been confirmed.

Several out-of-the-box NRC initiatives are on the way in the months ahead. Look for the For Good For Ever Series: Endowment Building Initiative to make a huge difference in the capacity of 25 selected Sarasota and Manatee nonprofits to build permanent endowment funds for their organizations. Providing the services of the Endowment Development Institute of California at no cost, the Community Foundation will help these participating nonprofits become financially healthy by raising a permanent endowment that sustains them through good years and bad.

In addition, in response to repeated requests, the NRC will publish a nonprofit compensation and salary survey in 2006. This locally produced data will help area nonprofits stay competitive with the for-profit sector by attracting and retaining the best and brightest staff possible. “Just because we’re called the nonprofit sector should by no means keep us from being competitive when it comes to salaries and benefits for our most valuable asset—our employees,” says Lewis.

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