The New Philanthropists

By staff September 1, 2007

Like everything else in the world around us, philanthropy is changing. The old charitable model—defined as “waiting until you were really old and very rich and writing a lot of checks,” Daniel Schley of Foundation Source told Forbes magazine last summer—is giving way to younger and more involved givers. (Think of Bill and Melinda Gates’ hands-on approach to their massive charitable efforts around the globe.)

“The real power, drive and momentum in modern philanthropy,” Schley went on to tell Forbes, “is coming from people in their 40s and 50s who generated a great deal of wealth at an early age and have decided to leverage that wealth in philanthropy.”

That change is already evident in Sarasota, where a new generation of givers is sharing not only their wealth but their energy—and their “get-‘er-done-now” mentality with local foundations and causes. We sought out some of these fresh faces on the local philanthropy scene and asked them why and how they give.

A different kind of payday

After 27-year-old Zeb Portanova finished helping to build a Habitat for Humanity house with his Leadership Sarasota class last year, he was so impressed with the organization that he told executive director Mike Jacobson he’d like to stay involved, perhaps with a place on its board.

Jacobson said no to the board position. Instead, he asked Portanova to join Habitat full time as director of new community development—with one big catch: no salary.

Portanova jumped at the chance to work with the growing organization and its dynamic director, whose rallying cry—500 homes in five years—has galvanized the community.

“Mike was the reason I said yes,” Portanova says. “We have a saying at Habitat: ‘If you see what we see, you’ll feel what we feel.’ I’ve learned so much from Mike; he’s a guy who feels.”

Portanova came to Sarasota in late 2001 as an intern with then-Congresswoman Katherine Harris soon after graduating from the University of Florida. He opened Harris’ Washington, D.C. office and became her policy coordinator, where he worked on such issues as the American Dream Downpayment Act, then went on to earn a master’s degree at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. The subject of his thesis: affordable housing.

Portanova moved back to Sarasota in the fall of 2004 with his new wife, Barbara, with plans to develop his own for-profit affordable housing development. But skyrocketing land and construction costs worked against him, so he started working with a Sri Lankan software company. Until Jacobson’s fateful offer. “My wife said, ‘Zeb, this is your call to serve, this is your passion.’”

It’s been a remarkably busy time for Habitat, which is breaking new ground with projects like the 215-unit Puppy Park, which will be the first multifamily development built by a Habitat anywhere in the country. Portanova spent the year doing all the land development negotiations, working with governments and forging partnerships with the business community. “A lot of people are talking about affordable housing; we’re the ones who are getting it done,” he says. “I’m glad I could help.”

Since Portanova completed his year with Habitat in June, he’s been working with developers Gary Moyer and Karen Cook on their Proscenium project, planned for two city blocks on North Tamiami Trail between Sixth and Fourth streets. He applied for a coveted White House Fellowship and made it as far as the regional finals (he says he may reapply someday). And he got that spot on the Habitat board that he’d wanted in the first place.

Portanova’s real payday? “I’ve discovered that the more I’ve done for philanthropy, the more successful my business ventures have been,” he says. “If you do it for the right reasons, God or faith or the world, or whatever you want to call it, has a way of recognizing that.”

All business

Scott Libertore joined his father’s insurance company, Financial Insurance Management Corporation, in 1995 and helped turn the Kress Plaza-based business into an industry giant, with offices in 48 states and Puerto Rico.

But as he conquered one business goal after another, “I looked around and asked, ‘This is it?’ ” says Libertore, 39. A father of four girls, he searched for ways to make a difference in the lives of children throughout the community. And when the fledgling Sarasota Sports Foundation asked him to join its board, he jumped right in.

In just three years, the Sports Foundation has raised a remarkable $2 million for local children’s charities through its annual celebrity golf and tennis tournaments. These charities range from helping babies with fetal alcohol syndrome to abused teens.

Libertore liked the Sports Foundation’s mission, and he admired the take-charge attitude of his fellow board members, among them founder Graci McGillicudy, The Stanford Group’s Chuck Vollmer and Matt Drews, Jennie Famiglio and attorney Greg Band. “We’re not tied up in long board meetings,” he says. “We operate like an entrepreneurial company; we get it done.”

A graduate of Lemon Bay High School and the University of Central Florida, Libertore admits he did not grow up in a family that emphasized philanthropy. His first involvement was joining the Sarasota Family YMCA Foundation board—he had always played sports and liked what the Y does for kids. In 2003, he and his wife, Sabra, established the Libertore Fund for Children through the Y to help at-risk children in foster care. But “I needed more,” he says. “Writing a check is fantastic, but it still wasn’t fulfilling enough. I wanted to use the skills I learned in business to make a difference.”

Libertore has seen firsthand how the Sports Foundation is contributing; he has visited every one of the nonprofit groups it aids, “and I brought my girls with me,” he says. “I wanted them to see something I didn’t see until I was an adult.”

He and the rest of the Sports Foundation board have plans to build on the phenomenal success of the celebrity sports tournaments by creating an endowment and hiring a legislative affairs liaison. “We just hired a marketing person,” he says, “which doubled the staff.

“We want to go national,” he continues. ‘”We want to be as recognizable as MADD. We want to change things legislatively. We want big thinkers.”

Libertore says he gets asked “a lot” to join other nonprofit boards, but with 200 employees, a demanding travel schedule, and raising his family, he must decline. Plus, “I don’t want to lose focus [on the Sports Foundation]—not that I don’t give ideas or money to other organizations.” (At Sarasota Magazine’s Best of the Best party last fall at the Ringling Museum, Libertore made the winning donation to the museum—$35,000—for the right to participate in The Robb Report’s annual Car of the Year event in Napa, Calif.)

Satisfied? “I’m never satisfied in business, really, so I’m never satisfied in raising money for children or children’s causes,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I sleep well at night until I know the job is done.”

Kid stuff

With two young children, one a preschooler and the other a first grader, Bill and Christine Isaac have decided to focus on local children’s and educational charities. Christine is on the board of the Education Foundation of Sarasota County, and Bill has served on the Goodwill Foundation and Community Foundation boards.

“In looking at the generation coming up, we want to make sure they have the educational opportunities they need,” says Bill, who has imposing credentials as the former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). (He is now a financial industry consultant who spends much of his time in Washington, D.C., and with his brother, Butch, is developing the Pineapple Square project in downtown Sarasota.)

Last spring, the Isaacs donated $50,000 through the Education Foundation to build a new playground at Booker Elementary School. They also support the Boys and Girls Clubs of Sarasota and Ringling College of Art and Design, “because they’re doing great things with kids,” he says. And they found a way to marry two of their favorite nonprofits—the Boys and Girls Club of Sarasota and New College of Florida—by creating the Keys to the Future program, which transports 25 youngsters to New College for 10-week computer mentoring classes four times a year. The benefits go far beyond learning keystrokes, Bill says; “they can dream about being on a college campus someday themselves.”

Bill says the New Philanthropist model only makes sense. “There are so many more needs than we could ever hope to address, so you really can’t afford to put your money where it’s not used properly,” he says. “People want to know the money they worked so hard to make is going to do some good and not be wasted.”

And the Isaacs are ensuring that their values are being passed along to their preschool-aged son and first-grade daughter. “We took them to the Booker groundbreaking and they helped turn a shovel of dirt,” he says.

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