The Social Detective

By staff November 1, 2007

Dazed and confused about where to focus your charitable giving in a town with a dizzying array of worthy causes and parties galore to support them? If you’re like me, you get about 10 invitations a day. Not to worry, relief is here.

When I started managing a small foundation 12 years ago, because I also had the unusual job of killing people (at least in the mystery novels I write), I was asked to speak at an Association of Small Foundations annual lunch. The 750 wealthy people there represented hundreds of millions of dollars, and I was overwhelmed. I wasn’t scared of the people; they’re just exactly like us. But the potential of all that money for doing good was so exciting I could hardly breathe.

I felt that way recently when I visited Stewart Stearns, president and CEO of The Community Foundation of Sarasota, which manages $160 million and gives away $8.6 million to local causes every year. I got those figures from Sarasota Magazine’s Charity Register, so they must be correct. Everybody who’s anybody in this town is involved with the Community Foundation, one way or another.

“When I was offered the job,” Stewart told me, “I was assured the Community Foundation was well known and had $3 million. In fact, it had only had $300,000.” That’s lunch money for donors here.

“I called the United Way and Chamber of Commerce, but no one had ever heard of it,” he went on. “The moving van was waiting in the driveway in Texas, and we’d always wanted to see Florida, anyway, so my wife and I came with the idea of enjoying the beaches while looking for another job.”

That was almost 20 years ago. Now the foundation is a powerful force in Sarasota. The Community Foundation has a Resource Center that publishes the Nonprofit Resource Guide for nonprofits and offers consulting services free. Stewart serves on important boards, oversees the fund management, works with many organizations and nurtures donors who want to leave their legacy in Sarasota. “This is the perfect community for planned giving,” he told me. He also explained how clever use of Leila Gompertz’s $3 million gift built the Community Foundation center on Fruitville Road for practically nothing.

Back in the dark ages, my topic at that association lunch was how to make an impact as a small donor. Back then, people who didn’t have a staff had to learn the business from scratch, and good luck to them with all the legal and tax issues of running a private charitable foundation.

The Community Foundation and Sarasota Magazine’s Charity Register fixed all that. Nowadays, you can hardly turn around without bumping into people who are dying to help you give your money away. I met more than 200 of them at the party for the launch of the seventh annual Charity Register, which, in case you were on Mars and haven’t seen it yet, was the September issue. The Charity Register has everything, the who, what, when and where of more than 250 local charity events every year. Morgan Stanley sponsored the party at the Community Foundation, and first vice president Dan Murphy was ecstatic. “There are so many faces here. This is a great kickoff to the fall,” he said. For many in the giving world, the Charity Register party is the official season opener.

Right away, Jaymie Klauber of Fete, who catered, gave me a big hug and tried to steer me to the cheese table. “No, no fabulous cheese or yummy tacos, I’m working,” I told her. “Look at all those people.” I saw Alexandra Quarles from Sarasota Memorial’s Healthcare Foundation, who’s been so busy raising money for the hospital she hasn’t been able to return my call all summer. Martine Collier from the Arts Council wanted to do an art tour. “A little one, just your house,” she suggested. “What do you think?”

Erin McLeod from the Senior Friendship Center just won PR Member Of The Year award from the Florida PR Association. I bet you didn’t know we have the best PR person in the state right here in Sarasota. “This party is a cherry picker’s delight,” she said. “It shows what kind of important institutions exist here and helps people make their annual giving plans.” Betty Morris from the Reading Festival was eager to let me know that Lou Dobbs was coming to this year’s festival.

Dr. Arthur Guilford, the new CEO of USF Sarasota- Manatee, was excited as well. “The number of students enrolled at the college has gone up 26 percent since last year. Our students are in the community,” he added, “so they stay and make a contribution.” Dr. Guilford’s roots go so deep here that for him it’s almost like coming home. Among many other things, his grandfather built Sarasota High School.

Ann Logan of Sarasota Ballet introduced me to Iain Webb, the ballet’s new artistic director, who is Scottish and was dressed for the Arctic in a black jacket and pants. “The season is planned out and the dancers are just starting to work,” he said, and promised me a tour.

Judi Gallagher (contributing food and wine editor for this magazine) wanted me to meet Debbi Allen and Dan Schefer of Fleming’s. “We want to help as many nonprofits as possible by hosting private dinners at the restaurant at our cost,” they said. We had a long talk about food and philanthropy. Judi has her fingers in many hot pots.

Maryann Boehm, the new chair of the Junior League, who is also a land use lawyer, loved the party. “You never get all these people in the same room,” she said. She’s excited about the Signature Project this year, because the Junior League is going to be 50. “It’s going to be big,” she promised. Across the room was Cindy Kaiser, former Junior League chair, who’s now the new executive director of the Education Foundation.

Community Foundation chair Lee Wetherington and past chair Sophia LaRusso were there, mobbed by admirers. Jane Summerville of the New College Library Association partied with Debbi Benedict, Chris Pfahler and the J.P. Morgan people. I kept looking for a donor in the crowd, and at last I saw one. Dottie Garner told me she and her husband, Bob, have a fund with the Community Foundation. “We’re great believers and sharers, so we steer all our friends here,” she explained. Dottie is the new chair of the Van Wezel Foundation.

After a lot of mingling, Stewart Stearns thanked everyone for coming and commented on the size of the crowd. He also said a lot of other things I couldn’t hear because people in this town think it’s all about the party and talk over speakers no matter who they are. Sarasota’s editorial director Pam Daniel doesn’t do that, but she wanted to know about some of the new faces. “Go meet somebody,” she told me. I choose Iain, not knowing how hard his name was going to be to spell.

“We cherish the relationship and great collaboration between The Community Foundation and Sarasota Magazine,” Sarasota’s executive publisher, Jeff Lawenda, said, and he gave away a two-bottle wine tote with the magazine logo on it. And they’re off and running.

Leslie Glass is a playwright and the author of 14 novels, including the best-selling crime series featuring the NYPD’s April Woo.

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