Way to give

By staff September 1, 2008

In 1979, members of the South West Florida Estate Planning Council created the Sarasota County Community Foundation with one lofty ambition: to make local charitable giving easy, flexible, permanent and effective.

From its original office in a back room of the Florida West Coast Symphony, the Community Foundation has evolved into Sarasota County’s trusted relationship-building partner: the powerful engine of effective charitable giving for donors and the professionals who advise them, the nonprofits they support, and the important causes that make a difference in the lives of the people of Southwest Florida.

In 1985, when the foundation’s total assets were only $175,000, it made its first grant to establish the area’s very first comprehensive human services directory through First Call for Help. That modest directory has since become 2-1-1, an important 24/7 emergency referral service.

Since 1988, when Stewart W. Stearns was hired as the first full-time CEO, the Community Foundation has grown from $300,000 to $160 million in assets and has awarded more than $63 million in grants and scholarships.

That growth was fueled by a commitment to building permanent endowment one donor at a time and forging relationships with hundreds of individuals, corporations and nonprofit agencies based on mutual trust and faith in the Commu-nity Foundation’s ability to be a catalyst for a better future. 

In 1991, the Community Foundation had just 10 named funds. Today there are more than 600. More than 300 people have joined the Legacy Society with a pledge to make a gift to an important charitable cause in their estate plans. Thanks to a magnanimous gift from past Community Foundation chair Leila Gompertz and the generosity of the board of directors, the old Elks Club property on Fruitville Road

was purchased in 2004. The landmark Leila & MichaelGompertzCenter opened shortly thereafter. It not only houses the Community Foundation and its NonprofitResourceCenter but also provides state-of-the-art meeting rooms used by more than 14,000 nonprofit administrators and volunteers each year. Nonprofits also benefit from the continually expanding services and innovative programs offered by the NonprofitResourceCenter, a one-stop resource that builds and sustains the capacity of more than 1,400 charitable organizations in our community.

In 1994, the Community Foundation received a $250,000 grant from the John M. and James L. Knight Foundation to create a permanent endowment for ManateeCounty that eventually formed the Manatee Community  Foun-dation  (MCF).  Since 1998, when MCF became a supporting organization of its SarasotaCounty “sister,” it has been thriving and growing. In its 10th anniversary year, assets have reached $16 million.

Over the past 30 years, the Community Foundation has sparked change and been a catalyst for improvement in many areas of life in our community. Here are just a few key accomplishments:

Aiding families in distress: The Helping Hand Fund for emergency assistance has provided more than $500,000 to needy families. And along with the Herald-Tribune Media Group, the Season of Sharing campaign has raised more than $1.7 million to prevent homelessness for our community’s most vulnerable families.

Engaging the community: The Community Foundation spearheaded efforts to create SCOPE and Community Youth Development and has continued to support both generously.

Strengthening families and assisting the elderly: A three-year Connecting  Fathers &

Families initiative created with Children First and SarasotaMemorialHospital continues to give dads the tools they need to be effective parents. The foundation was also the founding sponsor of the award-winning Falls Prevention initiative at SeniorFriendshipCenter, which helps seniors increase their balance and stay in shape so they can age in their homes.

Simply in terms of dollars, the Community Foundation story is one of ever-increasing impact. The largest dollar amount in grants recorded prior to its new Grant and Program Services initiative was $6 million a year. In 2007-2008, foundation donors made it possible to give the community more than $10 million.

“In these uncertain economic times, our grantmaking, our nonprofit capacity building services and our board development services are more critical than ever,” Stearns says. “Bringing our community together around solutions is vital.”

GPS: A bold new direction in grantmaking

How can grantmaking become nimbler, faster and more effective?

Community Foundation leadership has devised a creative new process called Grant and Program Services, or GPS, that replaces the previous six yearly grant

cycles and results in more discretionary or community needs-related grants (which represent about 35 percent of funds) that make a real impact.

Starting in June 2007, five focus  teams examined issues within five longstanding interest areas: arts and culture, civic engagement, education, health and human services. 

The focus teams held more than 60 meetings with more than 45 nonprofits and local service providers to discern where grants were most needed. Then the focus teams and nonprofits collaborated on solutions. The results have been extraordinary. Here are some highlights of the new GPS grants process. The dollar amounts represent only the first year of a multi-year commitment of support.

Arts and Culture: Awarded $89,000 to the Sarasota County Arts Council for a comprehensive new Web site with a shared cultural calendar for 124 member organizations.

Civic Engagement: Awarded $125,000 to support initiatives at SCOPE (Sarasota County Openly Plans for Excellence), Grassroots Leadership Initiative and CYD’s STAR Program.

Education: Awarded $674,380 to Children First, Early Learning Coalition and Sarasota County School Board for a comprehensive and highly collaborative children’s literacy initiative for pre-K, elementary and middle school children.

Human Services: Awarded more than $267,000 to the SarasotaCounty health department for the Truvine Project addressing pregnancy prevention for at-risk teens, and to Jewish Family & Children’s Service for the Independent Transportation Network. ITN will align Sarasota with 10 other cities in the U.S. that provide an affordable door-to-door ride service geared to maintaining the independence of an aging adult population.

“Our board of directors believes that the future of community foundations is tied to the fact that all nonprofits have to be more accountable,” says Community Foundation president and CEO Stewart Stearns. “With the GPS process, we decided to more deliberately look at the needs in the community and at the data, and to fund projects that would specifically address those needs and help move the data in a more positive direction.”

At the same time, by taking grant requests directly to donors and by using donor-advised funds to meet clear-cut charitable needs, the Community Foundation has reduced the amount of time needed to process a grant. One important example: the foundation learned that All Faiths Food Bank needed an additional truck to deliver food to its distribution spots. The Community Foundation called on its donors and had the $90,000 needed for the new vehicle in less than a week.

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