Garden Party to Urban Farming

Garden Party to Urban Farming

I still can’t look at a cherry tomato. Not that I have an aversion to tomatoes in general, just the petite variety.

Several lifetimes ago my husband and I entertained a fantasy of living on the land. We wanted to escape the hustle and bustle of a busy city in Virginia and move to a rural setting. Keep in mind that the word fantasy is in no way linked to reality and this pretty much sums up our move.

But I was all in and painted a picture of idyllic bliss to my friends of my life on the land. One of the things I was most looking forward to was planting a garden. Keep in mind I have never been able to keep a house plant alive for more than 30 days, but somehow the move to the country was going transform me into a master gardener. I had my friends so convinced that as part of my sendoff party they donned me with a lovely wide brimmed hat suitable for my new role in life.

I don’t have the luxury of space here to go into all the ways I was ill equipped for life on over a 1/4 acre in the suburbs, but no one told me I would have to take my own trash to the landfill and that other than cows, milk was a 30 minute drive each way. By the way, a family of five drinks more milk than you can ever imagine.

Even with the setbacks I was determined to wear that hat, which meant I needed to plant a garden. The project started with great gusto and in my enthusiasm I planted enough vegetables to feed an entire community. For some reason I had a special affinity to cherry tomato plants and purchased 42 of them for my first crop.

Did you know that an average cherry tomato plant can produce 250 tomatoes a season? Me neither.

Now multiply that by 42 plants all harvested at the same time by a novice gardener in a very cute but albeit uncomfortable hat.

I was giving them away to everyone and anyone. I think some people were running when they saw me coming and I heard some disparaging remarks about my hat.

That was my first and last year as a country gardener, but fast forward a few years and I found myself as a hunger fighter and searching for ways to produce healthy food for people experiencing food insecurity. I was now living back in the suburbs and working in more urban settings but the demand for food was great.

I remembered my bumper crop of cherry tomatoes but more importantly the other successful gardens I had seen developed by my experienced neighbors. Fortunately local non-profit groups and schools were exploring the concepts of container and urban farming and I knew from my limited experience that this was a viable option.

Over the last decade in Southwest Florida I have seen the urban garden flourish in many different settings. Through my work at the Southwest Florida Community Foundation I have seen our donors support local gardens designed specifically to support the needs in our community.

Most recently we funded a garden in the Pine Manor community and I was thrilled to get an update that our grant helped the Improvement Association to get even more grants to support their community garden. The families have embraced it and are nurturing crops and just enjoyed their first harvest from more than 20 garden boxes. We continue to work with our grantees like the Pine Manor Improvement Association as their grants and their plans merge from the community garden which will also support their culinary arts training program. I cannot wait to taste the fruits of the earth and the training kitchen in Pine Manor.

If any of you are interested in learning more about urban farming in our community, please reach out to me at I have great hat you can borrow.









Urban Prep Graduates All College-Bound For Fourth Year In A Row

For a remarkable fourth consecutive year, all 167 seniors at Urban Prep Academies schools have been accepted at four-year colleges or universities this fall.

Students of the two Chicago public charter high schools — located in the city’s Englewood and University Village neighborhoods — gathered Thursday morning to celebrate the achievement of their schools, which some have dubbed “Hogwarts in the Hood” for their impressive, seemingly magical rates of success, CBS Chicago reports.

Sharing Economy for Collective Impact: Beyond Buzzwords

Sharing Economy for Collective Impact: Beyond Buzzwords

Lets face it; buzzwords have become part of our culture. Words like cloud computing, engagement, sustainability, gamification. These important concepts are mainstream and cited everywhere. Recently, I’ve started to pay closer attention to a few social buzzwords of our own at the Foundation like “collaborative economy, collaborative consumption, and the sharing economy.” It’s easy to guess what they mean, but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that the definitions vary, but their meanings are significant to our community and our work here.

To help grasp this a little better, let’s start with defining the terms. A collaborative economy is simply a network of connected individuals or communities. Collaborative consumption is an economic model of sharing or renting a product or service – enabling access over service. The sharing economy is somewhat of a blend of the first two terms, and is the peer-to-peer, or network-based sharing of underutilized assets. To simplify the definition of the sharing economy even more, think of the term as a method of matching people’s wants with people’s haves on a micro-level to create mass collaboration.

Why is the sharing economy important to Southwest Florida? Perhaps you’ve read about Uber in the paper. Or maybe you know (and envy) someone that has a job where they work from home or a co-working facility. Again, what is the significance? The historical definition of work is changing. The days of working for a pension or for great insurance are disappearing.

The sharing economy has surfaced out of necessity, and it is fueling a sustainable future for the next generation of workers. Southwest Florida has kept a relatively low cost of living; however, the workforce still faces the challenge of steep healthcare, increasing food prices, and stagnant wages. Add to that, a developing global economy that is competing for our jobs and adapting in new and innovative ways becomes a requirement. The sharing economy is not the answer to all of these problems, but it is a promising start.

The same can be said for nonprofits, grants and funding. Everyone is demanding less duplication and efficiency, which requires coming out of isolation to address regional challenges. We talk about sharing assets and expanding and enhancing the work of nonprofits by identifying shared outcomes and working together to create collective impact in the region. Adapting to these shifts in our economy and society is what drives innovation and the long-term sustainability of the region.

As familiar concepts like taking a cab or working for a major corporation fade away, so too does the traditional definition of sharing – or giving. Instead of a workforce looking to our generation to help them out, they are essentially helping us out. Advances in technology, better utilization of natural and tangible resources, and most importantly, the normalization of networking and sharing information are all products of the sharing economy and essential to creating regional change for common good. So, as you can see, as a regional community foundation, we are focused on today’s community challenges with an eye on the future. While there are no buzzwords for that yet, we’d love to hear your thoughts, you can reach me at

Photo by Change Magazine

FutureMakers Coalition forms

FutureMakers Coalition forms

FutureMakers Coalition forms

Goal to increase region’s higher education completion to 40 percent by 2025


FORT MYERS, Fla. (March 18, 2015) – More than 80 business, government, education, workforce and economic development leaders recently joined together to launch a regional cohort, FutureMakers Coalition.

The goal of the FutureMakers Coalition is to increase the number of people in Southwest Florida with high-quality degrees, certificates, and other credentials to 40 percent by the year 2025.

“Currently 27 percent of the workforce in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Glades and Hendry counties has some sort of post-secondary degree,” said Sarah Owen, president and CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, the Coalition’s backbone organization. “With targeted funding, legislation and uniting groups around the same goal, we expect to be able to meet this milestone by 2025.”

The FutureMakers Coalition was born out of a regional initiative last year, which was supported by a team of more than a dozen stakeholders focusing on strengthening Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Glades and Hendry counties. FutureMakers took an active role in aiding high-school seniors through one-on-one and group mentoring, Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) workshops and support, and career coaching.

After one year, the work of FutureMakers was recognized by Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation committed to increasing the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates and other credentials to 60 percent by 2025. The Southwest Florida Community Foundation will serve as the coordinator for regional participation, and the FutureMakers Coalition will benefit from Lumina’s collaborative approach that connects Southwest Florida to renowned national thought-leadership organizations and provides technical and planning assistance, data tools and flexible funding as attainment plans are customized. Lumina has a network of 75 cities that make up Lumina’s Community Partnership for Attainment network. The network includes Southwest Florida and is now closed.

“It’s not just degrees that we will focus on but ‘industry-recognized certifications’ that can help people land better jobs and are key to economic and workforce development,” Owen added. “Higher education can lead to better jobs and a higher quality of life.”

As leaders, conveners, grant makers and concierges of philanthropy, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation is a foundation built on community leadership with an inspired history of fostering regional change for the common good in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Community Foundation, founded in 1976, connects donors and their philanthropic aspirations with evolving community needs. With assets of more than $80 million, the Community Foundation has provided more than $60 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves. Last year, the Foundation granted more than $2.8 million to nonprofit organizations supporting education, animal welfare, arts, healthcare and human services. The Foundation granted $782,000 in nonprofit grants including more than $400,000 in regional community impact grants and additional $450,000 in scholarship grants.

For more information about the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, call 239-274-5900 or visit



Community Health Association opens fund for Lehigh Community Services

Community Health Association opens fund for Lehigh Community Services

Community Health Association opens fund for Lehigh Community Services
$1.5 million to support community services in Lehigh

FORT MYERS, Fla. (Mar. 16, 2015) – The Community Health Association (CHA), Inc. established a $1.5 million fund at the Southwest Florida Community Foundation to support Lehigh Community Services.

Community Health Association is a private nonprofit foundation based in Lehigh Acres that has been promoting health education and improving the quality of care in Southwest Florida for 45 years. This new endowed fund establishes a legacy at the Community Foundation to ensure continued support of the citizens of Lehigh Acres.

Lehigh Community Services, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) organization started in 1977 for charitable purposes to assist in furthering the welfare and well being of those residents residing in Lehigh Acres. The agency provides emergency services to residents of the community while promoting self-sufficiency.

“Our cup overflows thanks to the Community Healthy Association for its faith in our agency and generous support, which allows us to continue its amazing legacy in our community,” said Rae Nicely, executive director of Lehigh Community Services. “This funding is a Godsend, and we’re humbled and sincerely grateful for this incredible opportunity to expand services in Lehigh.”

Lehigh Community Services recently received its first annual check for $62,645.04

“It was the intent of our board to help the Leigh community as much as we could, and we are pleased with our legacy and what this will do for Lehigh,” said Jon Olliff, CHA’s Board Treasurer. “Rae has done such a tremendous job, and we hope this funding allows her to expand her phenomenal services. We were able to find the perfect vehicle to oversee the endowed funding through the Southwest Florida Community Foundation.”

As leaders, conveners, grant makers and concierges of philanthropy, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation is a foundation built on community leadership with an inspired history of fostering regional change for the common good in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Community Foundation, founded in 1976, connects donors and their philanthropic aspirations with evolving community needs. With assets of more than $80 million, the Community Foundation has provided more than $60 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves. Last year, the Foundation granted more than $2.8 million to nonprofit organizations supporting education, animal welfare, arts, healthcare and human services. The Foundation granted $782,000 in nonprofit grants including more than $400,000 in regional community impact grants and additional $450,000 in scholarship grants.

For more information about the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, call 239-274-5900 or visit

A Revolution in Our Pockets

A Revolution in Our Pockets

What do a best-selling author, a Pakistani musician, two CEOs of major health care systems and a cyber-security research analyst have in common?

I know that sounds like a set up to a really bad joke, but actually they, along with dozens of other global thought leaders were all under one roof recently in Naples.

This was not a freak coincidence or some type of think tank spring break, but rather the 5th annual Imagine Solutions Conference presented by the Searching for Solutions Institute. The one day conference is designed to connect Southwest Florida’s private sector and nonprofit leaders with the best and brightest thought leaders on important subjects, sparking big ideas, conversations and possible solutions to some of our most pressing issues globally, nationally and locally.

I have attended 4 Imagine Solutions conferences through generous scholarships provided to nonprofit leaders. I am grateful as I wouldn’t want to miss my only chance to come face to face with a polar explorer or the Under Secretary of Education. Each year I leave inspired and motivated to continue seeking solutions to issues we face in our region.

Other than being assembled in Naples, I was struck by another commonality among the speakers; the influence of technology, more specifically smart phones in their work. Nearly every one of the presenters, regardless of their area of expertise credited the readily available technology as a major factor or influencer in their ground breaking discoveries.

We are definitely living in the age of smart phones appearing front and center at meetings and conferences, but normally that is due to the audience’s penchant for multi-tasking. Rarely do you see the speaker pull out a phone in the middle of a presentation. But at this year’s Imagine Solutions conference iPhones and Galaxys took center stage as thought leader after thought leader continued to feature their phones as major players in their work.

Sometimes the phones were vehicles of solution, like the case in which human rights violations and violence are captured and exposed via small cell phone and hidden body cameras. Other times the phones were hailed for their ability connect patients to medical care remotely rather than a trip to a clinic or ER.

In the field of Education, curriculum is being transformed and reformed to meet the demands of kids who are digital natives (meaning they were born with smart phones and ipads in their hands).

The world renowned Pakistani musician I mentioned earlier is Usman Riaz. He is an artist, filmmaker, storyteller and a Berklee College of Music whiz kid. He emerged on the global scene in 2011 when a video for his song “Fire Fly” went viral. He revealed that he learned much of his dazzling guitar technique from his small village by watching YouTube videos and used the internet to learn how to write and conduct orchestra pieces and make films. As he concluded his on stage performances on the guitar, mandolin and harmonium he reached into his pocket and raised his cell phone into the air and challenged the audience with these words. “There is a revolution in our pocket. We have so much information available at our fingertips. Can you imagine what could happen if we use it.”

So grab your phones and let’s get started. Email me from it at or send me a tweet @listeninginSWFL.

photo from

A Game of Hearts

A Game of Hearts

Last year at the Foundation, we started asking people, “What’s Your Cause?” We had causes written on cocktail napkins and on paddles for people to hold while posing for fun photos. We had jars of dozens and dozens of colorful cause buttons for our donors and friends to choose from at our events, and we even posted a section on our website asking this seemingly simple question. What do you care about?

The welfare of Animals? The Environment? Children? Education? Mental Health? Southwest Florida? Economic Development? Your Hometown somewhere else? Your Alma Mater? Your church or synagogue, temple or religious organization? The Arts?

Most everyone we asked picked more than one and many chose several causes. But, when we work one on one with donors planning their philanthropy or their legacy funds to be established when they “graduate” (as we like to say), they often become stagnated by the notion of having to definitively decide what difference they want to make in the world. This has led to some very interesting conversations, as you can imagine.

Through these encounters, the Foundation team has come to realize firsthand that giving and philanthropy come from a core value system that some, actually many, donors are not completely aligned with either consciously or subconsciously. When we ask WHY they give, the reasons vary from knowing someone in the organization who asks to “it’s something we have always done.”

That’s when we pull out our magic deck of cards that help us to find out more about the donor. Because we are concierges of philanthropy, we developed a solution to help donors create their very own philanthropic mission statement, a document that will literally capture the heart and mind of the giver, articulated in words to put into action.

By conversation and process of elimination, the donors review a wide array of values until the stack is distilled and until the donor is unwavering. Maybe honesty is important, or responsibility, excellence or risk-taking. To be effective, and to capture the donor or the donor couple’s true essence, they must narrow the selection to three. Then we start on the stack marked “interests,” animals, people, education, health care, child care, the elderly, the environment, water quality, transportation, safety, recreation, and so on. We narrow those down to three or five solid causes, those non-negotiable causes that the donors leave untouched on the table.

From that point we start a conversation so the donors can explain to us why those final selected cards define their character. We talk about examples of situations that made that value and/or interest essential to the donor’s life to provide even more clarity. Then we write a philanthropic mission that is a very personal statement to be used as an important guide.

I met with one such donor recently whose values are Community, Excellence and Leadership. She has lived here her entire life and thinks of her family and friends and those connections as very special. Excellence was taught to her by her father. He always encouraged her to do her very best. She also chose Leadership because she has been rewarded by others who appreciate her taking the lead, she used the simple example of being in her exercise class recently and when she walked to the front to ask the teacher to turn down the music so she can hear her better, to then turn around and see her fellow exercisers giving her the thumbs up. “Why didn’t anyone else take the step up if it was bothering them?”

Her interests are Education, the Environment and Aging & Elderly. And through that, here is her Philanthropy Mission Statement:

I want to support leadership work that brings communities together in a vibrant environment educating our minds through the arts and literature and stimulating our bodies through fresh air and exercise. I care about the growing and special needs of the aging and elderly population. I want to support organizations that are addressing these issues holistically. All of the programs I support will be done with excellence.

Donors like this one now have a game plan to narrow their focus to be effective and more fulfilled personally. Many donors share this document with their children and grandchildren. And, if the donor has a fund with us, we attach their philanthropic mission statement to it.

So what’s your cause? I’d love to play the magic card game with you to find out. Go to our website at and click on the SOLVE button. Tell us your favorite cause. Or you can always reach out to me at, or 239-274-5900. A game of hearts is in order.



How do you know if that donation you give makes a difference?

How do you know if that donation you give makes a difference?

Think about the last check you wrote, the raffle ticket you purchased, or product that you purchased to benefit an organization. Do you ever wonder if it made a difference?

There is a growing demand on nonprofits from funders to deliver on their promises and to show results. As someone who specializes in evaluation, this brings me endless joy, but I lament that funders often don’t know what they are asking for and nonprofits don’t know what’s being asked of them. What does this lead to? Generally speaking, confusion, but also a continued waste of time and money. In order to make evaluation and data collection useful for nonprofits and funders, it has to be calibrated correctly.

Let’s set the record straight on evaluation. Evaluation should not be used punitively. At the SWFL Community Foundation, we cannot stress this enough. We need organizations to develop an evidence-based learning culture and this cannot be done if nonprofit leaders feel that cooperating with evaluations leads to criticism and a decrease in funding for their work. That’s not to say that evaluation should not be challenging or critical, it must, but it has to be seen as valuable inside and out.

Reframing evaluation efforts in this way improves the data quality and reporting. It also leads to my second point – evaluation results must be used for improvement. Collecting data to be squirreled away to higher powers is not conducive for developing a learning culture. It is not useful to the organization that is burdened with collecting it, leading to resistance and data corruption. However, if those tasked with data collection are part of the evaluation process – question making, analysis, reporting and feedback – they are part of that system with a vested interest in it. This provides multiple opportunities for learning and improvement along the way.

So how do we measure the right results? We, at the Foundation, are addressing this with nonprofits and funders. We want nonprofits to design programs to demonstrate success toward their goals without reaching for pie-in-the-sky outcomes, instead encouraging grantees to develop outcomes that are directly related to their activities. For instance, a youth business training workshop looks to measure their effectiveness by measuring how much the youth’s knowledge in the area of business increases, not on how many of those youth open businesses or graduate from high school.

The latter is impact, which is difficult to connect definitively to one, small business training workshop. Agencies offering small scale programs like this should be aligning themselves with others who share their same ultimate goals, so they can then begin to understand their collective impact, as well as better measure it. Let’s call this “proximity evaluation.”

The other side of this topic is helping funders better understand this “proximity evaluation.” It is important to understand that a program is doing what it says it will do based on what a non-profit agency can reasonably hope to achieve through a given program. The broader and longer-term impacts should be connected to these program results, but we should not be judging new, small programs on this. Funders should evaluate the quality of a program based on the effectiveness of achieving the results that are in the closest proximity to their activities. Not every great program has to solve big issues, but they should be able to demonstrate effective, connected steps toward them.

The SWFL Community Foundation is committed to strengthening nonprofit organizations in our region through offering resources, coaching, training and guidance in addition to grants. And while we help our grantees to establish their metrics, we also monitor our own Foundation measurements to aspire to our outcomes, and to learn from our failures.

We want to make sure our work makes a measurable difference. If you want to make a difference, we’d love to hear from you at 239-274-5900 or visit our website at