People ask Sarah Owen all the time: What does the Southwest Florida Community Foundation do, anyway?
And Owen is more than happy to explain. She even has pamphlets.
After four years as the foundation’s president and CEO, Owen has it down to a science by now. She has bullet points. She has PowerPoint presentations. She has easily digested catchphrases such as “churning the waters of philanthropy” and “measurable change” and something called “the Compassionate Shark Tank.”
Then there are super-quotable quotes like this one: “We’re money launderers,” Owen says with a smile. “We’re money launderers for good.”
Local charities, of course, know all about the Southwest Florida Community Foundation. They’re the ones that have received more than $61 million in grants for worthy causes over the last 39 years.
“Like most nonprofits, we’re not wealthy,” says Doug Fowler, executive director of Lighthouse SWFL, which got $44,000 from the foundation to start a rehabilitation program this year for blind and visually impaired kids. “We’re splitting pennies. It’s how we survive.”
Without the foundation, Fowler says, that rehabilitation program and many other Southwest Florida programs and services simply wouldn’t exist.
“I have nothing but positive thoughts and feelings about the foundation,” Fowler says. “They’ve done so much for Southwest Florida.”
People tend to think of the foundation as kind of a bank, Owen says. The foundation just gives out money, and that’s it.
It does that, of course. But under Owen’s leadership, it’s grown into something more. It leads, it facilitates and it inspires. And it rallies the community around important causes.
“It’s about creating regional change for the common good,” she says.
Sure, those giant checks presented to charities and nonprofit groups are fun and eye-catching. Owen calls those check presentations “Jumbotron moments” — oversized representations of the good that will come out of that money.
But the check is only the beginning.
“The check is the start of a good thing happening,” Owen says. “It’s the start of all the good that comes after it.”
Jennifer Galloway, executive director of Gulf Coast Humane Society, says she’s impressed with how Owen has changed the foundation’s focus since taking the helm in 2011. Now the foundation helps local charities and nonprofits help themselves by collaborating more with each other, taking advantage of foundation-curated experts, and meeting with foundation leaders to figure out how they can get the most bang for their buck.
“It’s not just a grantor,” Galloway says. “It’s a resource.”
The foundation does give out money, of course: $2.9 million last year alone. That money went toward many things, including tutoring for people who don’t speak English, iPad Minis to help students do their homework, therapeutic tours of Naples Botanical Garden for Alzheimer’s patients, and a bar-code system to help the Charlotte County Homeless Coalition keep better track of its clients.
All that money comes from the interest generated from the foundation’s $93 million endowment, the product of four decades of donations from Southwest Florida’s wealthy and not-as-wealthy. That endowment has grown from the $60 million it had when Owen, who previously led Community Cooperative Ministries, took over as executive director.
“People have stepped up,” Owen says. “We’ve got more funding than we’ve ever had in the history of this organization.”
Besides handing out money, Owen sees herself and the foundation as connectors: They’re connecting people who have the money with people who need the money.
Sometimes they do that through direct donations straight from the foundation’s substantial coffers. And other times, they simply facilitate people getting together and making a change on their own. As Owen likes to say: People don’t donate TO the foundation; they donate THROUGH the foundation.
All that has to start with getting people together and getting them talking to each other.
“It’s just tables and chairs,” Owen says, pointing toward a table in her foundation office decorated with art from local artists. “We’re bringing people together and sitting them down.”
The Southwest Florida Community Foundation has changed a lot since 1976, when a group of Southwest Floridians started it with just a $500 donation from First National Bank.
The foundation didn’t really take off, though, until local developer Leonard Santini willed his Fort Myers Beach shopping center to it in 1980. The shopping center eventually sold for $2.5 million, and the foundation was up and running.
That Santini Fund — part of many individual funds administered by the foundation and earmarked by their donors for various pet causes — is still going today and is used to help and educate children.
“That was a good start,” says John Sheppard, a retired attorney who helped create the foundation and still attends most board meetings as a senior advisor.
Over the years, many Southwest Florida leaders have guided the foundation and helped it grown. That includes late News-Press publisher Paul Flynn, who worked as foundation president from 1997 to 2007 and grew its assets from $13.6 million to $54 million during that time.
Sheppard says he’s been thrilled to see his co-creation do so much for the people who need it in Southwest Florida.
“It’s been one of the joys of my life to be associated with it all these years,” he says. “It’s a wonderful thing.”
Owen, her 12 full-time employees and her all-volunteer board of directors have slowly changed the foundation’s mission to focus on what she calls “measurable change” — actually being able to show, through statistics and other methods, that the money they’re putting out is actually making a difference.
Take, for example, its FutureMakers program, which helps high school students apply for federal college grants. The goal, Owen says, is to raise the region’s percentage of working-age adults with college degrees or industry-recognized certification from 27 percent to 40 percent by 2025.
“If things aren’t getting better and we’re not learning from it,” Owen says, “then why are we doing it?”
Another thing Owen has started is the idea of using artwork to inspire people to donate. That includes a current exhibit of News-Press photography called “The Visual Voice,” which shows how News-Press photographers address poverty, hunger, crime and other social issues in Southwest Florida.
It’s hard to beat the dramatic impact of a well-composed photo, Owen says. And a good photo has the power to open wallets and loosen purse strings.
“We need to share that,” she says. “We need to use that as a vehicle so that people can be touched in a certain way.
“What can we do to get the conversation started and get people’s eyes to open?”
All that good work starts with the foundation’s endowment, Owen says. But people misunderstand how that money gets used.
The foundation doesn’t draw directly from that $93 million, she says. Instead, that money stays untouched, and all grants come only from the interest generated.
The more that principle grows, the more the foundation can give out every year. “We don’t have that money just hanging around,” Owen says. “This organization is built for the long haul.”
Donors know that, Owen says, and that’s why they continue to give money.
John and Kappy King of Fort Myers Beach, for example, gave $1.1 million to the foundation for HOPE Clubhouse of Southwest Florida, a facility that helps people with mental illness. The Kings have two sons living with mental illness.
“We know what a challenge it’s been for them,” Kappy King says about her sons. “And HOPE Clubhouse is a facility that helps people put their lives back together. It’s been real successful.”
She says she’s impressed by the foundation and how it’s improved under Owen’s leadership.
“I think they’ve done a wonderful job,” Kappy King says. “They’ve brought it light years ahead… They help so many people in the community.”
The Kings — like so many other donors before them — wanted to make a difference in Southwest Florida. And they know the foundation can make that happen.
They also wanted to do it while they still can, Kappy King says. “We’ll not be living forever.”