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Where We Start Shapes Where We’re Going

Where We Start Shapes Where We’re Going


Recently I was enjoying a cup of coffee with a new acquaintance who had reached out to learn more giving and philanthropy in Southwest Florida.

When he asked me about myself I immediately launched into highlights of the work going on at the Southwest Florida Community Foundation- which clearly is one of my favorite topics.

A few sentences in he stopped me and ask me to go back a little further.  He wanted to know what brought me to the organization, and how experiences in my life had shaped my decision to work in philanthropy.   He didn’t want to just know how I did my work, but why I did the work.  I respect people who want a good backstory and was happy to oblige.

These are the types of questions I ask when I am getting to know people who call Southwest Florida home.  My coffee companion was more refined in his inquiry, but I normally just ask, “How did you land here?”  quickly followed by “Why?”

After I pose the questions I sit back, listen and learn.

I ask because I am genuinely interested, and the answers always give me insight into the person’s background, passions and family history.  There has never been an encounter that I haven’t discovered something fascinating about someone else’s past.  Along the way I have met explorers, CEOs, inventors, stay at home mothers, pilots, sports celebrities, HVAC specialists, teachers and advocates of all kinds.  Their stories are all unique and shape how they view the community and giving.

I have to admit I was caught off guard for a moment when the questioning was turned toward me.  I put down my coffee, took a deep breath and shared some of my personal and professional background.  Naturally people think I have spent my life in philanthropy- we tend to imagine people have always been the person in front of them, so it was fun to turn the clock back and share some of my early career in education, environmental engineering and corporate America- all experiences that have prepared me for my current role.  It was equally energizing to share why I do what I do now.

Then it was his turn, and the stories he shared were about his childhood and the ways he was able to transform an impoverished early life into a professional career through education.

He didn’t talk as much about his education and work life as he did the people who made it possible.

As one of five children, he was the only one that navigated the education system that led him out of poverty.  He made sure I knew it was nothing special about him that his other siblings didn’t possess, but rather people who showed up in his life at pivotal crossroads that made the difference.

I had been told prior to our meeting that he may want to talk about creating scholarships, but I knew after hearing his story that his passions ran deeper.  He wanted to be the person meeting someone like himself in the crossroads of life.

He was interested in creating a scholarship, but he also wanted to connect with community organizations that meet students at pivotal times in their lives to show them new paths.

His generosity was happening now but had clearly been shaped over decades.  Where he started was shaping where he was going.  I can’t wait to see what happens next.

What in your life has influenced your willingness to help others now?  I would love to hear your story.  Reach out to me at [email protected].


The Southwest Florida Community Foundation, founded in 1976, cultivates regional change for the common good through collective leadership, social innovation and philanthropy to address the evolving community needs in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Foundation partners with individuals, families and corporations who have created more than 400 philanthropic funds. Thanks to them, the Foundation invested $5.4 million in grants and programs to the community. With assets of $115 million, it has provided more than $71 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves since inception. The Foundation is the backbone organization for the regional FutureMakers Coalition and Lee County’s Sustainability Plan. Currently, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation’s regional headquarters are located off College Parkway in South Fort Myers, with satellite offices located on Sanibel Island, in LaBelle (Hendry County) and downtown Fort Myers. For more information, call 239-274-5900 or visit

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


Sarah Owen
Sarah Owen

Sarah Owen, President & CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, leads a passionate and diverse team dedicated to driving regional change for the common good. The Foundation is committed to engaging the community in conversations and action that creates sustainable positive change and provides the funding to make those changes a reality. More