Lead, leverage, innovate. Repeat. A case study in redefining the potential of philanthropy through bold ventures and calculated risks.
Impatient. Dissatisfied. Restless.
Probably not the first adjectives you’d expect to describe one of Florida’s largest community foundations, right? But at Gulf Coast Community Foundation, we wear such labels with pride. Because they speak directly to why we do what we do.
Together with our donors, we transform our region through bold and proactive philanthropy. We are profoundly dissatisfied with the status quo, bored with excuses—in philanthropy and in our community. So, we figure we have a choice. Sit back and merely respond to community challenges as they surface. Or proactively apply our energy and intelligence to a battle plan for transforming our region.
We choose the latter. Here’s how.
LEAD: It’s in our DNA. Right risks, right rewards. That’s our mantra at Gulf Coast. Take the opportunity that arose in 2011 to bring a world-renowned genetics-research institute to Sarasota County. We didn’t blink. Instead, we mobilized a coalition of government, businesses, and citizens who worked together to try to make The Jackson Laboratory-Florida a reality.
While the facility did not materialize here—you’re welcome, Connecticut!—I tell my staff that our hard work was neither time nor effort wasted. The experience showed our community just how quickly it can coalesce to pursue a game-changing goal. Key players remain committed to bringing personalized medicine, with its health and economic benefits, to our region.
If scientists already knew the outcome of every experiment before they undertook it, there would never be a new discovery. The way we see it, our efforts on the Jackson Laboratory project were groundwork for the breakthrough.
LEVERAGE: From job boards to springboards. While the bid for Jackson Labs recently topped a local business magazine’s “best of 2011” list, I would venture that Gulf Coast’s greatest success of the year was another jobs-focused idea: the CareerEdge Funders Collaborative Manatee-Sarasota.
Two years ago, Gulf Coast helped create, fund and incubate this upstart workforce-development model. Other investors included the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with a $1-million grant; Bradenton’s Central Community Redevelopment Agency, co-chair of the investors committee along with us; and other local governments and national businesses.
What set CareerEdge apart—besides this diverse group of funders—was its dual focus on employers and employees. Rather than train people for jobs that don’t exist, CareerEdge went to the source, employers, to understand and meet their specific labor needs. We did the research and focused on our region’s most promising growth industries: healthcare, manufacturing, transportation and logistics, and technology. And we made sure employers had skin in the game, with jobs and career paths awaiting the workers we helped train.
The results have been amazing. CareerEdge surpassed its 2011 annual projections by midyear, outperforming similar collaboratives nationwide. Hundreds of local residents have been hired or promoted at growing employers, thanks to the training the received through CareerEdge. Meanwhile, of nearly $4 million secured for this initiative, much has come from outside our region, a part of our strategy from the outset.
With a relatively small amount of our own funding but a lot of big thinking, Gulf Coast helped create a leverage point that has lifted the philanthropic resources in our region while inspiring individuals with the real promise of—and path to—a brighter future.
INNOVATE: Creating (Steve) Jobs. In typically quotable fashion, University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith told Gulf Coast’s board of directors last quarter that Florida’s economy needs cogs as well as dreamers: cogs to keep the economic machine humming; dreamers to imagine the next great machine. The recent loss of innovator Steve Jobs helped crystallize this insight for me.
Jobs, a liberal-arts dropout, changed the world by combining technology, design and marketing in new and innovative ways. He needed an army of engineers and technologists to create the iPhone and iPad. They needed creative design experts to craft the beautifully simple designs of his products. And they all needed finance and accounting majors to document the wealth of one of the world’s richest companies.
Through CareerEdge, we are creating cogs, but they are cogs with dreams of their own. Meanwhile, we know that our economy needs both STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) and liberal arts majors, but right now the facts say we are falling short on STEM. That’s why Gulf Coast has committed millions of dollars to a multiyear project to revolutionize STEM education in our community.
At Gulf Coast, we are inspired pragmatists. We are practical dreamers. We strive to create the next good jobs in our community, and the next great Jobs. We are impatient and dissatisfied, yet we are here to stay. What others might see as inherent contradictions, we consider the foundation of community.