1979 - 2019
Burt Bershon presents Stewart Stearns with a plaque commemorating the founding of the “Sarasota County Community Foundation.”
By the Decades
Philanthropic work allows us to shape our own society by giving to the common good. The 1970s was a decade of “pivotal change” and members of Sarasota County sought to better their community. Before there was a community foundation in Sarasota, philanthropists struggled to connect to nonprofits without an entity that could bring them together. The Southwest Florida Estate Planning Council recognized this need and established the Community Foundation of Sarasota County in 1979. For the past 40 years, the Foundation has produced an environment where people can make charitable donations, knowing their gift will be handled with care, going to the place they desire to help.
The 1980s: Establishing Connection and Priorities
The Community Foundation of Sarasota County was first orchestrated by a single donation and guided by a committee of volunteers working in an office in the back room of what was then the West Coast Symphony (today the Sarasota Orchestra). The objective of this decade was to improve the quality of life as the community identified needs. Getting into hands-on community involvement, the first grant initiative helped identify street addresses and numerically label houses in Newtown. After the Salvation Army met an unexpected rise in needs, the Foundation stepped up to provide aid. Mote Marine’s Jason Project, an educational deep-sea discovery, was one of many examples of the Foundation’s developing interest to support culture and science. During this time our foundation’s first scholarship fund was created for Venice High School students in the name of Richard Curcio. Betty and Alex Schoenbaum gave a gift to the Foundation to help print our brochures and organize a marketing campaign. After growing success, Stewart Stearns was hired as first Executive Director who later helped to ring in the “electronic age” by loaning the Foundation his son’s Tandy Computer.
After an extensive national search, the Community Foundation hires Stewart Stearns as first Executive Director. Stearns would serve as Executive Director until 2010.
Four members of the Community Foundation – Robert Donlan, John “Jack” Shea, Rod MacLeod, and Ron Skipper –share a laugh to celebrate eight years of unprecedented success and growth at a progress report meeting.
The Community Foundation’s first major grant initiative provided housing numbers to identify street addresses in Newtown, Sarasota.
Stewart Stearns stands with Betty Schoenbaum, who provided the Community Foundation with its first major gift to help advance the organization’s connections within the community.
The warm embrace between a father and son: In 1996, the Community Foundation received a national grant to sponsor an initiative to work with fathers to strengthen relationships with their families.
Uncovering Deeper Needs
The 90s were a time of developing trust and showing Sarasota County that residents could look to the Foundation as a resource. So, in addition to traditional grantmaking, the Foundation’s leadership sought out other ways to help. For example, after reading about a burglary at The Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s food pantry, Stearns gave an emergency fund to bring relief before Thanksgiving arrived. This reactive response demonstrated a sensitivity to community needs and expressed a culture of collaboration. As its commitment to the community expanded, the Foundation was looked to as an entity that could address issues that weren’t largely recognized or organized. Funds were given to a variety of needs including the Ear Research Foundation, a nonprofit that provides hearing aids to children whose families cannot afford them. Notably during this time, Sarah Greer Mayer, who greatly valued literacy and helping the disadvantaged, provided one of the largest gifts to the Foundation that opened a children’s library in Newtown. Projects including the Women’s Legal Fund, Nurturing Dad’s Initiative of Children First, and the Parenting Initiative of the late 90s were early ideas of our Two-Generation Approach, a method that we still apply today.
In 1997, Stewart Stearns presents a check for over $1 million in celebration of the Community Foundation’s early grants program. That year, more than $2 million was distributed in grants and scholarships, with 140 established funds.
The 2000s: Strategic Planning for Philanthropy
Diane McFarlin, editor of the Herald-Tribune, suggested a partnership with the Foundation after expressing great concern regarding homelessness in Sarasota. An idea grew into a program that could help families avoid homelessness by providing funds to aid a variety of needs such as food vouchers, utility bills, and childcare. The Season of Sharing was born, developing connections between organizations to focus on prevention. By building off individual programs that were established in the 90s, the Foundation looked closer into the Two-Generation Approach with Connecting Fathers and Families, an initiative helping fathers learn parenting skills, bringing them closer to their children. Jo Bowen Nobbe gave the largest donation yet to the Foundation with a gift of $17 million, which propelled future giving towards education and scholarships. Recognizing the unmet needs of the elderly, grants were provided to services like the Senior Friendship Centers with continued funding for healthcare programs. The 2000s closed with a developed understanding of family needs across all ages and collaborating in unique ways to finding solutions.
Stewart Stearns, Leila Gompertz, and Community Foundation staff stand in the lobby of the completed Leila and Michael Gompertz Center in 2006. Gompertz generously bestowed $2 million to help construct the new space.
Stewart Stearns and Leila Gompertz breaking ground together as construction begins on the Community Foundation’s new permanent space on Fruitville Road. The Leila and Michael Gompertz Center would open in 2004.
One of the several hundred families who received financial assistance through the 2010 Season of Sharing Donation Campaign posing for a photo.
Roxie Jerde stands next to Debra Jacobs, President and CEO of The Patterson Foundation, during the kickoff to the 2018 Giving Challenge.
Thank you notes sent in to Community Foundation staff from 2018 scholarship recipients. Thanks to the generosity of our community, the Community Foundation has been able to award over $2 million in scholarships each year to deserving students from all backgrounds.
Culture of Caring
This decade ushered in a culture of philanthropy by taking new approaches to integrate charitable work. Under the guidance of Roxie Jerde, the new President and CEO, the Foundation launched in 2012 a digital fundraising campaign named the Giving Challenge, inviting everyone to become a philanthropist by making online gifts in a short period of time. In just the first year, $2.4 million was raised in 48 hours for 109 nonprofits. Today, seven challenges have raised more than $59 million in donations and highlighted our region’s longtime commitment to charitable giving.
Continuing to help families, the Foundation supported the Alta Vista Elementary School summer program and nursing program for single mothers, providing opportunities through education. The Foundation partnered with Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and Celebrating our Differences to better children’s literacy and use creative strategies to promote diversity, increasing success in the classroom. By 2015, over 70 scholarships were supporting 575 students and adult learners in Sarasota. New and unlikely collaborations were created when the Foundation helped the Humane Society purchase dog food to be delivered by All Faith’s Food Bank to low-income families with pets. With collaborations that travel across the sector, the Foundation has crafted special relationships that work deeper on making our community stronger.
The Foundation will continue to evolve as the needs of the community and the hopes of our donors do. Although the future is unwritten, the Foundation is a place that has been loyal to serving the community and building connection, and it will always strive for a better tomorrow for all.
A couple looks at the dazzling fireworks together at the Venice Symphony’s Patriotic Pops and Fireworks event.