Season of Sharing innovator Diane McFarlin shares inspiration for social safety net

Categories: Stories of Impact, Season of Sharing,

The author John C. Maxwell, whose books offer trusted counsel on leadership, has offered this piece of advice: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This adage encapsulates the strengths—of mind and of heart—of the visionary behind Season of Sharing, Diane McFarlin.

McFarlin visited the Community Foundation of Sarasota County on Dec. 7 for a conversation with longtime supporters of the Foundation’s 23-year-strong initiative, which helps individuals and families weather crises and regain stability. The conversation centered on Season for Sharing, the foundation’s time-tested, trusted social safety net. Since its inception, the Herald-Tribune has been a partner for Season of Sharing, with the newspaper sharing stories of hope and humanity, while also inviting readers to help their neighbors in need. During the conversation with Vice President of Strategy and Communication, Mischa Kirby, APR., McFarlin explained how the idea for Season of Sharing was initially sparked 23 years ago, and how she knew such an idea would take hold.

“I wanted to broker the power of the Herald-Tribune,” McFarlin said, who went on to note that during that period of time, readership and influence of daily newspapers had not yet been impacted by the rise of digital media and decreased budgets.

At the time, McFarlin was the Board Chair of the Community Foundation, and worked with then-President and CEO Stewart Stearns to develop Season of Sharing as a fund to provide support for those experiencing acute needs. In 2000, the homeless crisis in Sarasota was ballooning, and she recognized that a no-red-tape, swift intervention was necessary to keep people in their homes.

“These were contributing community members, and something happened—they lived on the edge because they didn’t make a lot of money, and something happened that threw them into crisis and very often, they’d become homeless. That was the most catastrophic result,” she said.

Since its inception in 2000, Season of Sharing has raised $34 million that has been distributed to 41,000 families to help keep them in their homes. Run through a vast network of human service agencies, the flexibility and responsiveness of Season of Sharing are key to its efficacy. Money needs to be delivered immediately to landlords, utility companies, daycares and auto repair shops, or people face spiraling crises. Through 60,000 individual gifts, large and small, tens of thousands of families have been able to stay in their homes and recover setbacks with dignity.

“Season of Sharing has succeeded beyond my wildest imagination,” McFarlin said.

McFarlin is best known locally as the former publisher of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, a tenure for which she was recognized as one of the best publishers in the country. She left the Herald-Tribune in 2012 to take the helm as the Dean of the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida, where she led the college to increased enrollment, an expansion of faculty, and a larger endowment. She retired in 2020.

McFarlin’s imprint on journalism has been enormous; she is a Florida Trend Icon, and in 2021, she was named to the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. Through it all, her compassion has served as a compass. She is described as a transformative leader, whose grace, savvy, and ethics strengthen organizations she oversees.

McFarlin conceded that the alchemy that led to the initial success of Season of Sharing could probably not be reproduced today, noting the decline of local journalism worldwide as social media eclipses traditional outlets as information-bearers. She noted that this trend, which has reinforced and amplified misinformation, has sown seeds of division.

“In the past, we may not have agreed on the issues, but at least we were all looking at the same set of facts to inform our opinions,” she said.

Since her move in 2012, McFarlin has called Gainesville home, but she regards Sarasota’s populace as uniquely generous and socially aware.

“There’s no community like Sarasota,” she said.