The world of philanthropy is growing, not only in dollars contributed but in the number of individuals devoting time and treasure to causes. Stacy Carlson, president and CEO of the Florida Philanthropic Network, notes that even as the wealthiest Americans have donated a smaller percentage of their income to charitable causes, those making under $125,000 in the years 2006 through 2012 increased their own donations. “Middle- and lower-income Americans increased the share of income they donated to charity even as they earned less on average than they earned six years earlier,” she told guests at SRQ Media’s November SB2 panel discussion, Good Coast: A Good Place to Live, Work, Play and Give. Carlson sat down with SRQ magazine to discuss why more people are involved in contributing and how foundations and nonprofits should make the most of it.

SRQ: You have cited programs like the Gulf Coast Community Foundation-backed StemSmart program as models. How much are programs on the Gulf Coast garnering respect outside of this region? Carlson: Our education funders come together once a year—we just had Jon Thaxton [Gulf Coast vice president of investment] come and give an update. What you are finding is that there is not only an interest from the business community—Microsoft has come in, Texas Instruments has come in and toured this transformation of classrooms—but other funders have come in as well, and other school districts have joined. At the end of the day, philanthropy is about spurring on innovation, but they can’t be funders of something like this forever. StemSmart was enacted in partnership with other funders, and they actually invested in something that will outlast its infrastructure. They were mindful of building an endowment from the beginning, so now what they need to do is model that for other districts to come in and look at what may be possible.

Particularly in something like public education, what does the long-term role between public and independent sectors need to be as far as funding? Does government eventually need to take over these programs completely? I don’t imagine a world where people’s interest in philanthropy will be diminishing, but you see some shifts. About a decade ago—in education, for example—the overwhelming majority of contributions were donated to higher education, and now they have shifted to K–12. Where I am from (Hillsborough County), the school district budget is a couple billion dollars, and of that money, there is a very small percentage that is flexible in terms of local decisions being made about how it can be spent. That’s where philanthropy adds that element of risk-taking. In government, there is such high scrutiny to outcomes based on dollars invested. I’m not suggesting philanthropy doesn’t care about outcomes, but philanthropy organizations can take a risk and recognize that may not come to fruition. They operate in a space where that’s ok. I see more shifting happening in philanthropy, where its not about proof or disproof, it’s more of a commitment to learning and how we apply those lessons from learning to future decisions that will be made.

How do we ensure that the quality of life and quality of education isn’t entirely dependent on enough wealthy people in a region willing to help? Look at individual giving. The amount of giving obviously is happening at a higher level, at a higher income. But getting those donations in a targeted way is what matters. Philanthropists are working in partnership with nonprofits to formulate lessons that can then be brought in together and promoted in the community, which is a strategy for getting more philanthropic investment. I can’t tell you the number of people who say to development folks, “Gosh, you never asked.” Some of the pre-judging that goes into philanthropy sometimes includes looking at somebody and saying they don’t have the highest-income job or it doesn’t seem like they make a lot of money. But the greatest indicator of someone’s willingness to make a charitable contribution is commitment and connection to an organization. Even people who don’t have perceived capacity will find a way to make a contribution if they have those two things.

You lead a philanthropic network. In what ways do nonprofits and foundations need to come together and leverage their assets to do good? No one should be creating the solutions in isolation. Funders might come to the table with some great ideas—or they think it’s a great idea. Nonprofits need to be honest with themselves about capacity. They need to make sure they are not chasing the money and make sure it’s not a mission drift. Having that kind of transparent conversation, which most foundations are willing to embrace, is important.