Independent Sector Must Take Risks, Offer New Solutions



The foundation world today can provide innovative solutions to society's problems in ways not yet tried, but needs to shake the unfortunate label it gives itself, according to Mark Brewer, president and CEO of the Central Florida Foundation. “Stop calling it the ‘nonprofit’ sector,” he said. “Nobody does that but us. Economists call it the independent sector.” Brewer, keynote speaker at the most recent installment of the SB2 series, Foundations: The Basis of Giving, made the remarks to a group of foundation heads, donors and staff members from charities around the Gulf Coast.

In his address, Brewer stressed that the independent sector needs to be treated, by staff and donors alike, more like startup capital and ventures in finding solutions. What separates the sector from the public and private sectors, he said, is that it makes investment decisions based not on profit or politics but on a community’s needs. But that doesn’t just mean raising funds and throwing dollars at problems. The sector must become the “capital mechanism to change life in America,” he said. “Collective impact is coming of age."

Under the charity efforts that guided the last several decades, he said, those in charge of programs would approach fundraising by demonstrating a social need and begging for straight-forward solutions. “It used to be if I had better pictures of hungry children, I would get more money,” he said. But that led to oversimplified solutions and competition among nonprofits. Now, the focus must turn toward organizations working together. He spoke with SRQ after the event about how an after-school activity program in Central Florida was reducing teen pregnancy and violence numbers by giving youths something to do, even though the program was not focused specifically on teen pregnancy or violence. Similarly, homeless efforts such as Housing First have resulted from nonprofits realizing money spent on such things as drug rehab and incarceration were costing more money than simply locating individuals in homes. 

Donors too must embrace the change, Brewer said. Money put into foundations must be treated as “risk capital,” he said.  Foundations will be investing in potential solutions, some of which will work better than others. While startup investors know it’s smart practice to invest in several ideas knowing most will fail but a few will do exceptionally well, contributors to causes will need to adjust to a similar mindset.

Brewer's speech on Thursday was followed by a panel of local philanthropic leaders discussing how investment locally is changing. Roxie Jerde, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, said donors want to play as active a role as ever. “The great news is people want to give, and want to do it in a strong and effective way,” she said. Mark Pritchett, president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, said his organization works to ensure the effectiveness with research. With homelessness, for example, “before we put one dolar into this, we convened over 30 agencies to talk about how they individually handled the issue so we could find the gaps in the system,” he said.

And on all ends, people are creating and seeing a change in mindset about gifting. “I coach people on how to practice impactful giving,” said Bob Blalock, Blalock Walters principal, who advises clients on philanthropic efforts. Alexandra Quarles, president, CEO and trustee for the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation, said the organization has worked in decades to ensure money was spent in ways that evolved with technology and social need. “Unrestricted funds, of course, are the best we can have because we can be as flexible as society makes us,” she noted. And Kelly Romanoff of the Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation, which formed two years ago, said foundations understand the need to be nimble. “Our efforts are to make a meaningful difference in economic development and beyond,” she said.

Pictured: Mark Brewer at The Francis as an SB2 keynote speaker. Top: Bob Blalock, Roxie Jerde, SRQ's Wes Roberts, Mark Pritchett, Alexandra Quarles and Kelly Romanoff at the SB2 panel.

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