Episode 5: “On Deck” with Sarah Owen of Southwest Florida Community Foundation

May 15, 2020

In the season of quarantine, Sarah Owen and her team have embraced the shift to virtual connectivity. With a focus on cultivating ideas, bringing people together, and advancing positive community change, Sarah challenges people to think not “Let’s get through it,” but “What are we getting to?”

About Southwest Florida Community Foundation

Founded in 1976,  the Foundation cultivates regional change for the common good through collective leadership, social innovation and philanthropy to address the evolving community needs in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Foundation partners with individuals, families and corporations who have created over 400 philanthropic funds and/or have contributed to one of the foundation’s funds to be part of the foundation’s mission. Learn more about Southwest Florida Community Foundation.

About Collaboratory

A shared working space and event venue created in historic downtown Fort Myers with renovation of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad depot. Collaboratory is about connectivity. It’s about bringing people together to share ideas, to seize opportunities and to develop solutions to Southwest Florida’s most pressing issues. Learn more about Collaboratory.

Diving Deeper with Sarah Owen

President and CEO, Southwest Florida Community Foundation, Fort Myers, FL

Q: The Southwest Florida Community Foundation (SFCF) does great things for the community. Can you share more about the role of the foundation?

A: The foundation has been around for over 40 years and has always been about connecting people to ideas, to funding, and bringing people together to solve community problems or seize opportunities. In the last 10 years, it’s been more focused on community leadership, civic engagement, and bringing people together to help cultivate and create change. In some ways, we’re matchmakers and in some ways catalysts.

Q:  What’s your involvement with the foundation and which aspect are you most passionate about?

A:  I think I’m a natural born advocate. So, Community Foundation is really a good place for me because I could be talking to animal advocates in the morning, water advocates at noon, and hunger advocates at night. In the eight years I’ve been at the foundation, our team has become more engaged in bringing people forward and supporting advocacy, no longer just being seen as somebody who makes grants. Money is only one piece of the equation. Advocacy, the appropriate amount of lobbying efforts, making people aware of what issues are there, and around the sector as a whole. Nonprofits shouldn’t be playing by such widely different rule books than the for-profit sector.

Q:  Tell us about the SWFL Emergency Relief Fund and what the foundation is doing to help people through COVID-19?.

A:  Around COVID, we’ve set three specific goals focused on what we can uniquely do. One, we wanted to be a portal for the emergency relief fund. If people want to do something financially, they have a secure and trusted place to put that money. We partnered with United Way and we continue to fundraise around that. We’ll do what we can so that that money can be put back out through nonprofits to the communities for emergency and direct needs from the start.

We felt another big responsibility to support the nonprofit social enterprise sector in this with information, technical assistance? We changed up our grant-making, removed restrictions and reporting, saying to the nonprofit social entrepreneurial sector, we trust you. You know what’s needed most right now. We want to provide meaningful technology, meaningful support systems, and a place where people can be vulnerable.

And third, we’re a nonprofit organization ourselves. We have a responsibility to our stakeholders and community shareholders to make sure that we remain viable. Monitoring our own cash flow, trying to take the temperature on what philanthropy will look like in the community going forward. Community foundations are built for the long haul. They’re built to be here in perpetuity, not to be stagnant, but to be proactive. We want to make sure that our own team is safe and healthy and that we have the staff capacity to meet the needs of the community moving forward.

Q: What are your favorite outdoor activities and have you been enjoying them during this season of quarantine?

A: Quarantine season for me, being in a position of community change-making and community support, has kept me inside more than I would like. I love being outside. For me, outdoor stuff is paddleboarding, kayaking, hiking or whatever. I’m an outdoors person, but I’m not adventurous. The rest of my family wants to get on jet skis and go at like nine hundred miles an hour. I’ve just been trying to find ways every single day to be outside and just look at the blue and the green as much as I can.

Q:  Tell us about Collaboratory and how it’s pivoted and adapted during COVID-19.

A: Collaboratory has been an interesting movement. It’s a physical space in downtown Fort Myers and midtown where we all gathered and had meetings pre-COVID, but the original vision was that it would also be a virtual space. This time of pandemic has really forced us to push that forward in a more intentional way and really explore what it means to stay connected for community good, to other parts of the country, other parts of the region and even locally. Collaboratory is never going to be perceived as just a physical location again, but as a space that could be either physical or virtual.

Q: How did you first learn about Captains For Clean Water and why did you decide to get more involved?

A:  I came to know Captains really organically. I’m a native Floridian so even from my time living in different places in Florida, Everglades has always been part of the conversation from a younger age. Then, when I got to the Community Foundation, we had emergency relief for the water crisis—the algae blooms and red tide. And so, it’s an idea of how do you combine money with action and advocacy. I went to one of your Restore events a couple years ago and was completely taken with the grassroots feeling of that event. There were teachers putting their money together, anybody could stand up and a gift of twenty-five dollars was as equally celebrated as twenty-five thousand. It just had this sense that we’re going to solve this problem together that I don’t think you see all the time at fundraising events. It was a feeling of civic engagement around people who were super passionate about protecting this really critical resource. And I just love everything about that.

Q: What’s your favorite item of Captains merchandise?

A:  Oh, definitely the hats. That light blue. I always love seeing people in those hats. I’m surprised all the time, like out of the area or other places that I’ll see people of all ages and walks of like with one of them on. It’s a unifying symbol and it shows that advocacy can be fun.

Q: How can individuals or businesses get involved with the Southwest Florida Community Foundation?

A:  We’re in a time where people don’t feel that they can be as activated around community change-making. For businesses, I urge them to include us when they’re doing their philanthropic or marketing plans for the year moving forward. To think about how we can help them measure what they’re already doing so they can show impact, rather than just doing it as an add-on to their business strategy. And to incorporate change-making into the overall strategy.

Involvement isn’t about what we prescribe—it’s about what’s on their hearts and minds and where they want to make the change. We ask, how can we help you navigate that? If there’s something you deeply care about, that’s keeping you up at night and you want to find a way to create that change, we want to serve that role for you.

So, Community Foundation is a prescriptive foundation that meets you personally or corporately where you are. So, what is it you want to do? And if you don’t know, we can help you figure it out. Everyone can get in touch with us on FloridaCommunity.com. and they can email me directly at [email protected] . Reach out, let’s start a conversation.

Q: Final thoughts?

A: I know that this is a really difficult time, unprecedented, and people are trying to figure out what the next chapter is going to be like. I think that community change-making will be more important than ever. I think that we are identifying right now why certain things are so vulnerable. And I just want to challenge people to say, let’s not just have a “get through it” mentality, but let’s have a mentality where we recognize where we’re vulnerable and what we need to be putting in place now. So, as we move into the future, we’re protecting those things, water included.

About “On Deck”

“On Deck” is a short film series sharing the stories of guides and businesses dealing with COVID-19 and the importance of water quality, presented by Captains For Clean Water. Check out more episodes.