South Florida charity groups seek bigger portion of giving dollars

As America’s charities struggle to emerge from the Great Recession, South Florida philanthropy, considered young by the nation’s standards, finds itself battered by both growing pains and tight purse strings.

Still, there’s an upside to five years in the trenches: a deepening sense of community and belonging among donors.

“More and more people are now realizing this is home, even though they’ve come from someplace else,” said Linda Carter, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Broward, which received $43.9 million from Mary Porter, one of the nation’s top 50 philanthropists and a Pennsylvania native, when she died in 2009. “Folks are thinking about their estate plans and thinking about what can they do with their estate dollars.”

Yet, while big donations may be up – the Chronicle on Philanthropy reported last month that donations over $1 million nationwide were twice as high so far this year as in 2012 – everyday donations have taken a hit.

In 2012, the nation’s largest 400 charities grew by just 4 percent, only half the gains made in 2011, the Chronicle reported. Organizations that submitted projections for 2013 forecast a one percent drop.

In Florida, where giving amounted to $13.8 billion in 2010 – the last year compiled by the Florida Philanthropic Network – the number is expected to remain flat.

“It’s definitely spotty in Florida,” said the group’s president and CEO, David Biemesderfer. “I don’t think anyone’s figured out the magic formula for getting out of this.”

But that hasn’t stopped them from trying. Whether it’s pub crawl, a contest to design public space or savvy campaigns for online giving, nonprofits in South Florida are searching for new and better ways to inspire donors. And they say they are not just looking for ways to raise money.

They want to make sure philanthropy gets firmly planted in the community.

“We have done things to try to raise not only the profile of The Miami Foundation, but just general awareness around giving,” said the foundation’s president and CEO, Javier Soto.

Three years ago the foundation changed its name from the Dade Community Foundation, rebranded itself, started investing heavily in online technology and began developing projects like Give Miami Day that would inspire philanthropy in the community.

“It’s things like that, trying new approaches and innovative ideas to raise our profile around ideas we care about, but always underscoring the need to drive philanthropic investment in the community,” Soto said.

That new approach comes in large part from a 2009 Gallup study, the Knight Soul of the Community, funded by the Knight Foundation.

In the study, researchers interviewed 43,000 people in 26 communities to determine what mattered most to them about where they lived, and what made them attach to a community.

The answer? No matter where they called home, people said their sense of connection was rooted in things that fostered relationships, like social offerings, open spaces and a place’s beauty.

The Miami Foundation went on to create Our Miami, a partnership with Florida International University, to define what makes Miami in particular more attractive to a global and mobile society. They then went on to create projects embodying those ideals.

“If you think about it, it makes sense. You attach to people, to relatives. But there’s also a cultural aspect. That’s a really important source of it,” explained Alberto Ibarguen, president and CEO of the Knight Foundation, which awarded nearly $100 million in grants in 2011, the most by far in the state.

The Knight Foundation also took the research to heart in deciding what grants it handed out, Ibarguen explained. In the last six years, it has invested $86 million in supporting arts and cultural events in South Florida, with money as likely to go to big institutions, like the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, as to individuals through its Knight Arts Challenge.

“It’s important in Miami because it’s a place where three-quarters of the people come from some place else and half were born in another country,” he said. “I don’t think you need an explanation to tap your foot to a Gloria Estefan song or a whole lot of explanation to listen to Mozart. The arts really help people relate to one another and understand each other. And once you have that, it becomes our place.”

Having that connection, nonprofits hope, can lead donors, big and small, to give.

Florida – ranked fourth nationally in giving by the Chronicle – is in no short supply of big donors. Of the nearly 100 who have signed Warren Buffett and Bill Gates’ Giving Pledge promising to donate the majority of their fortunes, at least five are from Florida, including Phillip Frost and his wife Patricia; Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza; Dolphins’owner Steve Ross; real estate mogul Jeff Greene and his wife, Mei Sze; and Spanx founder Sara Blakely.

In addition to Mary Porter, the nation’s top 50 philanthropists also include Jacksonville residents J. Wayne and Delores Barr Weaver. And among the names familiar in South Florida on the state’s top grant makers are Arison, Batchelor, Coulter, Wolfson and Harry T. Mangurian.

It is lists like those that lead some to conclude the state could do far more in terms of giving.

“Major donors still tend to live elsewhere and give their big gifts elsewhere and local organizations get smaller portions,” said Robin Reiter-Faragalli, who has worked on a number of foundations including those affiliated with the Miami Children’s Hospital and BankAtlantic. She is now principal partner of Reiter and Associates, which advises corporations, foundations and families on giving.

“We haven’t been successful at turning around the notion that Miami is not their home. That being said, there are some phenomenal donors here who have made Miami their home.”

Still, she wonders why big donors who winter here don’t leave more of their wealth behind.

“Florida has the reputation of being the number one destination for college presidents in February to come and raise money because this is where their major donor base spends the winter,” she said. “Our nonprofit community struggles to raise general operating support and has to often tailor its requests for a specific program and squeeze out of that program the money for general operating. And that’s a challenge and a hardship.”

Not every nonprofit is struggling. The Chronicle found that, in addition to a growth in donor advised funds and community foundations, universities and religious organizations still make the list.

One group based in Pompano Beach ranked 64th among the Chronicle’s 400. In the last year, the Cross International Alliance saw donations jump 38 percent. The group works with the Catholic Church, as well as its own non-denominational Christian organization, to provide assistance in third world countries through the country’s own churches, spokesman Brian Schutt explained in an email.

While the organization was not completely spared during the economic setback and saw losses, it was able to keep donations coming by spending wisely and providing supporters with detailed reports about its work, he said.

“We simply empower the work already in place,” he explained. “These churches are capable of great things, but they lack resources. When we give them food for their feeding center or medicines for their clinic, we maximize their potential.”

The success of projects like the Perez Art Museum and the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, despite the recession, also lead some to believe Miami is ready to take its place on the philanthropic stage.

“Miami’s an incredibly generous community and also part of why The Miami Foundation did well in the depths of a recession,” Soto said. “We’re tapping into that tremendous generosity that has been undervalued in the past, but absolutely exists.”