Dawn Belamarich did her best to make a big splash in a short amount of time during her first year in Southwest Florida. Now the board of directors at the Collaboratory expects her to make a bigger and longer-term difference in her new role, presiding over one of the region’s largest nonprofit organizations.
Belamarich stepped into her new job in September as the CEO of Collaboratory, formerly known as the Southwest Florida Community Foundation. She will oversee an annual endowment of $130 million. The organization has evolved into something of a gatekeeper for funding the area’s numerous other mission-driven, nonprofit organizations.
Investors donate to Collaboratory, which invests the contributions and uses the dividends to annually fund other nonprofits to boost Southwest Florida’s surrounding communities.
Like her predecessor, Belamarich prefers “transformational” over “transactional” to describe how she views her new workplace and goals. Also like her predecessor, Belamarich is embracing the Collaboratory’s 2021 mission statement: “coordinating and solving all of Southwest Florida’s social problems on an 18-year deadline.” That deadline arrives in 2037.
“That is part of who I am as a leader,” Belamarich says of taking on what may seem an impossible task. “If people gather together, and they want a unifying mission, we can achieve the impossible. We have to travel upstream and get to the root of the problems.”
Belamarich points to once-daunting technological innovations, including electric vehicles and smartphones, and insists that the same leadership principles that led to those breakthroughs can be applied to solving societal problems, such as homelessness, the lack of affordable housing, institutional racism, etc.
“I’ve never seen an organization in my professional career that is trying to coalesce change like this,” says Belamarich, who arrived to live in Cape Coral on Sept. 25, 2022, three days before Hurricane Ian battered most of the region. She first accepted a job as system leader for the Behavioral Health Division at Lee Health, given her background as a mental health counselor, her degree in leadership and mental health counseling and her 15 years of work in social services in southern New Jersey.
“I’ll tell you as a mental health and behavioral expert, we certainly had the need,” she says of mental health crisis assistance in the health care field. “I’m a big listener and learner. I’m big at learning from our community. During that time, that’s when I hit it off with Sarah.”
Belamarich succeeds Sarah Owen, who began charting the new and current course for Collaboratory 12 years ago. Owen, saying it was time for someone new to continue the mission she began, is now vice president of business development at Shell Point, a south Fort Myers retirement community near Sanibel Causeway. “I’m just thrilled to talk about her,” Owen says. “I couldn’t be more excited for Dr. Belamarich and Collaboratory. I believe that the best days are yet to come for the Collaboratory and Southwest Florida. I think that her leadership and her energy will be leading the way for the mission the Collaboratory set forward.
“We had many conversations about behavioral health. One thing I noticed about her immediately when I first met her was how much of a collaborator she was, and how important connecting was to her.”
Belamarich demonstrated her ability to connect in less than a year working for Lee Health, said Kris Fay, the nonprofit hospital system’s chief officer of community-based care. Belamarich spearheaded an overhaul of Lee Health’s perception of mental health care, Fay says: “She improved patient access to behavioral health services. She was able to add additional positions and counselors to expand our ability to see patients. She also helped to grow our substance abuse/disorder programs. She expanded the services. She did a lot of education in the community. She made an impact, for sure. She was visible in the community and worked very hard to reduce the stigma associated with behavioral health.”
Belamarich was one of many candidates who sought Owen’s counsel on whether to apply for the Collaboratory job. But Belamarich separated herself from the rest of the candidates while interviewing with the search committee, said Gail Markham, who was on the committee as a member of Collaboratory’s board of directors. Owen said she excluded herself from the search process.
“We did a national search,” says Markham, who founded Southwest Florida accounting firm Markham Norton Mosteller Wright & Company. “We did a very intensive search. We met with a lot of superb candidates. Dawn kept rising to No. 1, over and over again. She kept shining above the rest. We talked with some very accomplished people across the United States. But it always came back to Dawn. A person right here. Isn’t that funny?
“There are lots of great things about Dawn. She’s amazing, thoughtful, experiential and also entrepreneurial. It’s just the combination.”
Markham viewed Balamarich’s background in mental health as a bonus. “She’s just a very dynamic person who’s very relatable and warm and engaging and a team builder. She’s a transformational leader versus a transactional one. She has all the pieces.”
As a south Jersey native, Belamarich grew up the oldest of four children, rooting for Philadelphia sports teams. She has three younger brothers, which she said helped her develop thick skin. She considers her mother, Theresa Saxton, and her grandmother, Maureen Saxton, her biggest influences as leaders.
The four Belamarich siblings grew up playing soccer, with Dawn Belamarich playing in college at Division III Stockton University in Galloway, New Jersey. For years, they made a commitment to what they called “Sibling Sundays,” when they would spend time together going to the latest horror movie, playing soccer or just hanging out. “We always made a commitment to stay close,” Belamarich says. “Even though there’s some geographical distance between us now—they’re all in New Jersey—we still prioritize scheduling these times together.”
Fay, of Lee Health, said although she will miss Belamarich being a colleague, she’s grateful Belamarich will have to schedule those sibling get-togethers from afar, because she is staying in Southwest Florida to lead Collaboratory.
“Although we are very sorry to lose her, we are very delighted she is staying,” Fay says. “She’s got the brains and the passion for the work. She can translate the big picture and the strategy for the day-to-day operations. I think she’ll do very well. She’s positive. She’s authentic. And she already cares about this community.”