Good Stewards

How NCEF's grant-making committee distributes funds without fisticuffs.

COMMUNITY INVESTMENT: The annual Naples Winter Wine Festival auction (above) helps the Naples Children & Education Foundation fund programs such as a dental clinic and child care (right).

Each October, in a conference room inside the Naples Children & Education Foundation (NCEF), the trustees of that year’s Grant Making Committee gather for the first time. They’ll assemble each month afterward, for hours at a time. Meetings that start before noon are known to go late into the afternoon. Lunch is catered, but it’s nothing elaborate—sandwiches and chips, mostly. Sodas and bottles of water. Not a single glass of wine.

Though the Naples Winter Wine Festival is a lush and lavish affair, its Grant Making Committee is nearly the opposite. Here, they mean business. The committee is tasked with a very serious job: deciding how to delegate the millions of dollars raised at the festival to worthy charities across Southwest Florida. “It’s not just a rubber stamp,” says John Walter, chairman of this year’s Grant Making Committee. “It’s a very rigorous and sophisticated process.”

John and Carol Walter

Since its inaugural year in 2001, the Naples Winter Wine Festival has raised more than $212 million. Every dollar raised is invested back into the community with the aim of improving the lives of the county’s most vulnerable children. In 2020, the Grant Making Committee selected 43 local nonprofits to receive funds. Thir- ty-three individual grants were given, ranging from $50,000 to $657,000, along with multi-year grants targeted to each of NCEF’s seven initiatives: early learn- ing, healthcare, hunger, mental health, oral health, out-of-school time and vision.

Grant applications are received throughout the year. Beginning in October, the community groups that have put in applications are divided among the committee’s 10 members, who are then tasked with learning about those organizations—meeting with directors and staff, reviewing finances and determining how a grant will affect the community through that organization.

Sometimes, committee members are so touched by what they discover that they’re motivated to give on their own. Committee chairman Walter and his wife became donors at ABLE Academy after his Grant Making Committee visit. The couple also contributed to NCEF beneficiaries Naples Therapeutic Riding Center and Guadalupe Center. “You find how important some of these organizations are to the community, and you can’t help but get involved,” he says, which prompts the question: do committee members have favorites?

Paul and Barbie Hills

“People definitely have favorites,” says Paul Hills, another Grant Making Committee member. “That’s human nature. But we don’t get into any fist fights.”

Instead, committee members are required to evaluate each organization based on objective metrics. Charities are evaluated on their financial stability, leadership and whether or not there’s any duplication with another charity. Committee members report back on their findings.

“Those charitable organizations that do the best job with our children, those are the ones we want to support,” says Hills. “We’re picking winners.”

Grant Making Committee members are appointed by a nominating committee and serve a term of five years. It’s not a position for the faint of heart. “You have to have your head in the game, and you have to be focused,” Hills says. “You’re allocating large amounts of money, and it’s not your money. It’s money that people have generously given. We have an obligation to be very good stewards of that money.”

Courtesy Naples Winter Wine Festival; Courtesy Naples Children & Education Foundation