Walking around the campus of Conservancy of Southwest Florida might feel like being in the midst of a who’s who of American business. Buildings bear the names of an FM radio pioneer and former CEOs and presidents of companies including Life Savers, Chrysler Corporation and AT&T Inc. It’s not surprising in a place such as Naples, long known as a favorite retirement spot for business bigwigs.
These former high-powered corporate execs and business founders may have given up the daily 9-to-5, but they’re often looking for something to do with the wealth and knowledge they’ve accumulated. And because many people come to this area for its beaches, water and other natural assets, supporting a nonprofit along the lines of the Conservancy, which is focused on protecting Southwest Florida’s natural environment and quality of life, makes a lot of sense.
The support provided by former corporate CEOs, presidents and chairs, as well as other ultra-successful businesspeople, often includes large sums of money that have helped fund facilities at the Conservancy, including a wildlife hospital that treats more than 4,000 injured or orphaned animals each year, and a nature center filled with exhibitions to educate visitors about Southwest Florida’s ecosystem. But along with that financial largesse, these kinds of business-fueled philanthropists tend to bring a host of other benefits to the nonprofits they choose to support.
“When you get a donor like that, you’re not just getting a donor,” says Rob Moher, president and CEO of Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “You’re getting someone who wants to do more than just write a check.”
These individuals often want to bring their business expertise and skills to their philanthropic endeavors, so nonprofits that engage with them beyond just the financial contribution can reap the rewards.
“You’ve just got to find the right role for them and nurture that, be a good listener and build that relationship,” says Moher. “Those that provide wisdom, talent and treasure—that’s like the triple crown of running a nonprofit, getting all three. If you can get all three, they’re going to be generous, be involved, get others involved and give you some real nuggets of wisdom when you’re in a tough spot.”
Across the Board
When an accomplished retired attorney approached Kristen Coury about getting involved with Gulfshore Playhouse, the CEO and producing artistic director quickly realized the high level of value he could bring to the organization. So, she wanted to get him involved in a meaningful way.
She recalls, “It took me maybe a year before I said to him, ‘Will you be on the capital campaign committee?’ I knew it wasn’t exactly where he belonged, but I didn’t have a better place for him at that moment. But I kept my eyes peeled, and eventually it became super clear.”
As the relationship developed, she saw how he could provide insight and advice about working with the city of Naples during the organization’s process of building a new theater and education center, itself a project made possible by financial support from a former president of Kohl’s, a Tony Award–winning Broadway producer, a former professional opera singer and successful wealth advisers for high-net-worth clients. “He became absolutely invaluable in a way that I think was fantastic and beneficial to us, and in a way that was really meaningful to him,” says Coury. He’s now a member of Gulfshore Playhouse’s board.
Successful businesspeople don’t have to be retired to make an impact. Jon Kukk first got involved with Conservancy of Southwest Florida through the RedSnook Catch and Release Charity Fishing Tournament. He joined the board a few years ago to help further support the organization working to protect all the things he loves about the area. “One of the reasons I moved here was the environment—the beach, the sun, the water quality,” says Kukk, president of Kukk Architecture & Design in Naples.
Through his board service, he’s playing a role in preserving all of that. He’s also been able to provide his professional insight and expertise on various construction and renovation projects on the campus.
“I joined the Conservancy for the love of the outdoors and wanting to protect the environment,” says Kukk. “And they’ve used my primary skills as the architect on the board in helping manage construction and new projects and layouts.”
“We are very fortunate to have Jon on the board,” says Moher. “He’s in the construction-design business; we’re not. … He’s given us his honest, professional opinion that would have cost us so much if we had to pay for it.”
That’s a major benefit highly skilled and successful business-fueled philanthropists can bring to the table at the nonprofits they support. “It’s sometimes overlooked, but some of this talent you can recruit is pretty phenomenal,” says Moher. “They just bring unique sets of wisdom and experience that, even if they can’t all write big checks, what they can give you can be pretty substantial in terms of mission impact. Don’t overlook that.”
“I am astounded by the high degree of acumen and knowhow and the enormously impressive backgrounds that our board members have,” says Coury. “Our board members are so rich in their knowledge and in their experience and in their backgrounds, and we are absolutely the better for it.”
Moher has been at the Conservancy almost 25 years, starting out on the fundraising side of the equation. Working with successful businesspeople now supporting the Conservancy in a variety of ways has taught him skills that help him do his job more successfully.
“I’ve always said that one of the best parts of my job is getting to meet these people who have done these amazing things in their lives,” says Moher. “The amount I have learned from watching them is immense. I credit whatever leadership skills I have learned along the way from watching these people run board meetings, engage at public events—and how they’ve been able to captivate people, which is what good leaders do.”
A Strategy for Giving
Earlier this year, NCH Healthcare System announced a $20 million gift from the philanthropic foundation started by the founder of Best Buy, in support of a new home for NCH’s cardiovascular, stroke and critical care services. Most of the health care system’s six-, seven- and eight-figure gifts come from similar business leaders who want to give back to their community in a transformational way.
“When a lot of people hear the word philanthropy, they automatically think of fundraising,” says Troy L. Munn, chief development officer for NCH Healthcare System. “That is a component of philanthropy. But philanthropy truly is an individual or a business using their ability to make a significant gift to leverage some kind of positive change. … These are individuals who are trying to leverage the money that they generously give to bring about some kind of societal good or some kind of enhancement to the community where they live.”
That goal leads to more of a partnership between philanthropist and nonprofit, rather than just a transactional relationship. “We will engage them if and when there are opportunities to give them a say in how something should be developed,” says Munn. “We will seek their input, so it does become more of a partnership or philanthropic relationship than ‘they’re just a donor and they gave us money.’”
These kinds of donors tend to bring the same kind of strategic thinking to their philanthropy that they brought to their business endeavors. “They’re coming from businesses that they’ve established and that have been successful for a reason,” says Munn.
“And they’ve implemented that business acumen into giving money and using the giving of the money to leverage a change that they desire to see within our health system. It’s been very eye-opening and very educational for me, being at the forefront of working with individuals like that, to really see how they’re thinking and what their strategic direction is, other than they just want to give you money.”
Since 2020, Artis—Naples has received five million-dollar matching gifts that illustrate donors’ strategic thinking and desire for community-level impact. “They’ve done it in ways to inspire others,” says Alice Van Arsdale, vice president of development at Artis—Naples. “[These gifts] are done in the sense of, ‘I want to make this impact, and I also want to encourage and inspire others to do so.’… This is meant to kind of bring the community together and be a rallying cry for others to participate.”
Tapping Into Talent
Nonprofits that build relationships with businesspeople-turned-philanthropists willing to donate time, talent and treasure to the organization clearly benefit in numerous ways. So, what’s the secret to doing that?
“On the strategic side of things, we make sure that we’re connecting with the people who walk through our doors,” says Van Arsdale. “That can involve really strategic insights into our databases and the people who are purchasing tickets.” Someone who’s been a subscriber for many years but has never made a gift to the arts organization, for example, might receive a phone call or an offer to attend a special behind-the-scenes experience in an effort to deepen that relationship.
“Know who you are dealing with,” says Moher, suggesting that nonprofits find out more about the people who submit volunteer applications or make a modest first-time donation. He recalls a staffer flagging a volunteer application the Conservancy received about 20 years ago; a closer look revealed that the interested volunteer was Nicholas G. Penniman IV, the retired publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and former senior vice president of newspaper operations for Pulitzer Publishing Company, who had served as chair of nonprofit environmental advocacy organization American Rivers.
“It was brought to my attention when I was development director that maybe this is someone we should talk to,” Moher recalls. “And what a benefit that has been to the Conservancy.”
Penniman, the former chair and a current member of the Conservancy’s board of directors, draws on some lessons learned over his career in the newspaper business in his nonprofit board service. “One is listen,” he says. “The second one is be fair. And the third one is always be available. I think the first two certainly play into any not-for-profit.”
Once a potentially valuable connection has been made, nonprofits need to nurture it. “Do your research and engage and find out where the person’s passions lie,” says Moher. “Like any relationship, it takes time.”
Understand how the relationship can build little by little. A volunteer and one-time financial supporter can become a member of a committee or board. A dedicated board member with an impressive resume and business track record can become a major donor helping to fund big projects and initiatives.
“As we bring people into the family more and more, they just want to give and increase their amounts; that’s been our experience,” says Coury. “They want to because they like us, they love us and they want to see us be successful. All of that goes hand in hand, for sure.”
When dealing with philanthropists who have the potential to make a major impact on the organization, nonprofits need to have goals and plans to match donors’ impressive skills and finances. “If you’re a charitable organization, use your senior leadership and board members to establish a very bold and strategic vision,” says Munn. “Be able to articulate that vision to these kinds of entrepreneurial philanthropists, and either engage them and sell them on your vision or see how your vision meshes with their vision. … It all starts with a very bold vision that you can articulate and be able to engage people with and get them excited about.”
A lot of retired business leaders come to the Naples area on a full- or part-time basis with a history of charitable giving in the communities in which they’ve lived and worked. There is no shortage of nonprofits in Southwest Florida that would welcome their support and generosity, so it becomes a question of finding the best alignment between philanthropist and organization.
“Find a charity that represents what you love,” says Kukk. “And then try to get involved. You can’t be chairman of the board Day One when you walk up, but you can learn about them and show that you’re a volunteer who’s committed. And trust me, any organization around here worth its salt will quickly realize you’re an asset and get you in the right place.”
“To some extent, you have to take baby steps,” says Penniman. “I didn’t think, even though I was chairman of American Rivers and a number of organizations, that they were going to adopt me quickly. And, to be blunt about it, the second thing is, frankly, give money. I made a fairly large major gift, and that gets people’s attention if you want to do it right away.”
“Reach in and grab it,” says Coury. “The best people who have come our way have been the people who either we were directly introduced to or the ones who just bit the bullet and came to us and said, ‘I’m interested in getting involved with you and I would like to help you in some way.’ We take it very seriously when someone does that, because that took something.”