Photo: Debra Jacobs, president and CEO of The Patterson Foundation

The Power of Giving: Debra Jacobs Interview for SCENE Magazine

Posted on December 05, 2019 by SCENE Magazine

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in Sarasota SCENE Magazine.

As a leader in the local nonprofit community for the past twenty-plus years, you have a breadth of knowledge not held by many. How have you seen the philanthropic landscape of our community evolve in the past twenty years?
For many years, this community has been defined by an uncommon sense of generosity. That goes for everyone from the high-school student who is passionate about making a difference in their world to the most prolific donors whose names grace some of our community’s major assets and institutions.

In the past two decades, we have seen the development and evolution of systems and platforms to harness this generosity and focus it toward achieving heightened levels of good. Now in its 20th iteration, our region’s annual Season of Sharing campaign gives citizen philanthropists and major donors an effective way to create better futures for people in our communities living on the verge of homelessness. Through the stalwart leadership of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County and the Herald-Tribune Media Group, Season of Sharing affords the opportunity to help cover emergency expenses like medical bills, transportation, childcare, and rent that can help keep an individual or family secure in their home — addressing a significant challenge before it becomes an even greater one. This type of unified approach of caring across Charlotte, DeSoto, Manatee and Sarasota counties amplifies the impact of the thousands of individuals who contribute to Season of Sharing each year and trigger matching gifts from The Patterson Foundation.

Another example of this evolution toward systems that help the community get the most out of its inherent generosity is The Giving Partner and the 24-hour Giving Challenge it powers. By accessing this free online platform, donors can access important information and learn about the aspirations and needs as well as fundraising efforts of more than 630 nonprofits across our region, allowing them to make informed decisions on causes and organizations to support. The relationships between these organizations and their donors are harnessed further during the Giving Challenge, in which donors are inspired to contribute online to organizations with active profiles on The Giving Partner over a 24-hour period. In previous iterations of the Giving Challenge, The Patterson Foundation has provided matching donations to incentivize donors to contribute to both organizations they have long supported, along with ones they have been introduced to through the creative outreach effort that each organization developed during the months leading up to the Giving Challenge.

 

This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the work of The Patterson Foundation and your leadership. Tell us about Dorothy Patterson’s influence on The Patterson Foundation’s work.
Yes, and while it is important to take this as an opportunity to reflect on The Patterson Foundation’s impact over our first decade of existence, it is equally important to capture the deep learnings we have acquired along the journey while applying them to further evolve our work in the region and beyond. We owe much of this impact to the foresight of our benefactor, Dorothy Patterson. To optimize the philanthropic potential of her wealth, Dorothy created The Patterson Foundation with an unfettered charter, affording tremendous flexibility, opportunity, and responsibility to do good with the $200 million corpus bequeathed upon her passing in 2007.

As liberating as that opportunity might sound great, it carries with it the responsibility to make wise decisions in our philanthropy and work in ways that produce the greatest level of impact. With a plethora of diverse opportunities to engage in, it can certainly feel daunting to navigate them wisely and make the right decision on which ones to strengthen. The Governing Board developed values that are embraced with each decision. Our work over the past decade has served to inform our approach and add clarity to the path that lies ahead.

 

How do you choose which community, national or world-wide efforts The Patterson Foundation will assist?
Early on, we realized we could not be all things to all people — and with many philanthropic foundations working in our region, we can engage in ways others aren’t. This results in a compounding and complementary effect of each foundation’s efforts. Furthermore, The Patterson Foundation understands that lasting change is more likely to occur when we take a deep dive into an effort. This starts by exercising diligence in working through the “process before the plunge,” choosing how to distribute our time, focus, and resources most effectively prior to embarking on any initiative.

All that we do relates back to our core values:

We work with others to strengthen their impact by:

  • Understanding that resources and expertise beyond the gift provide value
  • Being accessible and engaged with others
  • Striving to learn as we collaborate and share successes and challenges
We believe meaningful change requires commitment and persistence and encourage this by:
  • Embracing new ideas that address a constantly changing world
  • Undertaking philanthropic work in ways others are not doing, cannot do, or will not do
  • Demonstrating integrity blended with joyful stewardship
We invest for lasting impact by:
  • Managing assets responsibly
  • Realizing real change requires depth of resources
  • Focusing on shared aspirations while leveraging resources

At The Patterson Foundation’s dawn, we took inspiration from issues that reflected how the wealth was created as well as factors that were part of the Patterson family’s realities. We created a set of nine legacy initiatives honoring them: Aging with Dignity and Independence, Arthritis Foundation – Florida Chapter, Bringing Science Home, Caregiver Connect, the Collaboratory at Ringling College of Art and Design, EdExploreSRQ, New Media Journalism, Patriot Plaza, and the Sister M. Lucia Haas Scholarship Endowment. Over the course of The Patterson Foundation’s work in these initiatives, we’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with businesses, governments, nonprofits, media and people who mirror our approach to philanthropy. Our experiences with some truly exceptional organizations and leaders have informed the qualities to look for when seeking a partner in our efforts: open and committed leadership, willingness to collaborate, readiness to embrace all that the work entails, capacity to commit to the work and follow through on it, and a culture driven by passion and possibilities.

These collaborations with likeminded people have given rise to new initiatives or evolutions of existing ones. There is a common thread to be found throughout each of them: Rather than choosing to focus on particular programs or organizations, The Patterson Foundation works to strengthen people, organizations, and communities. It’s about more than writing a check and moving on to the next opportunity — we seek networks actively engaged in successfully creating change, along with approaches that foster connecting, learning, and sharing toward the achievement of shared aspirations regionally, nationally, and globally.

 

The Patterson Foundation is currently involved with 15 important initiatives. Which of these initiatives have already had a significant impact on our community?
Each year, we hear how Season of Sharing has made a tangible difference in the lives of our friends and neighbors living on the verge of homelessness. Over 19 years, Season of Sharing has harnessed the community’s generous spirit during the holiday season to raise more than $21 million for those less fortunate, which includes $4.2 million in gifts from The Patterson Foundation. By giving these funds to people before they lose their home, Season of Sharing has the ability to alter the narrative and keep trying circumstances from becoming a chronic challenge. There is a significant upside to this approach: For every dollar spent on helping a person stay in their home, it costs $8 to return them to one they have lost. Regionally, that investment has meant that more than 20,000 individuals and families have retained the dignity, comfort, and security their home provides. And, with only 15 percent of those who receive Season of Sharing funding needing more assistance the following year, the impact Season of Sharing generates each year is sustainable.

 

Which current initiatives do you expect to have the most long-term positive impact?
Two in particular stand out as ones our future generations will look back on. The Patterson Foundation is a lead partner in the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a community-wide effort tied to the nationwide movement championed by the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading to help all children, especially those from asset-limited families, read on grade level by the end of third grade. Research shows that this is the point where “learning to read” really becomes “reading to learn,” and students with difficulty doing so find themselves at a significant disadvantage in the classroom — which can give rise to new obstacles to success and active citizenship later in life. In Charlotte, DeSoto, Manatee, and Sarasota counties, this work is illustrated in efforts focused on maximizing learning opportunities for children from birth before they even step foot into the classroom while helping them develop consistent attendance habits upon starting school and keeping them reading and engaged over the summer months. Beyond these solution areas, the Suncoast Campaign also strengthens parents to help them in their role as their children’s first teacher, along with connecting them to resources to help them raise healthy readers poised to learn and succeed. These efforts have the potential to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and strengthen futures for multiple generations of people in our community.

Through The Bay, The Patterson Foundation is strengthening the community’s journey toward the creation of a public park along 53 pristine acres of Sarasota’s bayfront that is safe, open and accessible to all. It is a process spearheaded by visionary leaders in our community who continuously dedicate immense time and talent to make an iconic asset for the people of Sarasota. At every step along the way, The Bay has taken significant strides to engage individuals in our community to be the architects of their own future. By creating these opportunities for people from all walks of life to come together and imagine the possibilities for the park, The Bay continues to evolve and define its features and amenities — ensuring that the result reflects the aspirations of those who will take advantage of all it has to offer. The Patterson Foundation has strengthened and accelerated The Bay’s process by providing up to $5 million toward Phase 1 of its master plan, along with years of consulting and support to its leadership team prior to and during the master planning phase.

 

The Foundation has successfully completed several initiatives. Which have had the biggest impact?
Patriot Plaza, the ceremonial amphitheater at Sarasota National Cemetery, stands as a true pride point. With “Military” being one of the nine legacy initiatives, we saw the opportunity to contribute an enhancement to our region’s then-new national cemetery for service members and their families. What began as an idea to fund the addition of “shade and seats” grew into the 2,800-seat venue that is there today, which is available to host free community events honoring our nation and military.

To bring this vision to life, we engaged the Department of Veterans Affairs — National Cemetery Administration in a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership to create an enhancement at one of our 139 national cemeteries. The Patterson Foundation fully funded the $12 million design and construction of Patriot Plaza, including its commissioned art installations. An integral element of Patriot Plaza, this collection of murals, sculptures and photography depicts and conveys stories of the service and sacrifice of our heroes and their loved ones spanning our history from the Civil War to the Middle East. Each installation makes these stories relatable to a broad audience — especially children, who have had numerous opportunities to experience Patriot Plaza through guided tours for the public as well as during field trips facilitated by The Patterson Foundation’s EdExploreSRQ initiative — each providing opportunities for those with stories of their own to reflect and know that this community is grateful for all that they have done to protect our freedom and way of life.

That ability for people to come together and honor veterans, inspire patriotism and embrace freedom is something that continues to reverberate through this community and in the hearts of everyone who visits Patriot Plaza, long after its national dedication in 2014.

 

You are a big believer in collaboration to be “catalysts for good.” Please explain.
Within the halls of The Patterson Foundation’s office, you will often hear talk of the “cookie jar.” We believe that the learnings we acquire through our work in philanthropy are like cookies — ones that are best shared with others who stand to benefit from them, rather than keep them stuffed in a closed jar (and who doesn’t like being offered a cookie every now and then?). Creating opportunities to open and share the jar with those who are working in the same space toward the same aspiration can help inform and catalyze their own efforts. We know that every person, organization, and community has cookie jars, and we benefit when we all share nuggets of wisdom and experience

There are boundless opportunities to create more good in our world. They are also complex and necessitate a collaborative effort to seize in a way that is meaningful and sustainable. We know we cannot go it alone if we want our philanthropy to succeed. First, we must stop and ask, “Who else cares about this?” Rather than arriving with the answer or a suggested course of action upon engaging them, we listen intelligently to understand other perspectives. This creates the chance for The Patterson Foundation to learn from those already making a difference while highlighting ways we can contribute our own knowledge and experience to their effort.

 

What advice would you give to others who want to make an impact philanthropically in our community?
As Americans, we have an opportunity to be philanthropic. We have systems in place to help us be effective in doing so. And, most importantly, we are not alone. Across our community and the world beyond, there are people and organizations that share your passion and aspirations for the future. Take the time to define that passion — then seek out those working toward it and combine your efforts with theirs. By adopting this mindset of collective abundance, you will be positioned to work toward true, lasting impact.


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