Philanthropists celebrate successful charitable season

It’s about this time of year that The Journal staff starts to look a little bit weary. We have bags under our eyes from months of covering late night galas. Our fingers are blistered from filing reports on the latest nonprofit news with blistering speed. Our ears ring from dozens of interviews done with local do-gooders.

But while our energy tanks are just about to hit empty, our hearts are full.

The 2012-2013 season was a great one. Full of firsts and memorable moments, several major fundraising records were broken and a handful of new events were christened. From the moment the season kicked off with Michael Kors hosting the annual Hats in The Garden fundraiser last November, we knew this year was going to be a good one. But none of us — not even those of us who write about charity for a living — thought it would be this good of a year.

Here are some our favorite highlights from the season.

Things got off to a particularly great start in October, when philanthropist B. Thomas Golisano announced a $20 million challenge grant for the Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida. If the community could raise $20 million, he’d kick in $20 million of his own money.

“It really energized people,” said Sharon MacDonald, the chief foundation officer for Lee Memorial Health Foundation. “It resonated with the community, the idea that dollars were doubled was really encouraging.”

Currently, the foundation has raised about $81 million for the planned children’s hospital, with about $20 million still to go. “We’re hoping another individual or individuals will come forward and put forth another challenge like Mr. Golisano did,” MacDonald said.

But it wasn’t just big, flashy announcements that got season off to a good start. By November, local food pantries and homeless shelters were collecting record numbers of turkeys and canned goods. Fort Myers-based Irresistible Confections even launched its first-ever turkey drive benefiting the Community Cooperative Ministries Inc. (CCMI).

“They brought in an extra dozen or so turkeys, so that was great for our first year working with them,” said Barbara Wells, the director of resource development for CCMI. “We also got a lot of what we call ‘walk in turkey traffic’ which came from the publicity of working with Irresistible Confections. For us, there’s really no such thing as too many turkeys because we can freeze them and use them year-round in our soup kitchen and café.”

And this was just the beginning of the holiday giving. By December, people were really getting into the spirit, and with the help of a few spirits, Goodwill of Southwest Florida reached a massive new fundraising record during its annual Tux and Trees Gala.

For the past six years, the Tux and Trees Gala has been a holiday favorite. Each year the event has grown. But this year it grew a lot. Goodwill of Southwest Florida raised a record $95,000 during the event, compared to the $56,000 raised last year.

“As Southwest Florida develops and the River

District grows, this event just grows and grows too,” said Madison Mitchell, community relations coordinator for Goodwill of Southwest Florida. “It’s really become a holiday tradition for us.”

While the holidays provided plenty of opportunities to eat, drink and be merry (and eat some more), come January, local residents were ready for a more calorie-burning way to be philanthropic. More than 1,300 participants signed up for Southwest Florida’s first-ever Mud Run. Benefiting the Golisano Children’s Hospital, this 5k mud-fest brought out the area’s most adventurous philanthropists.

“We decided to organize the South Florida Mud Run as a unique fundraising event to raise money for local charities and promote active family friendly lifestyles,” said Stephanie Ink-Edwards, who co-founded the event with her husband. Because both of the couple’s children spent time in the NICU as babies, choosing the Children’s Hospital as the beneficiary for the event was easy.

Between vendors, spectators and runners, the inaugural Southwest Florida Mud Run brought more than 2,600 people to the Redneck Yacht Club. With such a great turnout its first time out of the gate, this event promises to become one of Southwest Florida’s most popular charity runs in the future.

In February (just about the time we finally stopped finding mud in our ears), former first lady Barbara Bush and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush appeared at the Hyatt Coconut Point for the 13th Annual Celebration of Reading event. Featuring TV pundit and author Bill O’Reilly, this celebration of all things literacy netted $1.1 million in donations for literacy efforts.

Toward the end of the month, season was officially in full swing, with the Southwest Florida Wine and Food Festival raising $2 million — a new milestone. This year, the more-popular-than-ever event sold out well in advance, with longtime event chairman Steve Machiz saying that many who wanted to come sadly had to be turned away.

With the recent announcement that the festival was listed as No. 3 on Wine Spectator Magazine’s “Best Charity Wine Auctions” list, next year’s tickets may be even harder to come by.

“We’re absolutely delighted to be on this list, it gives us some real national name recognition,” Machiz said. “It is so important to be well recognized because the vintners want to be associated with the best performing auctions. This makes the procurement of the best vintners that much easier.”

While many of the season’s best events were held by some of the region’s best-known organizations, there were some new-to-the-scene groups that showed real promise too. One such group is the Southwest Florida chapter of 100+ Women Who Care. Founded by four local women tired of endless committee meetings, this new nonprofit group is all about fast fundraising. At the first meeting the group ever held, $7,300 was raised in less than 60 minutes.

“Our meeting is exactly one hour or less and we bring in a couple of local nonprofits. Each gets five minutes to present what they do and answer questions. At the end of the meeting we vote on which to fund,” explains Sheila Gea, one of the four co-founders of the group.

All participants are committed to writing a $100 check on the spot, with some choosing to write larger checks. The result is a lot of money raised and no time wasted hashing out the finer details of exactly what the gala’s centerpieces should look like. Already the group is up to almost 60 members with the hope being to grow to more than 100 next year.

And that’s not all the women of Southwest Florida have been up to this year. The season ended with an all-female sand sculpting competition on Fort Myers Beach. Benefiting the Susan G. Komen Foundation, it was the first-ever all female sand sculpting contest in the world.

“For some reason most competitions end up being all male, so we thought, why don’t we try making an all-female competition,” explains Marianne Knight, who founded the competition with her husband, Bill Knight. The result was women coming from around the world to compete. “We had someone from Latvia, Australia, two from the Netherlands, one from Texas and California, they really came from all over.”

The Knights chose Susan G. Komen as the beneficiary for the event because of Marianne’s grandmother’s personal battle with cancer. She also thought that an all-women event deserved a women-centric charity. As for whether they’ll do the event as coed or single sex again next year, Marianne Knight hasn’t yet decided, but she will tell you this: “Working with the women, it was such a positive event. Everyone was so positive, it just had such great energy.”

And that’s how we feel about the entire season this year: It was truly six months of great positive energy. From those that worked tirelessly to organize events, to those who worked tirelessly at writing checks to support them, thank you. Your generosity and enthusiasm is always outstanding. No matter how many years we’ve been writing about charity in Southwest Florida, we never, ever get used to what an amazing community this is. No matter how many million-dollar-plus auctions we’ve attended, our eyes never cease to widen as the auction totals go higher and higher and higher still.

So good work this year, team. See you all back here in November; same time, same place, same great mission.

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