- June 4, 2023
As COVID-19 ravaged the world in 2020, the board of advisers of the Lakewood Ranch Community Fund recognized it was their duty to step up and step in — with money. During typical prior years, the 20-year-old charitable organization handed out $60,000 to $90,000 in grants to an eclectic roster of local nonprofits that served the greater Lakewood Ranch community.
Then suddenly, “the whole world was upside down,” says David Fink, the volunteer board’s president. “We understood early on that the local nonprofits were in a really tough spot. Their revenue was disappearing, and there were no donors. At the same time, the need for their services was skyrocketing, and their expenses were up. Their whole world was falling off a cliff. So, the board came together and coordinated a special grant of $75,000 that focused solely on Covid relief.”
Grants included $13,000 to the Suncoast Communities Blood Bank, which needed specially outfitted vans to collect blood donations at people’s homes; $10,000 to the Manatee Family YMCA, which was providing childcare services for workers on the front lines of the pandemic; and $10,000 to Tidewell Hospice, which was developing a platform for people to have virtual visits with family members in their final time of life.
Later in the year, the organization gave an additional $8,150 to the YMCA and $5,000 to Tidewell. In all, the community fund awarded $165,000 to 33 nonprofits in 2020 — its largest amount ever.
As the world began to stabilize in 2021, the community fund resumed its normal once-a-year giving cycle, granting $60,000 to 17 charities. But it did not forget the workers who’d spent so many months in the pandemic trenches. Rather than award its Humanitarian of the Year to an individual, as was the case every year since the event’s debut in 2005, the board chose 657 people — the entire staff at the Lakewood Ranch Medical Center.
“These are folks who had to go to battle every day in high-stress situations,” says Bryan Boudreaux, a board member who chaired the award committee. “And their own personal lives were deeply touched by it. The hospital provided excellent care during that time, and for that reason the board chose the Lakewood Ranch Medical Center Health Care Heroes for the award.”
In September 2000, with the Y2K scare proven a paper tiger, 9/11 unimaginable and the Great Recession years off, John Clarke established the Lakewood Ranch Community Fund. As the CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, the company developing the master-planned community on 33,000 acres of pasture land in eastern Manatee and Sarasota counties, Clarke felt the ambitious project required a charitable component.
“He understood early on that a community needs a heart and soul, and he founded the fund to contribute to that,” Fink says.
At the time, Lakewood Ranch was a fledgling community, with 2,000 of its projected 40,000 homes occupied, so most of the donations came from corporations and local businesses. The nonprofit’s primary fundraiser was a yearly gala. Over time, as Lakewood Ranch became one of America’s fastest-growing (communities), the emphasis shifted to “more of a focus on raising money from people who live here,” Fink says.
That said, he allows that the Lakewood Ranch Community Fund is by no means a household name among residents, especially younger people and newcomers. Part of the board’s job is to raise awareness of the organization and its good works. “Some people write a check every year, and others are more comfortable giving a little bit each month,” Fink says. “When the community is built out, if 5% of our 40,000 rooftops give 120 bucks a year, that comes to quite a substantial amount.”
Fink cites these modest figures purposefully: to remind less affluent residents of a charitable opportunity and to dispel the notion that things are all hunky dory in Lakewood Ranch. “People see the big homes and nice cars and figure, ‘How can there be any need?’” he says. “But this year we received applications from 35 organizations asking to fund aid for autism, for epilepsy, to fight hunger, to provide horse-riding therapy — all sorts of things.”
Adds Boudreaux: “You can’t have this beautiful community without the people behind the scenes who support it. The daycare providers, the landscapers, the restaurant workers — these are some of the people who are fueling the underlying need.”
The community fund, which has amassed an endowment of roughly $1.5 million, earned 501(c)(3) nonprofit status early last year. It now operates as an independent charity after two decades under the umbrella of the much-larger Manatee Community Foundation. In the next few months, the board plans to hire someone full time to run the organization day to day.
As for the annual gala, it’s unlikely to return, even after the fog of COVID-19 lifts. “It was a great party for many years,” Fink says. “But it ceased being a robust fundraiser. One of our board members, who’s lived here for 20 years, once said he thought it was just for rich people. When we do get back to putting on events — it probably won’t be until early ’23 — we want to make them accessible to the whole community.”