Collaboratory brings nonprofits, governments and businesses together
The Collaboratory in downtown Fort Myers is a public-private partnership with the Southwest Florida Community Foundation and the City of Fort Myers.
Amanda Inscore, Fort Myers News-Press
As it nears the quarter-century mark, the nonprofit formerly known as the Southwest Florida Community Foundation is poised for a moonshot.
More than 500 people watched online Wednesday as CEO Sarah Owen revealed an admittedly audacious goal: “to coordinate the solving of all of Southwest Florida’s social problems on an 18-year deadline.”
Actually, audacious is putting it mildly. The Fort Myers nonprofit is aiming way beyond its home base.
Over an image of the historic, once-segregated 1924 Atlantic Coast Line railroad depot that houses the Collaboratory, as it’s now named, Owen promised, “This is now the headquarters for the greatest problem solving initiative in American history.”
Just as NASA coordinated thousands of human, business and organizational components to reach the moon, The Collaboratory intends to be the organizing force behind fixing Southwest Florida’s myriad, complicated problems.
To go with the name is a new, streamlined websitewith sections for each facet of its objective, each linked back to the central theme.
The site mirrors the mission, Owen says, because everything is connected – even when the ties don’t appear obvious. Want to help people out of domestic violence? Make sure their pets are cared for, she says, because many victims don’t want to leave abusive situations if it means leaving their beloved animals behind.
Another example: “Poverty is connected to tourism, and this one hits close to home for us. If we’re not careful, a narrow focus on bringing in tourism creates more low-paying jobs, If you’re trying to address poverty in neighborhoods while under the short-term pressure to boost tourism, you’ll increase poverty,” Owen said. “So we want people to look at issues they care about and see how they’re linked to others “
‘It’s really important to understand how impossible things get achieved’
Joining Owen to discuss the NASA connection was author Dan Pallotta, who’s been consulting with the nonprofit. He called the federal space agency “probably the most powerful example we have of a massive coordination effort aimed at achieving something impossible.”
Pallotta acknowledges that “What we’re trying to do here many would say is impossible: Solve … all of the problems in Southwest Florida on an 18-year deadline.” Which is why, he says, NASA’s example is instructive. “If you’re going to try something impossible, it’s really important to understand how impossible things get achieved.”
In the social services world, Pallotta says, there’s not institutional expertise in accomplishing “insanely impossible things … So that’s why we want to talk about NASA because of the massive coordinating effort that it was.” NASA didn’t build things, Pallotta says; it coordinated and connected, and the Collaboratory can that do as well.
‘Taking a comprehensive look at the community’
Fort Myers attorney and author John Sheppard, who founded the community foundation along with fellow Fort Myers attorney and author Tom Smoot and remains one of its senior advisors, said the change is a natural evolution of the original mission.
Sheppard hopes the community, the foundation and its trustees and supporters ‘Don’t lose sight of what the creation of the foundation was originally: to provide a place where people who wanted to help (could) have a protected fund that would go on for a period of years,” he said. “My main concern for the Collaboratory with this new vision is that we not lose sight of what we were created for … once the money is given to the foundation, it’s not their money – it is our money which is held in trust for others.”
Susan Bennett’s initial reaction? “As Jeb Bush used to say, is this is a BHAG,” said the Fort Myers marketing and public relations professional who served as a foundation trustee for 28 years. “It is a big, hairy audacious goal.”
Like Sheppard, Bennett sees it as it a natural evolution of the mission. “I just hope the community gets behind it,” she said.
Chauncey Goss, who chairs the South Florida Water Management District’s Governing Board and is a current Collaboratory trustee, says the change is “really exciting.”
As for whether the nonprofit’s past commitment to sustainability and the environment will remain strong, Goss said, “I actually think it’s expanded. I hate the word ‘holistic,’ but I think I’m going to have to use it because I think that’s really what they’re trying to do: take a look at our community and say, ‘OK, if you want to have good quality of life, everything has to kick in. It’s our social services kicking in so our crime rates are low, it’s making sure your kids are educated and fed, and making sure your environment’s not fouled. It’s all those things together, and I think that’s really what the goal of the Collaboratory is – taking a comprehensive look at the community.”
One of Owen’s strengths, Goss says, is looking to examples and leaders from other parts of the country and around the world to understand how change is made.
“This is groundbreaking,” he said, “and that’s why the NASA example is excellent – nothing like that had ever been done before either. It takes that focus of everybody understanding what the goal is and what the timeline is.
“We’re trying to break the model of what hasn’t worked. We know what doesn’t work, so let’s try getting everyone focused on where we’re going and try something else that might.”
As for how she hopes the public will respond, Owen again reaches back to the Kennedy era. “Ask not what Collaboratory can do for you,” she said. “Ask what you can do for your community with this resource behind you.”