A “Compassionate” Shark Tank

A “Compassionate” Shark Tank

A community foundation finds a unique way to connect social innovators and nonprofits with donors.

Over the last several years, I have met with hundreds of individual donors, businesses, the faith community and family foundations who are looking for ways to fund great ideas and great organizations in our Southwest Florida nonprofit sector.  I also meet with countless nonprofits who are seeking their funding.

I thought bringing them together in our Compassionate Shark Tank might be a great way to introduce them to each other.  It isn’t our intent to throw the nonprofits to the sharks but conversely, to introduce them to our own Mark Cubans and “Mr. Wonderfuls” (two of the investors on TV’s Shark Tank) who want to help.

Nonprofits that have submitted some great ideas to the Community Foundation for funding consideration through our Community Impact Grants come face to face with a group of funders and community stakeholders interested in investing time and money in the causes they represent.  The Compassionate Shark Tank panel consists of a wide range of donors and philanthropists, some with Donor Advised Funds at the Community Foundation and some who have foundations of their own.  The fun happens when a cross section of funders come together to make a nonprofits idea a reality.  The nonprofits have three minutes to pitch their ideas, and the compassionate “sharks” ask questions for 10 minutes.

Since introducing the concept of the shark tank three years ago, we have seen tremendous growth in our investment in the region.  Instead of limiting nonprofits to our half a million dollars of funding, we have leveraged this money to provide nearly double the investment.  Because of the shark tank process, we are able to invite more local donors and corporate funders to spend time with us and see the nonprofit leaders share firsthand, explain their challenges and propose their solutions.  Just like on the reality show, we connect innovators with good ideas to people with the resources to fund them.

One of our donor-advised fund holders who attended the shark tank funded $100,000 in ideas that would have gone unfunded through our previous traditional grant process.

A private foundation provided an additional half a million dollars over the past two years to organizations who would have otherwise not been funded.  Additionally, several nonprofits whose ideas were not fully actualized and were not ready for traditional grant dollars were awarded money for strategic planning and design support by individual donors who then later stepped up to fund their programs.

Some of the dollars don’t come in the form of grants but as one-time donations.  During the holiday season, a Harley-Davidson franchise owner and local philanthropist who participates every year took a road trip with a group of other riders to present checks to groups he met in the tank, not for a specific program but just general support for their operations. He had never given to any of the nonprofits in the past.

Faith-based mission committees also are regular guests at the tank looking for ideas that match the local mission goals of their congregations.  Judy Pryor, a member of the philanthropy allocations team of Saint Michael’s Episcopal on Sanibel Island, said that the church now funds several organizations found in the shark tank.  They currently give to help an organization that provides services to the visually impaired, as well as a program to improve mental health services.  The church’s allocations budget is about $200,000 a year.  Before the shark tank, they did not even realize these needs existed and were not aware of the organization’s work.  Now a partnership between the local church and these nonprofits exists to provide support to visually impaired children and local residents suffering from mental illness.  Both programs were unfunded prior to the compassionate sharks getting involved.  Pryor says she has new ideas for this cycle after coming out of this year’s daylong shark tank.

One of our favorite shark tank stories emerged last year when a startup non-profit providing for a gap in services through play groups for kids with autism came to the tank to present its idea.

Because of the passionate and strategic pitch by Family Initiative Inc. founders and their well-thought-out answers to the shark’s questions, the organization won a grant.  The founders said they nearly fainted when they learned of the funding because they only had two kids enrolled in the program. But what we all saw in person that we could have never learned on paper was their vision of the future and the unmet need they saw in the community.  The funding allowed them to launch a program that now serves nearly 30 kids and is growing.

It’s stories like these that keep our sharks (aka funders) coming back every year. This year, one of the donors offered a match for all dollars committed in the tank by Donor Advised Fund holders.

Whether they are in or out on an idea, it has been fun to swim with these sharks in the clear blue waters of change.

Sarah Owen is President and CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation.



Southwest Florida Community Foundation


Compassionate Shark Tank