What Does it Mean to Give Well? Inside the vision and impact of the GiveWell Community Foundation

By Rj Walters
Photography by Jordan Randall

The GiveWell Community Foundation (GWCF) does not feed the hungry, provide behavioral health services, build community centers or start after school programs. 

Yet it is one of the most powerful forces for good that makes all of those things and so much more possible in Polk County, as well as Hardee and Highlands counties.

Twenty five years ago Lakelander Jack Grady and 17 other locals started GWCF as the Community Foundation of Greater Lakeland. Since then, the organization has become the pre-eminent philanthropic matchmaker in the region, utilizing its connections and investment expertise as means to provide more than $400 million dollars in that time to local nonprofits and organizations to meet community needs.

“It is an institution of permanence where we’re addressing immediate community needs, but also providing a sustainable mechanism for years to come where these nonprofits will have support in perpetuity,” said GWCF CEO Callie Neslund. “We have the super unique ability to work across sectors as kind of an objective third party to collect and share data and to start those conversations to influence policy and then to marshal the resources to address all of ’em.”

Think of it this way: United Way, which is a tremendous collaborator with GWCF, is very much focused on annual campaigns and building its own programs, while GWCF is very much playing the long-game and supporting existing programs and ventures in the community.

Currently, GWCF has approximately $500 million in assets. They have thoroughly vetted more than 500 non-profits, which allows the non-profits to be the recipient of funds. Ninety of those organizations have established agency funds with GWCF.

GWCF’s model is built on cultivating and growing assets and also allowing people and groups avenues that give them freedom to determine how their money is dispersed to make an impact.

Anyone or any group of individuals who have at least $10,000 to invest can open a donor-advised fund. GWCF’s investment advisor and investment committee of local financial experts dictate the strategy to best grow the money, while the fund holder is provided opportunities to review grant ideas from GWCF’s trusted partners. If the fund adviser believes in the cause they can make a financial gift to an organization, or they can wait until another opportunity comes along.

Individuals can also strengthen the community through unrestricted gifts that GWCF uses on an annual basis to meet the most pressing community needs. 

During the 2022-23 fiscal year, GWCF awarded 1,382 grants totaling $40.6 million.

GWCF doesn’t distribute those funds simply based on what their board or staff deem to be “important,” the organization makes decisions based on data such as the United Community Needs Assessment, a two-year study featuring surveys of more than 2,100 Polk County residents.

We have the super unique ability to work across sectors as kind of an objective third party to collect and share data and to start those conversations to influence policy and then to marshal the resources to address all of ’em.” – GWCF CEO Callie Neslund

GWCF provided a grant to Polk Vision for education attainment.

The Greatest Needs Today

That Needs Assessment, along with other research-driven data about the community, direct GWCF’s plan of action.

The broadest category of needs can be defined as “community development,” which often require complex solutions and extensive collaboration to solve.

Within that realm, the need for additional behavioral health services in Central Florida is clear. 

In 2021, the population to mental healthcare provider ratio in Polk County was 1,190 to 1, whereas the national benchmark for “healthy communities” is around 310 to 1.

“What that means is if you are in need of mental health services, you’re either waiting a really long time for an appointment or you are missing work and taking your kid out of school to go see somebody out of the area.”

It’s no surprise then that Lakeland Regional Health has long been a significant beneficiary of GWCF funds.

At the top of or intertwined with almost every assessment of our community is education.

As more working families continue to move into Polk County, there is a need for more quality childcare providers that enable families to work and also help children be developmentally prepared for elementary school.

When it comes to things like improving substandard reading scores and increasing high school graduation rates, GWCF is ready to fuel partners. For example, the local Salvation Army has a preschool on its campus that is helping young students excel, and they are planning to build a new facility that will be able to provide additional after school care; in the same vein, YMCA of West Central Florida is in the midst of $20 million-plus addition that will include major upgrades to its after school programming.

Neslund likes to say that organizations like GWCF can allow people to look at their “Oprah sized dreams,” referencing the TV star and exceedingly generous philanthropist.

One of her “Oprah dreams” is to identify a funding partner that could create an endowment scholarship for K-12 students whose parents agree to a contract that stipulates strong attendance and parental involvement through their child’s educational career.

She said some school districts around the country call it a “promise scholarship,” and it provides guaranteed scholarship money to students and families who prioritize education for the next generation. 

“That taps into the younger audience, it taps into families who are overwhelmed and maybe don’t have the same resources,” she said.

GWCF and United Way of Central Florida continue to collaborate on relief efforts.

“Sometimes one plus one equals three, and that’s the case with United Way of Central Florida with our relief work.” – Neslund

Sometimes One Plus One Equals Three

The unprecedented crisis of the pandemic that began in 2020 called for unprecedented community response, and GWCF and United Way of Central Florida came together in an official capacity to leverage the collective strength and credibility of both organizations.

The United Community Relief Fund was able to grant more than $635,000 to nonprofits providing COVID relief in Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties.

Neslund said a key to helping as many people during relief efforts as possible is the ability to be “nimble and provide immediate response,” and both organizations can unequivocally attest to that ability thanks to so many long-term partnerships.

The organizations found such synergy during COVID relief work that they agreed to continue joint relief efforts moving forward.

When Hurricane Ian hit in 2022, they partnered to create a fund that helped people displaced by the storm take refuge, and they also worked with county emergency managers and private companies to make plans for long-term recovery.

“Sometimes one plus one equals three, and that’s the case with United Way of Central Florida with our relief work,” Neslund said. “We acknowledge that we have different business models…but we’re very strong as combined organizations.”

Personalize Giving That Matches Passions

A multi-generational group of 10 businessmen from Lakeland wanted to throw a big party each year and give back to local nonprofits—thus, The Lakeland 100 was born.

Greg Masters, President of Southern Homes, and his son Brant, who works at his father’s business, had the idea of bringing 100 business owners together to raise money and help educate attendees of a lot of the important work being done in the community.

Greg and Brant are among several father-son duos in the bunch, and they are wholeheartedly set on leaving a legacy that far outlasts their lives.

“Our dads’ whole perspective is…they want to plant the trees that they’ll never see the shade to,” Brant said. “They’re planting the trees around Lakeland that they’re never gonna see or benefit from the shade of…but we will, and our grandkids will.”

Instead of having to work through the legalese and spend money on creating their own 501(c)3, The Lakeland 100 counted on GWCF to create a donor-advised fund for them and to vet nonprofits who match the group’s vision for giving. 

In 2023, due to a generous matching gift from a donor, and others stepping up to the challenge, The Lakeland 100 raised nearly $400,000 in a single 2-hour stag event. Some of the non-profits who were benefactors include: kidsPack, Idols Aside Ministries, Viste and Dream Center of Lakeland.

“They already have all the connections, they already have all the information, they have everything we need to set up the grants and everything like that,” Brant said of GWCF.

The hope is for The Lakeland 100 to host an event every spring, and people can stay posted about the 2024 event by visiting thelakeland100.com.