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Q&A Series with Tessa LeSage of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation

This month we talk with  Tessa LeSage, Director of Social Innovation and Sustainability at the Southwest Florida Community Foundation and STAR Technical Advisory Group member.

IMG_0624-3What is your background with STAR Communities and what is your current association with STAR Communities?

When I was hired and tasked with creating Lee County, FL’s first Office of Sustainability in 2010, I knew our community needed a tool to demystify and somehow quantify community sustainability. At the time, a sustainability office was an unfamiliar concept in Southwest Florida. Understanding sustainability is essential to the economic, environmental, and social vitality of the nation’s communities, I went on a search for a standard and found the original STAR Community Index. The former 88 index objectives provided the framework for Lee County’s first, unanimously adopted sustainability assessment.

The infusion of the STAR methodology in our community led to unprecedented collaboration among over 80 local partners fueling the creation of and demand for the community’s first sustainability plan. With the release of the new and improved STAR Rating System (including measurable outcomes), Lee County jumped on the opportunity to become a pilot community and used the newer, sleeker version to develop our county’s first sustainability plan, completeLEE: A Sustainability Plan, and achieved a 3-STAR rating from STAR Communities.

Today that plan is held and managed at the Southwest Florida Community Foundation where I am the first-ever Director of Social Innovation and Sustainability. The Foundation has become a STAR Affiliate and is now piloting another new application of the STAR Rating System. We are taking our community’s sustainability plan to a regional view under the leadership of the Foundation, a regional (five-county) private, non-profit organization with the mission of Cultivating Regional Change for Common Good throughout Southwest Florida. I was also recently appointed to the STAR Community Rating System Economy & Jobs Technical Advisory Group.

What role do you see community foundations playing in the sustainability work of cities and counties?

In my experience it is not uncommon for some county governments, particularly in more suburban and rural areas, to find the prospect of developing and implementing comprehensive sustainability efforts unmanageable for a variety of reasons. Furthermore, the municipalities within counties may not have the capacity to build the partnerships and collect the data needed to truly measure community sustainability.

Community Foundations come in all shapes and sizes. The Southwest Florida Community Foundation looks for opportunities to make our community better and convenes people around those opportunities to find solutions to challenges together; helps people invest their charitable dollars in causes they care about the most; and awards grants and invests resources in organizations that are making life better for people in our region. We follow a collective impact model to conduct and measure our work and that of our partners.

Our mission and philosophy of continuous improvement and collaboration will allow us to work with our government partners as well as provide a viable platform to engage non-governmental organizations to achieve the goal of creating a resilient and sustainable region. We believe this model could provide an alternative approach to sustainability work for communities around the country.

How has the Southwest Florida Community Foundation been involved in local sustainability efforts? What projects or initiatives are you most proud of?

The Southwest Florida Community Foundation has been working with non-profit organizations and philanthropists to address community challenges cited throughout the STAR Rating System for almost 40 years. Most recently, we have begun to engage government, education, and business to broaden the depth and breadth of community impact. Our causes align with the STAR goal areas and allow partners to measure the collective impact of the work they do in the region.

We have partnered around projects supporting social entrepreneurs, water quality issues, transportation equity and access, literacy, mental health care, physical health outcomes, public private partnerships, and many more.

An area of particular focus in Southwest Florida and the sustainability plan is Workforce Readiness which we are addressing through an initiative called FutureMakers. The FutureMakers Coalition is working to increase post-secondary completion in Southwest Florida and to promote the knowledge and skills needed for success in the workplace and in life. The goal is to transform the workforce by increasing the number of college degrees and post-secondary certifications from 27 to 40% by 2025.

The Coalition was formed around existing regional collaborations between diverse stakeholders (from all work sectors) and citizens all committed to educational and ultimately workforce success. The Coalition has a newly formed partnership with Lumina Foundation’s national Community Partners for Attainment Initiative. Lumina’s goal is to increase the national post-secondary attainment to 60% by 2025, and the program has a solid network of 75 metropolitan areas committed to the success of Lumina’s Community Partnership for Attainment network.

For local governments that may not have a relationship with a community foundation, how do you recommend they begin the process of collaborating?

My experience is in public policy and government and most of my colleagues in government had no idea the benefit the community foundation could provide. While developing the partnerships for Lee County’s sustainability plan, I reached out to the Southwest Florida Community Foundation because I saw the synergies between our work long before the thought of working at the Foundation crossed my mind. Sustainability professionals in government have a unique perspective and are well-positioned to inquire about the work of community foundations and identify opportunities to collaborate. Most want to make a real and lasting impact through the work they do and that requires collaborating across the lines of government, non-profits, businesses, education, and philanthropists who are willing to invest locally. It simply takes someone with a high-level view of the community to initiate that partnership.

Do you have any recommendations for local community foundations interested in working on sustainability issues in their cities and counties?

I think community foundations are already funding and working on sustainability issues, whether they call them that or not. The key as it relates to sustainability is to align that funding to community level outcomes to determine impact and opportunities for improvement. Measuring impact adds a tremendous value to philanthropists, organizations receiving funding, and the community at-large.

How might a local government pursuing or achieving STAR Certification help a local community foundation?

Local governments must pursue the STAR Certification, but partnering with government to use a national standard and having a third party verify the outcomes and activities as having a positive impact on a community is valuable to any community stakeholder. Community foundations are stewards of local philanthropists’ funds first and foremost. The STAR Rating System can help community foundations identify community needs, develop initiatives, measure the impact of funding and work around areas of focus as well as leverage additional funding.

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