Before taking over as executive director for the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, Phillip Lanham worked his entire career in Ohiomost recently as Chief Philanthropy Officer at the Greater Cincinnati Foundation. Now he’s taking the reins in a region where philanthropy means big business, and where the needs and priorities of the community constantly shift. But Lanham said the chief objectives for Gulf Coast remain constant. “We have to stay true to our vision and our mission, which is creating a vibrant community with opportunities for all,” Lanham told SRQ. “And when we say all, we mean it. It's our job to keep working until that is a reality.” Just over 100 days into his tenure, SRQ Magazine sat down with Lanham to discuss the change he plans to deliver to the world of giving.

What drew you to this community? PHILLIP LANHAM: One aspect that really drew me to this region in this role was the culture of philanthropy, not just from individuals but the sheer size and number of foundations that are here. Whether it's the Patterson Foundation, the Barancik Foundation, the Selby Foundation or the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. The partnership that I see and the connection that we have with each other, I don't always see that in other communities. I'm looking forward to seeing what we can do together. There's potential for us to do more together. There's been moments in the past where we have worked collaboratively with each other and I want to do more of that.

What can you tell us about how your time in Cincinnati contributed to your professional development? I was born, raised and educated in Cincinnati, so over the years I accumulated information and developed my career. One of the things that really made Gulf Coast Community Foundation and Sarasota County appealing to me was having an experience outside of my hometown. In some aspects, it's been smoother than expected. Because of the organization I represent, people are very welcoming and opening doors, and Gulf Coast has such a strong brand in this community that people appreciate that. But overall, people are just very generous in this community.

More than 100 days into the job, what have you accomplished so far? The number one goal of being a transplant to this region was to get to know the people who make it so special. I've done that through site visits with nonprofits, meeting nonprofit leaders here in this very room that I'm sitting in today. At the same time, getting to know our donors and our philanthropic families with whom we work, to understand what their priorities are and how we can best serve them. My experience has been so great so far because I'm working with people who love this community so much they give their own financial resources back to the community.

Gulf Coast Community Foundation has often led conversations, whether that’s on homelessness or education in the digital era. Do you see a need to lead the way on new issues? Our three priority areas will continue to be affordable housing, mental health and the environment with a focus on water quality. In addition, we support other sectors like arts and arts and culture and capacity building in the entire nonprofit sector. The one area that has shown up in our most recent regional scan, and it's something Gulf Coast has a history of working on in the past and we may need to revisit it as we develop our strategy for the future, is weaving civility through everything we do. As a region, just the climate that we find ourselves in as Americans right now, keeping civility at the core of everything we do as a society will be critical for the success of our democracy.

Sarasota started to develop a different national reputation with a lot of more extreme voices on domestic politics moving to the area. Do you see that impacting our civic discourse? One-hundred percent, that is affecting the nonprofit community, mostly the nonprofit community who serves marginalized communities. They aren't feeling the support that they deserve, in my opinion, and it's something that we will continue to support. We’ll try to shift the conversation to supporting this region for opportunities for everyone, not just a select few. I'm not going to name any names because there's already been so many of them dragged through the mud. I'm not going to allow that to happen. When you have proximity to people who aren't like you, and you can break bread and understand someone else's experience, it builds empathy. I strive to be a very empathetic person and connect with people who are different from me, because I want to grow as a person but also just because it makes life better. Like, it's so boring if I’m with a bunch of white dudes. It's just not as dynamic and fun. How can we as a community build empathy so we aren't quick to judge but are quick to support each other?

What is the most valuable contribution you can bring to Gulf Coast that hasn’t been there before? In Cincinnati, I was responsible for an impact investing program, which is essentially making loans to nonprofits, often at a larger amount than a grant would be. Community foundations are known for grant making, but we have other tools in our toolbox. Impact investing is a powerful tool where larger amounts can be invested in the nonprofit at below market interest rates, which in a high interest rate environment is very appealing.

Affordable housing has been an issue nonprofits in this community wrestled with for years. Is there anything you would do differently? There has to be a shared understanding of what the problem is—and if there is a problem—across the board, between the foundations, the elected officials and the business sector. The business sector and business leaders with whom I've visited have seen it as a problem because their workforce is struggling to find sustainable housing. It's not ideal for anyone to have an hour-long commute or even a 30-minute commute. We want people to live close to where they work, to improve their lives and make their lives richer. There's the alignment that there is a problem. There's a whole spectrum of housing that we have to ensure that our economy has, and rentals will be a big part of that. As people develop in their careers and their income grows, they then move to homeownership. In America, we focus so much on homeownership that we forget the rental piece of it. It happened in Cincinnati. It's happening here. We really need a strong rental market across those income levels to make sure working families have a solid roof over their heads.

How do you communicate to donors the value of their investment and ensure the foundation is providing the right solutions to problems? Something I learned very early in my career is just because someone's wealthy doesn't make them charitable. Our objective is to find those high net worth individuals who are also charitable and help maximize their giving locally. It's those people who have an open mind and want to grow and understand. Another person's or group of people's experience is where the magic really happens. Often the funders, including Gulf Coast when we're the funder, don't have the answer. Research shows people with lived experience create the best solutions to the problems that they're experiencing. Often the people with the resources, when I say everyone needs shoes and here's your size 12, they're not a size 12. The solution doesn’t fit them right. It is finding that person with that growth mindset and who wants to learn and help and not always be the solution provider.

How much are you waiting for the direction from your board and donors? They hired me, right? During the recruiting process, I was able to lay out what I would want to have happen here. Through that process, they've endorsed that. Now that I'm here and understand the community better, it needs to be refined. I often say I have wicked smart people on our leadership team and in our organization who have their own thoughts and ideas. I strive to have collaboration at the core of everything I do. I'm rarely the smartest person in the room, but my gift is to bring out the best ideas from other people and to create a plan and vision for the organization moving forward. 

What part of the vision you laid out in the hiring process got you this job? I showed up for each of my interactions with the search committee, and the thing I had in the back of my mind, like little postcards like on my personal computer hanging off my monitor, was to stay authentic. Don't try to pretend to be someone you're not. Don't give them the answers they want to hear. Give them the answers that are true to your heart. 

How does the current economic climate, and matters like interest rates, impact philanthropy and fiscal strategy? At my last organization, every time we had a down year from fundraising, I could go back and map it to the S&P 500 being down. Based on conversations I've had here with our philanthropy team, that holds true here as well. Interest rates are one thing. They actually help in some aspects of our investment strategy and help our donors and some of their investment strategies because they're making 5-6% right now in a very safe vehicle. It’s really about how the stock market reacts that usually influences how donors leverage a community foundation. If the stock market stays strong, because most donors will give appreciated assets from their portfolios to their donor advised funds, that will drive the decisions more than interest rates specifically.

How does your background IN the financial side of philanthropy contribute to this organization? I like to measure lots of things. Yes, this business might be touchy feely and you lead with a heart. At the same time, we want to see outcomes and improvement in the clients’ lives in the nonprofit sector. Yesterday we were debating if we should support an arts organization, and I said we need a business plan. Yes, there’s a vision here, but what's the business plan we can invest in right now. Without that, we don't have any hard numbers to react to. My business education kicks in when it gets too squishy and we need to know where the rubber hits the road. We lean into that business education to make decisions. That's sometimes a fun place for me to live.