Rebuilding The Miami Foundation From The Ground Up

June 30, 2015       Rod Hirsch      

Charisse Grant is still tremendously loyal to her old boss, the former chief executive of the Dade Community Foundation. But business as usual changed the first day her new boss, Javier Alberto Soto, walked through the door.

When the former executive cleared out her office on her final day six months before Soto took over, she didn’t have to shut down her computer. She didn’t have one on her desk. Her assistant took care of all email correspondence, according to Grant.

“We had a lot of catching up to do,” she said, looking back at those early days of transition and change with Soto now in charge. “The moment he walked in the door he was going to move forward,” she added.

That evolution included a name change.

Today, the Miami Foundation influences policy, helps to set the public agenda and improve the quality of life for the 2.7 million residents of Miami and Dade County in Florida. It invests millions of dollars in social programs, arts and culture, education, the environment, health and wellness and recreation.

Sweeping changes instituted by Soto have reshaped the foundation’s operations: An upgraded database has replaced reliance on files and paper documents; A more sophisticated communications strategy has been implemented; Marketing efforts have been expanded; and, investment strategies have been diversified.

Grant, senior vice president for programs, is the only employee left who was working for the foundation when Soto took over six years ago.

“It has been a remarkable transition,” Grant said. “As somebody who has experienced what I have, being in the nonprofit sector, I’ve seen organizations that did not survive this. I’m really fortunate to be with one that did, that had a CEO that when she decided to retire it was clear she wanted somebody different than her.”

The relationships with the community nurtured by the former executive continue to pay dividends and are a lasting legacy to her tenure, according to Grant. “She was a product of what she had accomplished in building this foundation,” Grant continued. “She looked forward to someone taking over who could capture the energy of where Miami is and embrace technology and how it was transforming the business we are in. We’ve been able to sort all that out while still holding on to the spirit of community service and of service to this community that she embedded in this place.”

Affable and highly respected, Soto is credited with retooling and re-energizing the organization, founded in 1967. Assets have nearly doubled, from $130 million to $250 million with a broader selection of funds and investments that are more tolerant of market swings.

The nation was mired in a recession when Soto was hired. His first day on the job was July 1, 2009.

Richard Schatz is managing partner of Stearns, Weaver, Miller, Weissler, Alhadeff & Sitterson, a prominent Miami law firm and one of 700 clients that use the foundation for philanthropy. Other foundation clients include the Miami Marlins baseball team and the Miami Heat basketball team.

Schatz recalls his first encounter with the newly-hired Soto. “We were a fund holder. I was not a board member at the time,” Schatz explained. “The market had tanked. The foundation’s funds tanked and shame on us, we were surprised there wasn’t more protection.” The foundation didn’t really offer any alternatives to fund holders who were risk averse, he said.

“When Javier was hired he didn’t know what he was walking in to,” Schatz said. “We gave him an earful, told him how unhappy we were because we had lost a lot. He left with his tail between his legs.”

But Soto would soon win over Schatz. “He told us ‘I’m going to correct this,’ and he came back a few months later with plans for a branding change and replenishing the fund. He asked me to join board and I was happy to do so.”

Schatz is now board chairman of the Miami Foundation and a close confidant of Soto. The foundation last year distributed a record $37 million in grants to scores of projects throughout the greater Miami area.

Community foundations have begun to play a key role in identifying and solving community problems. In 2011, they gave an estimated $4.3 billion to a variety of nonprofit activities, according to the Com­munity Foundations National Standards Board of the Council on Foundations.

“Javier is positively the lightning rod,” Schatz said. “He is well-known and well-respected in the community and has helped change the course of the Miami Foundation. He’s brought together a team of talented, young professionals who are proud and passionate about the community. Each one is stronger than the next.”

Soto, a graduate of Georgetown Univer­sity Law School, was faced with several im­mediate challenges. Topping the list was a much-needed name change.

“We quickly realized that to grow and have an impact, we needed to be relevant in this community. Part of the challenge was the name itself. Over half the population in Miami has moved in or been born here in the past 18 years,” Soto said. “To not identify with Miami was a disconnect and a barrier to being part of the community. Miami needed to be a part of the new image,” he added.

His predecessor and the foundation’s board of directors had begun to work on im­plementing changes just prior to Soto’s ar­rival. In addition to the rebranding process, the board had begun to examine “big picture” direction and goals — growth, impact on the community, an upgrade in technology and finances, according to Soto.

Soto and his team focused on three pillars upon which the foundation would build and grow: leadership, community and philanthropy. “We chose leadership first because it would indicate our intention to be more involved in civic leadership. This signaled a new direction for the foundation. We wanted to impact the community through advocacy and public policy. That has become a key focus,” Soto said.

Intensifying the policy-making efforts of the foundation to positively impact the community is on par with grant making, according to Soto.

“We feel we have a lot more potential to impact the community,” Soto said. “This shift is happening across the country. We are part of a wave of organizations that have moved and evolved in this direction,” Soto said.

The foundation also needed to reorganize in several areas. “To accomplish the goals the board set for us, it was evident to me we had to assess what our capabilities were and to realign our resources,” Soto said. “We did have to invest in technology, assess and evaluate the entire staff, and we had to make some adjustments in positions throughout the organization.”

The organization didn’t have much of a communications strategy. “It wasn’t a priority in the past. We have placed new emphasis on communication,” he said.

“There were cosmetic changes and some that were at the guts of the organization but we had to go through the process of realigning and committing new resources. It’s safe to say the organization looks a lot different today than it did six years ago,” he added.

Soto’s background in law, government and public policy is well suited to his work with the foundation, according to a close friend. “He has great patience, great tact, great diplomacy, great values and he’s great with people,” said mentor Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami.

“Javier is a practical, modern thinker. He has taken a good, traditional community foundation and made it an exciting center of ideas and innovation in Miami,” Ibargüen said.

“I trust his judgment and seek his advice. We have had a good collaboration with him and the Miami Foundation,” he continued. “We use the foundation as fiscal agent on many grants and have begun to use them on endowment grants. Using the community foundation on endowments tends to assure that donor intent is honored.”

Soto turned to Ibargüen for advice when he was first contacted about the Miami Foundation job. “I reached out to Alberto and met with him a couple times. He opened my eyes to what a community foundation can be, with the power and flexibility to do good work in a community. I viewed this as an opportunity to help build a brighter future for the community. It was something very appealing to me.”

Ibargüen paid to fly Soto to several cities to see first-hand the work being done by community foundations. One of those visits was to Boston, where Soto met Paul Grogan, president and CEO of the Boston Founda­tion. His meeting with Grogan and others helped to convince Soto that he could make a positive impact on the lives of Miami residents.

“It became even more apparent to me that community foundations really have a tremendous opportunity to impact the community. There are different angles and approaches, but all community foundations are reflections of their community.”

Soto remains in touch with Grogan and other community foundation leaders. “I admire Javier enormously. He’s one of the bright lights emerging in this field of philanthropy,” Grogan said. “He took over a very sleepy foundation and has repositioned it to be more visible and play a prominent role in Miami by providing leadership on the issues,” he added.

Soto joined the Miami Foundation from the public sector, having worked for several years on public policy and as chief of staff in the Dade County Mayor’s office. “When he ran the County Mayor’s office, Javi was the man who could talk with everybody: executive branch, citizens, county commissioners, town mayors and the press. He did an amazing job of making government run,” Ibargüen said.

“I’ve always enjoyed having an impact on the community and policy work. This opportunity stripped out some of the negatives of being in local government and politics,” Soto said.

One of Soto’s innovations is The Our Miami Report, a biennial account that provides a data-focused picture of Greater Miami’s quality of life, showing the community’s greatest challenges and opportunities.

The Miami Foundation and Soto have also drawn praise for its “GiveMiami Day,” a 24-hour donation drive once a year that encourages all nonprofits to market their pro­grams and solicit financial support. Like many community foundations across the country, the foundation builds a website platform for area nonprofits so that they can reach out to their supporters and the general community for credit card donations, a minimum of $25, according to Soto.

“Give Miami Day” raised $5.2 million this year. Last year it raised $3.2 million and in its first year, $1.2 million. More than 500 nonprofits participated.

Such growth is empowering, according to Soto.

“It’s created a buzz, something exciting that brings the community together,” Soto said. “We are fueling community pride. That’s what we do. We’re selling Miami for a living.

“We have to convince you the future is a bright one,” he added. “These kinds of initiatives will hopefully engage people, and build a bridge for them to future philanthropy.”

“When the Giving Days idea came up, Javi, typically, not only adopted it but led the way,” said Ibargüen. “He has already exceeded all expectations and, each year raised more money. Over time, and with the use of digital communications technology, he is significantly expanding the network of givers in Miami.” E