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  • | 10:00 a.m. December 19, 2014
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Executive: Tom Golisano

Organization: B. Thomas Golisano Foundation

Giveback: Tom Golisano has made more than $200 million in contributions to charities since the late 1990s.

Mission: Devoted to supporting programs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

When high taxes in New York State pushed Tom Golisano to move to Naples in 2009, the Empire State lost one of its most prolific philanthropists.

Over the last five years, Golisano has made three major gifts to Southwest Florida institutions totaling $29 million: $20 million to the Lee Memorial Health System Foundation for the construction of a children's hospital in Fort Myers, $5 million for the construction of a children's museum in Naples and $4 million for the construction of a field house at Ave Maria University in Collier County. Each building now bears his name.

Golisano is the founder and chairman of payroll giant Paychex and he was its president and CEO until 2004. The New York native and former owner of the Buffalo Sabres hockey team made three unsuccessful attempts to become governor of that state, but moved to Southwest Florida in 2009 after complaining of New York's high state income tax.

Golisano started the B. Thomas Golisano Foundation in 1985, seeding it with $90,000. The foundation's latest annual report posted on its website dates from 2010, but according to the most recent tax return for the period ending Oct. 31, 2013, the foundation reported net assets of $17 million and made gifts last year to Rochester, N.Y.-area charities totaling $927,000.

Since the late 1990s, Golisano has made more than $200 million in charitable gifts. A review of his gifts in recent years shows he focused his giving on charities that helped children and adults with disabilities ranging from autism to blindness. His interest in those organizations stems from the fact that he has a disabled child, fundraisers say.

Neither Golisano nor Ann Costello, director of the Golisano Foundation, was available to discuss the charitable endeavors. Golisano's publicist says requests for interviews usually must be scheduled months in advance.

But people who have met Golisano and whose organizations received donations from him or his foundation say he takes a business-like approach to philanthropy. Like a savvy investor, Golisano seeks out well-managed nonprofits, particularly those that are self-sufficient. He asks pointed questions that show he's familiar with the finances of an organization and seeks out organizations that have a well-defined strategy.

“He represents a new wave of philanthropists who aren't going to stroke a check and hope for the best,” says James Towey, the president of Ave Maria University. “He will make sure his donation is part of a strategic plan, that it will be fruitful.”

Children's hospital
Despite leading a high-profile public life and agreeing to have his own name displayed on buildings, Golisano is surprisingly private. He has generally shunned public events since moving to Naples in 2009, even if they involve charities to which he has made large contributions.

“His style is to watch from a distance,” says Sharon MacDonald, chief foundation officer for Lee Memorial Health System Foundation. “What he does is he creates an incredible opportunity and he stands back to see how the community takes that opportunity.”

In 2012, Golisano agreed to give $20 million to help Lee Memorial build a $150 million children's hospital currently under construction, now renamed Golisano Children's Hospital of Southwest Florida. Golisano's gift was contingent on matching donations, and construction is now underway after the successful fundraising effort.

In summer 2012, Golisano's $20 million gift to the hospital was made anonymously. “We wanted to create some suspense,” MacDonald says. “We really wanted to create some community excitement.”

When his identity was disclosed in October 2012, the health care system organized a celebration at Lee Memorial's HealthPark Medical Center in South Fort Myers. “We weren't sure he was going to be able to come to the evening of appreciation,” says MacDonald. “Once that was done, it was done. He didn't want a lot of people pressuring him for more conversation.”

MacDonald says a cold call to Costello at the foundation a year earlier with a detailed proposal led to a meeting with Golisano with Lee Memorial Health System President and board member Richard Akin at the Naples Hilton. The hospital knew of Golisano's interest in helping children with special needs. Indeed, there already exists a Golisano Children's Hospital at the University of Rochester.

Initially, Lee Memorial asked for $25 million, which included naming rights. “He said: 'Would you be happy with $20 million?” MacDonald recalls. Golisano wrote a personal letter to Lee Memorial outlining the amount of the gift, which would be paid in two installments. “We received our first [$10 million] check in March of '13,” MacDonald says. “It was a personal check that he presented to Mr. Nathan.” The second check will be presented in May.

MacDonald says Golisano was particularly interested in the health system's strategic plan and asked about the business. “He liked the philosophy of keeping kids close to home,” says MacDonald. Another plus: “We were good collaborators with Collier County.”

MacDonald says the pool of people in Southwest Florida with the financial wherewithal and interest to make a contribution of Golisano's size can be counted on the fingers of one hand. “This would never have happened if he had not stepped up,” she says. “I do believe in divine providence.”

Entrepreneurial donor
Executives who have known and spoken with Golisano say he takes an entrepreneurial view to his giving. “He's very fond of my organization because we are self-sufficient,” says Gidget Hopf, president and CEO of ABVI (Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired) Goodwill in Rochester.

Hopf says Golisano helped her organization buy equipment such as a point-of-sale system and a machine to manufacture compact disks so she could create employment opportunities for visually impaired people. “Tom likes investments,” she says. “It's an investment in a sense that we've created jobs for people.”

Over the last two decades, Hopf says Golisano has contributed about $500,000 to her organization. “He's a businessman, so he takes the approach as an investment,” Hopf says.

Indeed, a glance at the list of gifts the Golisano Foundation has made is specific, even when it comes to smaller amounts of money. For example, in 2013 the foundation is contributed $10,000 for a new computer system at a brain-injury center, $10,000 for riverboat cruising experiences for individuals with disabilities and $5,000 for playground equipment.

“He's a very serious philanthropist,” says Ave Maria's Towey, where Golisano made a $4 million gift in 2009 to build the Tom Golisano Field House, an indoor athletic facility with room for 1,000 people.
“He's interested in the substance and not interested in the sales job when you talk about projects,” Towey says. “He wants to know details, specifically what you have in mind.”

Karysia Demarest, the executive director of the Golisano Children's Museum of Naples, says the museum was already under construction when Golisano made his $5 million gift to the organization in 2010, which the museum's other donors matched to finish the $25 million building. “It was the largest gift,” she says.

“He pops in sometimes,” says Demarest, who began as a volunteer in 2003 before leading the museum. “He doesn't want a lot of attention. We don't know he's coming.”


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