Sarasota Scene Magazine: A Visionary at the Helm: Phillip P. Lanham’s Transformative Journey as CEO of Gulf Coast Community Foundation

Sarasota Scene Magazine: A Visionary at the Helm: Phillip P. Lanham’s Transformative Journey as CEO of Gulf Coast Community Foundation

The following article appeared in Sarasota Scene Magazine in April 2024:


In June 2023, Gulf Coast Community Foundation welcomed a new captain to steer its philanthropic ship. Phillip Lanham, originally from Cincinnati, OH, assumed the role of president | CEO, bringing with him a wealth of experience and a fervent passion for community impact. It all came as a big surprise to him.

“I wasn’t in the mindset of leaving Cincinnati. I thought my whole career would be there. But I took the phone call, and it was really intriguing,” Lanham reveals. His introduction to Gulf Coast Community Foundation came through a former colleague, Kirstin Fulkerson, who spoke highly of the organization. Lanham’s fascination with community foundations began in 2011 when he joined the Greater Cincinnati Foundation. “I fell in love with the community foundation sector,” he shares, highlighting the sector’s unique ability to unite donors, nonprofits, and elected officials to address community issues.

His decision to lead a community foundation was deliberate, fueled by a desire to create meaningful impact. While many are drawn to the Suncoast by its beaches and weather, Lanham’s attraction was rooted in the region’s rich philanthropic community. “The people are what make a community special, and that is definitely the case here,” he emphasizes.

Lanham believes the area’s distinctiveness in philanthropy is deeply connected to its arts scene, which attracts a generous and determined crowd. “Folks come with money and moxie,” he likes to say, pointing out the financial resources and determination brought by philanthropists from cities like Chicago, Detroit, Boston, and New York. Their big ideas, according to Lanham, contribute to making the region truly special.

With a smile, Lanham acknowledged the saying in the community foundation sector: “If you’ve seen one community foundation, you’ve seen one community foundation.” He compares community foundations to ice cream, all fundamentally the same but with different flavors, alluding to the unique challenges and opportunities at all community foundations.

Already confident in his knowledge of community foundation mechanics, Lanham, upon his Florida arrival, intentionally focused on understanding the culture of the Suncoast region and connecting with key players in the nonprofit community. “I spent more energy on the relationship side, the softer side of the Foundation,” he shares, emphasizing the importance of understanding the people, nonprofits, and donors that make Gulf Coast special.

When asked about what makes Gulf Coast special, Lanham highlights the Foundation’s community leadership model. Gulf Coast Community Foundation was created in 1995 with proceeds from the sale of the Venice Hospital, a community hospital that was founded by local citizens more than four decades earlier. The visionary decision to create a community foundation from the hospital proceeds provided the Foundation with a significant unrestricted endowment, giving the Board flexibility to make impactful investments and resources to focus on policy and advocacy work.

“To give you some perspective, the foundation from where I came is more than double the size of Gulf Coast, from an asset perspective,” Lanham said. “Yet Gulf Coast’s unrestricted endowment is larger than Cincinnati’s, and it speaks to the ability of our Board and team to take a position on certain initiatives because we have that flexibility.”

He credits this flexibility to Gulf Coast’s decision to focus on three primary areas: affordable housing, green space and water quality, and mental health.

Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s impact is substantial, having granted over $550 million to nonprofits since 1995, and giving out about $40 million in grants each year. Lanham recognizes the power of community foundations to create a lasting impact, describing their role as bringing donors and nonprofits together to address the region’s needs. He says the annual $40 million in grantmaking reflects the dynamic nature of community needs and the Foundation’s agile responsiveness.

As Lanham reflects on his role and impact on the Foundation, he articulates his intentional approach to leadership.

“I wake up and think about what type of leader I want to be and how I want to show up, and I always want to be authentic, growth-minded, and collaborative,” Lanham said. He places a particular emphasis on authenticity, sharing his true self, flaws and all, with donors, nonprofits, and the Board of Directors.

“I think you can be authentic if you’re vulnerable, so I am often vulnerable and share my shortcomings or something I’m struggling with,” Lanham explains, highlighting the importance of building meaningful relationships through vulnerability. “So I am proud of that. But you know, to some of your readers that may come across as soft.”

Lanham also expresses pride in the deep connections he has already built in just under a year with our community. We know he’s not afraid of vulnerability, and you can add ‘difficult conversations’ to the list of things he doesn’t shy away from. “I don’t think ‘conflict’ is a dirty word. I think if handled correctly, it can be healthy because, together with the other person, if you’re vulnerable, you can address the conflict as a third party,” Lanham said. “The conflict is not between two people. It’s this thing over to the side that the two people can come together and solve, and you get to know the other person in a more powerful way.”

Another impact of Lanham’s leadership is the strategic direction he has set for Gulf Coast Community Foundation. Recognizing the need for a comprehensive strategy, he initiated the process to provide clarity and alignment for the organization. Comparing strategy to an actual roadmap, Lanham envisions everyone at the Foundation understanding the direction, even if detours are inevitable due to external factors.

“Say we’re going to California, right? I want everyone—our Board, our staff, and everyone in the community—to be aligned so that Gulf Coast can get to California,” Lanham explains. “We might end up in Napa, or we might end up in San Diego. We’re not sure yet, but we know the direction we’re heading. We might stop, and there will be instances like a hurricane or pandemic that will cause us to pause and take a detour,” Lanham continues. The intentional strategy aims to cultivate clarity and alignment among all stakeholders.

As Gulf Coast Community Foundation refines its strategy in the coming months, Lanham is excited about the direction they’ve charted. His goal is to continue growing impact in the community, with a spotlight on the Foundation’s three primary focuses. Lanham believes that aligning the Board, staff, and community through a well-defined strategy enables effective decision-making.

As Lanham looks ahead, he outlines his plan for the next eight months. With pending staff changes and retirements, his focus is on building a fully-staffed and dynamic leadership team.

“It’s not a ‘cleaning the house’ situation,” he said. “It’s that people went on to new opportunities or new chapters in their careers, and it’s our opportunity to recruit the best and brightest to serve this community.”

His refined strategy, centered around growth in impact, partnerships with nonprofits and donors, and organizational development, is set to launch in July.

Lanham shares a profound perspective on empathy and understanding.

“I come to every conversation with a curious mindset to seek to better understand you,” he states, emphasizing the importance of empathy in fostering a better world. “If we have more empathy, I think the world will be a better place,” Lanham said.

Something he not only leads his personal life with, but what he has now brought to his work at Gulf Coast.

Lanham believes that by embracing vulnerability, challenging oneself to think big, and growing existing and new partnerships, we can expect Gulf Coast Community Foundation to soar to new heights in the years ahead.