Brent Batten: Bigger not necessarily better for Big Brothers


Several years ago I sat on an advisory board for Big Brothers Big Sisters in Naples.

The organization’s regional base was in Lee County and our job ostensibly was to offer advice on matters pertaining to Collier County.

I say ostensibly because our real job was raising money.

While my contribution to the effort was modest at best, there were some go-getters on that board and they did a superb job, raising tens of thousands of dollars that were all promptly shipped off to Fort Myers.

Some of the board members began wondering aloud why Collier County couldn’t have its own chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters, so the money raised here would stay here.

It wasn’t to be. The national organization was not open to the idea of a Collier County chapter and soon thereafter the local advisors lost interest. The board dissolved.

It’s now about five years later and Big Brothers Big Sisters no longer exists in Southwest Florida, its Fort Myers office that served not only Collier and Lee, but Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties as well having been shut down earlier this month for non-compliance with the financial and operating standards the national organization sets.

The concept that local donations should be used locally isn’t unique to Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Ernie Bretzmann, chief executive officer of the United Way of Collier County, says its a principle his organization adheres to as well. “The money raised here stays here. A lot of people feel that way,” he said. “Most local charities emphasize that idea. ‘You contribute to us, it stays here.”’

Before heading the United Way, Bretzmann worked for the YMCA on Marco Island. He guided it through its transition as a branch of the Naples YMCA to its status today as an independent, financially stable entity.

He said the national YMCA was initially against the idea. “I got through to them that Marco Island would support a Marco Y,” Bretzmann said.

Another example is the Cancer Alliance of Naples, which was formed by locals who wanted contributions to stay in Collier County. “A group of volunteers had helped other cancer organizations but much of it went to the national organization. They were disappointed,” said Marianne Larimer, executive director of CAN. “They wanted to create an organization where every dime raised in Collier County stayed in Collier County. They wanted neighbor helping neighbor.”

Since its founding in 2002, CAN has provided about $2.4 million in non-medical aid, things like rent and utility payments, for 1,000 families touched by cancer, she said.

While it stresses keeping local donations local, Bretzmann said the United Way does give some money to organizations based outside Collier County. The Harry Chapin Food Bank in Fort Myers is one example. The key is making the charity show that its work extends into and benefits Collier County proportionally.

In fact, until about two years ago, the United Way supplied Big Brothers Big Sisters with roughly $50,000 annually. But high turnover in the organization’s staff and an increasingly cloudy financial picture made it difficult to track whether Collier was getting the full benefit of its contributions. “When you have an audit that covers the entire agency, you have to take their word for it,” he said.

Ultimately, the United Way board of directors decided the money could be put to better use elsewhere.

Bretzmann recalls the flap over the denial of a Big Brothers Big Sisters branch in Collier. He argued in favor of it but to no avail. “I tried to insist local autonomy would work better in Collier,” he recalls.

National charities want to be efficient, and to them that sometimes means large chapters. “They say, ‘We’ve got to do a corporate model. We’ve got to do economies of scale,”’ Bretzmann said.

While the desire to see local contributions put to use locally isn’t unique to Collier County, Bretzmann believes it is stronger here than in other places. The long-standing policy of Collier County government not to contribute tax dollars to charities reinforces the feeling that local donations ought to stay put, he theorizes.

Whatever the reason, it bodes poorly for the idea of reorganizing the local Big Brothers Big Sisters under the auspices of the Venice-based Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast.

To succeed in Collier County, the group will have to have local financial support. The further away the money is sent before coming back in the way of services, the less likely that is to materialize.

Connect with Brent Batten at

© 2011 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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