The St. Petersburg Foundation (SPF) is riding a wave of philanthropic success by capitalizing on public-private partnerships; Irv Cohen now looks to bolster and recreate a proven model.
SPF’s board announced Aug. 16 that it appointed Cohen, former CEO of CodeBoxx Technology, as its executive director. He helped launch the foundation in 2019 as a board member. SPF is the philanthropic arm of the St. Petersburg Group, which owns the St. Pete Catalyst.
Cohen spent over 30 years as a corporate executive and plans to use his extensive business, philanthropic and government connections to address the area’s most pressing issues full-time.
“In my business career, I was successful because I was able to bring a lot of innovation … to improve the businesses I worked for,” Cohen explained. “It’s all about taking those skills and bringing them to the social sector.
“The St. Pete Foundation is looking for innovative partnerships and projects that improve the quality of life for our residents.”
Cohen and SPF’s focus is creating a collective impact to drive action that produces tangible results. That occurs when leaders representing various sectors work together to achieve a common goal.
Collective Impact propelled the Lealman Exchange’s (LEX) team to exceed its goals to build capacity in the underserved community of over 30,000 that borders St. Petersburg. SPF began partnering with Pinellas County officials in April 2022 and assumed daily operation of the expansive campus in August 2022.
In July, Commissioner Dave Eggers compared the nonprofit’s efforts to “property management on steroids.” Cohen said SPF would increase early-childhood learning and workforce education offered at the facility.
He credited Amy Cianci, St Petersburg Group’s Engagement Director, for leading LEX’s transformation. Cohen said the goal is to replicate its success.
“Result-oriented deliverables – which is something the St. Pete Foundation prides itself on – focused on workforce development, helps bring the tools and ability to do the social good,” he said. “It’s not going to alleviate it, and it takes time. But with a concerted effort, we can make a dent into those problems.”
Cohen is no stranger to workforce development. As a senior executive with JP Morgan, he relocated 2,500 high-paying jobs to the Tampa Bay area.
He is also active in the SeedFunders investment group. However, Cohen also realizes that “life is a roulette wheel.” People don’t choose their parents or circumstances during their most formative years, he elaborated.
He began working to close the opportunity gap as an undergraduate student in New York and increased those efforts when he moved to Tampa Bay 16 years ago. Cohen formed a partnership between JP Morgan and Big Brothers Big Sisters; his staff received a daily hour off to help disadvantaged students.
Cohen wanted to do more and co-founded Social Venture Partners (SVP) Tampa Bay. Local business leaders comprise the organization and show mentees how to run a nonprofit like a business.
Receiving grants and funding necessary to provide community impact is an increasingly competitive endeavor. SVP helps other nonprofits navigate the process, incorporate technology and boost marketing efforts.
“At the end of the day, where I am in life and where my real passion is, is helping those that need the assistance,” Cohen said.
He expressed pride in what SPF and Karen Chassin, the foundation’s first executive director, accomplished in four years. Cohen, now based in St. Pete, plans to build on those efforts and noted that the nonprofit now hopes to transform the long-vacant St. Petersburg Science Center into a thriving community hub.
Early-childhood education is a focus as it helps break poverty cycles. Workforce development, an emphasis during Cohen’s time at Codeboxx, is a priority because he believes stable, high-paying careers mitigate homelessness.
“If we combine workforce development with affordable housing – a good job solves everything,” Cohen added. “If we can work together, we can bring additional resources and … the strategies and tools to advance missions and increase effectiveness around the ability to deal with these problems.”