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Exuma leads the way in driving sustainable social change

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The Bahamas Investor Magazine
June 26, 2018
June 26, 2018
Catherine Morris

Exuma is one of the most popular destinations for tourists, investors and second homeowners in the Bahamian archipelago. It is also an inspirational example of what happens when those visitors and investors unite with the local community to bring about sustainable social change.

Since it began over a decade ago, the Exuma Foundation has raised over $2 million for education and health care related causes throughout the Exuma cays. Most of this money has been provided by generous donors who are not native to the islands, but feel a connection to the community and want to help improve it.

The non-profit began in 2001 when a group of second homeowners linked up with local teachers Chris and Jenny Kettel and the then owner of the Peace and Plenty hotel Stanley Benjamin. The newly formed philanthropic group decided to focus on the areas where its members saw the most need–education and health care.

“They were a lot of residents that had been there for years, some of whom had parents who had a house in Exuma. There were a lot of old timers who all got together [with the Kettels and Benjamin] and everything clicked. They supported education and health care because that is what was needed. They wanted to do some good,” explains Paul LeFevre, president of the Exuma Foundation US.

The original founders wanted Americans to be able to donate and receive tax receipts so the Exuma Foundation was established hand in hand with a US counterpart, run by a US-based family office, which manages the funds. “There is a symbiotic relationship between the two, they were born together,” says LeFevre. “The US foundation collects donations, oversees the budget and sends money down when needed.”

Canadian kindness
Peter Nicholson, who has been investing in Exuma for more than a decade and owns a majority share of the Grand Isle resort and spa through his company GIV Bahamas Inc, joined the Exuma Foundation’s board in early 2015.

Shortly afterwards, Nicholson and fellow Canadian Jeffrey Todd, director of communications at GIV Bahamas, realized that although the Exuma Foundation allowed Americans to make tax-free donations, there was no similar provision for Canadians. To rectify this, they established the Exuma Foundation of Canada (EFC), a non-profit registered in Canada and founded by GIV Bahamas.

“Our inspiration was to provide tax relief for Canadians who wanted to donate to the island,” explains EFC co-founder Todd. “There are a lot of Canadians that go to Exuma–second homeowners and visitors. There is a Canadian tradition in Exuma and we saw [the EFC] as an opportunity to harness all that human capital and give more to the island. It is very unique to get a licensed foundation outside of Canada. It is really a testament to the links between The Bahamas and Canada, and the important relationship between them.”

The EFC works in tandem with the original foundation, funnelling money from Canadians into initiatives supported by both. Although relatively new (the EFC held only its second AGM in summer 2017), the charity has already donated over $100,000 and has created two signature events–Run for Pompey and the Ride for Exuma.

Run for Pompey, which just celebrated its third year, is an annual race that starts in George Town and takes marathon runners on a scenic route around Great Exuma. It attracts around 200 runners and this year included the Pompey Regatta.

“It has really been embraced by the community,” says Todd. “It underlines Bahamian history and culture, but combines it with beautiful sun, sand and sea.”

Money raised by the event goes towards the Pompey Scholarship–a grant of $5,000 awarded each year to a student who can then attend the university of their choice.

For Todd, the race and the scholarship are a highlight of the EFC’s calendar. “There are so many moving parts to the Run for Pompey. Every year, when I see them line up at the starting line and I hear the starting gun, it is always a special moment for me knowing that we did it, and we brought the community together. I also like seeing how happy the students are to win the scholarships. That is a great feeling.”

The EFC’s other showcase event, the annual Ride for Exuma, also known as the Tour de Turquoise, brings Canadians to the island to participate in a cycling race. Entrants donate $500 and Todd says it is a happy mix of philanthropy and vacationing. “We have Canadians who fly in just for the event. It is a holiday for them, but they are also making an impact.”

The EFC wants to encourage cycling among Exuma’s youth, not only as a healthy form of exercise, but also as a means of transportation on an island with poor infrastructure. The charity recently bought $10,000 to $15,000 worth of bikes to establish a cycling club. “We took the bikes out to the kids and they went crazy,” says Todd. “They were riding them all around the track, they were so excited.”

Educating Exuma
Supporting Exuma’s youth is a key priority for both foundations and they are presently collaborating on construction of a children’s shelter on the Exuma Foundation campus in George Town. EFC has given $20,000 to the initiative to date which, once completed, will be operated by the Department of Social Services and supported by the foundation.

The foundation’s six-acre campus at Hooper’s Bay is a focal point for the community, hosting Exuma’s only school for disabled children, as well as workshops from the University of The Bahamas and environmental education seminars. The latter include classes in beekeeping and sustainable agriculture. “The foundation means something to the community,” says LeFevre. “One of the biggest things is having this campus where all kinds of organizations can have meetings and we can host this school for disadvantaged children who cannot go to public school.”

The site’s facilities are also available to local schools, as well as charitable or social groups needing a meeting space. Over the past five years, the foundation has invested over $50,000 in major repairs to the George Town library and collaborated with the Family Island Book Initiative and Books International to create and maintain libraries in all of Exuma’s primary schools.

Delivering further on its goal of improving access to education among Exuma’s youth, the non-profit is also investing in The Bahamas Education Project–an initiative that seeks to introduce digital learning into Exuma classrooms. Collaborating with the Ministry of Education and other partners, the charity has already placed 150 computers with educational software in nine primary schools throughout the Exumas.

Giving back
Donors to the Exuma Foundation and the EFC share a common goal–to give back to the community. Todd says: “We have a mix of donors. The most consistent core are second homeowners, investors and kind-hearted Canadians who vacation in Exuma. Because Exuma is not as big [as other islands] there is more opportunity to create meaningful change. It is like a lightning rod for like-minded people to come together to create social change.”

And for second homeowners in particular, their philanthropy is personal. Todd says: “Everyone I know with a home in Exuma raves about it. It is almost more home than their actual home. They love the island feel. It is a very welcoming community.”

LeFevre, who first came to the islands in 2004, says he “showed up to try and catch bonefish” and liked what he found. He bought a house in Exuma and, for over a decade, spent seven months of the year in his Bahamian bolthole. “The Exuma community has been so welcoming,” he says. “They are very nice people and everyone gets along. When I came down and saw what the foundation was doing I wanted to contribute.”

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