Charity lets kayakers paddle for other groups
ęPalm Beach Post

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Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Brian Lee grew up in Atlanta, far from the Atlantic Ocean and water sports.

He couldn't have been more tied to the earth.


For 10 years he worked as a landscaper and designed English gardens. His causes included Trees Atlanta, a nonprofit dedicated to the planting and conservation of trees.

But Lee always wanted to live by the ocean.

Nine years ago, he sold his mowers, hedge trimmers and pruning sheers and moved to West Palm Beach.

His entrepreneurial spirit led him to start a yacht brokerage business. Later, he would deal in real estate and managing investments.

With a few good financial years under his belt and "a little bit of breathing room" Lee, 40, plunked down $11,000 in start-up money, filed the necessary paperwork with the IRS and started Charity West Palm.

Lee's is a "pass-through" organization. Think United Way. He doesn't raise money for one cause, but for other struggling nonprofits. Though his focus is on the environment and water-related causes.

"I wanted to raise money for lesser known organizations that were doing great work but needed financial help and exposure more than the bigger organizations," said the sandy-haired man who looks more like a surfer than a businessman.

Idea perplexed some

The concept, he admits, has raised a few eyebrows. Why would people want to give their money to a middleman? Why not just donate to a cause? Even family friend Wyatt Tom Johnson, former president of the Cable News Network, chastised him saying: "It was an unusual thing to do," Lee said.

But Lee remained convinced this would be a fun way to get younger people involved in charitable giving.

"I wanted to put together something that had a hip feel to it and do physically challenging events that would bring people in who wanted to have fun while raising money," Lee said.

Two years ago, he kicked it off with a five-day Kayak-a-thon from West Palm Beach to the Keys.

"Everyone was hip on this thing and I thought I would do it for charity," Lee said.

But that is a long way to paddle. It takes strength, endurance and a commitment few are willing to give. Just a handful of people accepted the challenge. They raised a little more than $3,000, which went to Shake-a-Leg, a Miami-based nonprofit that provides water sports instruction for people with disabilities. Lee chose the organization because a newspaper article about them he read years earlier stuck in his mind.

Though not a lot of money, it's still $3,000 that the organization wouldn't have were it not for him, figures an undeterred Lee.

Relationships can suffer

Charity watchdogs warn that this may not be the best way for other nonprofits to generate donations because the middleman gets in the way of building much-needed relationships with donors that result in long-term giving.

"It may be with the best intentions, but it's not the most efficient way to engage in philanthropy," said Sandra Miniutti, spokeswoman for Charity Navigator.

Each year hundreds of people start nonprofits. Some make it; many do not. The statistics do not frighten Lee, who counts among his supporters Conrad N. Hilton III of the famed hotel family whose foundation provided a $3,000 grant the first year.

"I know how difficult it can be for someone to start out," said Hilton, who lives in Palm Beach. "I wasn't 100 percent agreeable with the concept, but I was with his spirit."

When Lee approached Hilton again this year, he not only agreed to financially support his second Kayak-a-thon, but was in a boat behind the kayakers to ensure no one was left behind.

"What I saw is a contemporary who doesn't have the wealth, but who has the philanthropic spirit," Hilton said.

Lee has done it all without the help of a board of directors.

"I asked them all to resign because nobody was doing anything," said Lee, who does all of the planning and organizing himself. "They are good people, but too busy."

Directors hard to find

Finding a good board of directors is one of the toughest things for nonprofits - big and small - said Ann Reinhert, director of operations and marketing for the Center for Nonprofit Excellence in West Palm Beach.

"One commonality between big and small nonprofit agencies is that it's difficult to find solid board members who are dedicated," she said.

As he's moved forward, Lee has found a mentor in Miles Spencer, co-founder of Kayak for a Cause in Norwalk, Conn. The organization started seven years ago with just two participants; each year for the next three years that number grew by just two more.

"Nobody cared. We would raise a couple of thousand bucks and we didn't make a blip," But in 2004, 40 people gathered for the 12.5-mile paddle across Long Island Sound. After that, the event took off. Last year, there were 300 paddlers and 5,000 donors who raised nearly $500,000.

"We found something that was challenging and accessible."

Like Lee's organization, this one is a pass-through. Last year 60 charities made their pitch for money to Spencer's nonprofit. They selected six.

Saving area coral reefs

Lee is learning from others. His second event, held in April, began at Currie Park in West Palm Beach and ended at Bryant Park in Lake Worth. It drew 28 participants and raised close to $7,000.

Palm Beach County Reef Rescue, a grass roots nonprofit group of scuba divers working to save the coral reefs off the coast, was the beneficiary.

The money will pay for several of its projects including one to create a detailed map of endangered staghorn coral.

Reef Rescue Director Ed Tichenor said the Kayak-a-thon caught the imagination of a lot of reef rescue people and made it easy for them to raise money without much effort.

"He provided the platform, he did all of the planning. It seemed like a no-brainer," Tichenor said.

Lee's already thinking about what's next. In addition to another kayaking event, he thinks a beach volleyball tournament might be a fun way to raise money and awareness.

"Anything that's physical is what I want to do," he said. "I think we can raise a lot of money."