A decade ago, David Baldwin wrote his first $5,000 check to the Academy Prep Center of St. Petersburg.
Lacey Nash Miller, the academy’s director of development, didn’t recognize Baldwin’s name. But she invited him to a breakfast, thinking he might want to learn more and become a regular donor. That’s exactly what happened. By the time he died at 96 in March 2021, Baldwin was giving about $17,000 per year, enough to fund a scholarship.
Miller didn’t know if Baldwin would leave Academy Prep a bequest. But he was a man of some means, so she thought he might. Something like $10,000, she thought, “would be lovely.”
Last month, the check came in from Baldwin’s estate: $9.5 million. By far the largest gift in Academy Prep’s history.
“I’ve never even seen that number on paper and it’s been real,” Miller said.
It was real. And there was more where that came from.
A year after Baldwin’s death, his estate last month began pouring an estimated $63 million into a half-dozen Tampa Bay nonprofits — in several cases becoming the largest single donation in the organization’s history.
“We had no idea the generosity, the scale, the scope of it,” said Tim Marks, CEO of Metropolitan Ministries, which got more than $9 million. “We see this gift as being transformational, but also one that’s going to have an impact for years if not decades to come.”
The St. Petersburg Free Clinic received $9.5 million, and R’Club Child Care Inc. received around $6 million. Community Action Stops Abuse received a “generous” and “meaningful” donation, said CEO Lariana Forsythe, but the organization declined to disclose the amount. Lighthouse of Pinellas also received a donation; calls there were not returned.
To put the bequests in perspective: The two most recent Tampa Bay grants from philanthropist Mackenzie Scott, one of the world’s wealthiest people, were for $11 million and $7.5 million, both to local chapters of Habitat for Humanity. Baldwin’s gifts to Tampa Bay organizations are in that range.
“It’s an astounding amount of money,” said R’Club executive director Debra Ballinger. “I think we’re in a state of shock. It’s just an amazing gift. We’re a small local charity, and we’re so happy.”
Baldwin also left a substantial amount to his own foundation, which since 2014 has been managed by the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay. That group’s president and CEO, Marlene Spalten, declined to say how much he left, but said it would be invested and dispersed “over the years to organizations along the same lines as what David cared about.”
In all, Miller said that according to Baldwin’s trust, some $63 million has been given out thus far.
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“He knew exactly what he was doing,” Miller said. “None of us did. But I think he scouted out different nonprofits in the area that aligned with his values and things that he felt were important. We are one of seven organizations that he put in his estate, and it’s an unbelievable, transformational gift.”
Baldwin was known in local philanthropic circles, Spalten said, but to most of the world, he carried himself with little pretense. He showed up to nonprofit events in an old Lincoln Town Car, but even into his 90s, he liked to bike around St. Petersburg when he could. He played bridge, drank red wine and gin martinis and loved a good, cheap meal.
Debbie Sokolov, the St. Pete Free Clinic’s former director of development, who became a close friend — she inherited and still cares for his cat Louise — recalled one meal with Baldwin at Munch’s Sundries where the total bill came out to $9. He was particularly pleased by that, she said.
“He was sort of a secret millionaire,” said Sokolov, now the director of development at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art. “You wouldn’t think he had two pennies to rub together. He had, in his closet, I think five pieces of clothing. His furniture was tattered. I had no idea, really.”
Baldwin came into philanthropy from a career in electronics. A New Hampshire native and Case Western Reserve University graduate with a master’s from Columbia, he had developed a bit of microwave radio technology that didn’t fit in with the work he was doing for his then-employer, so he used $4,000 of his own money to start his own company in his basement. Before long, he sold that company for seven figures and started another successful software company.
He and his wife, Virginia, who died in 2008, donated millions over the years to Case Western Reserve, most recently by redirecting $4 million from a previous grant to fund a new interdisciplinary program. But it was in their adopted home of St. Petersburg that Baldwin became a more visible part of the philanthropic landscape.
“He wanted to give his money away,” Sokolov said, “and he wanted to be around to see it.”
Most of his local giving started relatively small, Spalten said, as he researched causes he thought good fits. But there were exceptions. About nine years ago, he gave the St. Pete Free Clinic a then-undisclosed amount — $1.5 million, Sokolov said recently — to fund a shelter named the Virginia and David Baldwin Women’s Residence. He quietly gave another $500,000 shortly thereafter, Sokolov said. And in 2019, he made a rare public donation, giving the clinic $1 million to establish an endowment.
“He had a real soft heart for people that had a challenging life, and especially women and girls,” Spalten said. “He had earned the money, and now he had the fun of watching that money make a difference in people’s lives. It meant a lot to him and made him a happy person, because he was that way; people wanted to be around him.”
In 2014, he handed management of the David and Virginia Baldwin Foundation over to the Community Foundation — not an uncommon move for philanthropists who no longer have the time or capacity to manage the day-to-day business of their nonprofits, Spalten said. The Community Foundation vetted charities, distributed payments and took charge of compliance; while Baldwin was free to direct money, attend breakfasts and luncheons and check in on projects close to his heart — which he often did, right up until the pandemic.
“He was just a very quiet, humble, kind man, and he really enjoyed the kids,” said R’Club’s Ballinger. “He loved seeing what was happening with the children, and wanted to see that they had a good trajectory for life.”
David and Virginia Baldwin had three children of their own. The family and the estate’s trust officer did not respond to requests for an interview placed through the Community Foundation.
It can take months to liquidate a donor’s investments to prepare for posthumous giving, Spalten said, which is why Baldwin’s bequests are just now being dispersed. That delay contributed to the shock recipients felt at the size of each gift. Some aren’t yet sure what to do with the money. Others aren’t sure how to respond publicly, fearing it could lead other donors to send their money elsewhere.
At Academy Prep, Baldwin’s gift will fund a new endowment “safeguarding us and ensuring that we are here to stay,” Miller said. At Metropolitan Ministries, directors will use it “as an investment in the long-term sustainability in our work,” Marks said.
“You don’t ever plan for a gift that size,” Marks said. “It will sustain us for years if not decades to come, to do things and help more people and more communities. We know our community is hurting, but we will make a long-term investment strategy with these funds to whatever is on the horizon for us. We now know that we have capital dollars and operational dollars to do things that maybe we wouldn’t have been able to do.”
Spalten said Baldwins’ gift to his own nonprofit at the Community Foundation will be invested and paid out over time to causes he held dear. She said it was “too early to say” if additional gifts in the $6 million to $10 million range would be coming. But she is well aware of the impact such gifts would have.
“It causes leadership to pause and think bigger, like, ‘OK, now we don’t have to come from scarcity, but from abundance,’” she said. “All sorts of solutions emerge that you don’t dare think of when you’re scratching for every nickel to keep the doors open.”
The gifts, Spalten said, should enable these causes to “leapfrog” recurring roadblocks and think bigger, potentially even about solving some of the core issues at the heart of what they do.
“What we always hope is that the leadership of the organization takes full advantage of that opportunity and decides creatively and wisely how they can be different now as a result of this,” she said. “That’s what David would want for them.”