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Exit Interview

I first encountered Hodding Carter III the way most people my age did -- as a face on the television screen. He was the U.S. State Department's spokesperson in 1979-80, when militant students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran during the Iranian revolution and took 52 Americans hostage. For a time, Carter was a fixture on the nightly network news during negotiations with the Iranians that dragged on for more than 400 days.

Before serving in government, Carter had been editor and associate publisher of the Delta Democrat-Times in Greenville, Miss. His father created the newspaper, and the family nurtured it as a vehicle to promote racial, religious and economic tolerance in a state and time where all three were in short supply. I met him in person at a journalism-related event at my home several years ago and spent an enjoyable afternoon quizzing him about what he felt it meant to be a Southerner these days. Carter's post-State Department career has included serving as president of a TV production company that specializes in documentaries and public affairs television; teaching at the University of Maryland; and, most recently, serving as president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami.

Now 70, Carter has just handed over the Knight CEO's job to Alberto Ibarg?en, most recently publisher of the Miami Herald. I called Carter for two reasons. He's genial, thoughtful, hugely principled -- and unlike many who make their careers in the public eye, he has managed to remain warm-blooded. The thread that's defined him throughout his career has been a gentlemanly but passionate devotion to community-building and to the sensibilities and civic courage it takes to accomplish it. Those are the values that drive this magazine, and I wanted to hear what he had to say about them in the context of his experience in Florida. More particularly, I wanted his exit evaluation on the condition of the state's philanthropic organizations -- essential linchpins in community-building.

Moving to Florida was a culture shock, he acknowledges. He spent his first night in Miami alone in a hotel room, watching a "60 Minutes" story about all manner of egregious misbehavior in the city. "I said, 'What? What is this town I've come to?' I was shocked by what seemed to be a blatant level of corruption." In his first year in the state, he says, "I had the sense that a lot of people saw south Florida as a place to live but not a home." In the philanthropic sector, he became quite familiar with a corollary of that sense -- the 'I-gave-back-home' phenomenon that has defined, and hamstrung, the state's local charitable giving for decades.

Carter says Florida's philanthropies and non-profits have begun to create a new dynamic, however. They share more information and projects. Local community foundations around the state, he says, are particularly vibrant. Cooperation among non-profits, business and government is improving: Carter is proud to have helped create the Florida Philanthropic Network, a coalition of foundations, including Knight, the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation, the Allegany Franciscan Foundation and Jessie Ball duPont Fund, that helps advance philanthropy in Florida. "The philanthropic sector is much more vital and intensely Florida-oriented than it was a decade ago," he says.

Knight, under Carter's leadership, has targeted its giving much more narrowly and examined outcomes more carefully. It has also focused on giving to programs in communities whose residents need help the most -- in Florida, for example, that's meant Miami's Overtown and poor neighborhoods in Bradenton and Riviera Beach. The approach has helped put Knight in the vanguard of national giving trends. "The old way you define 'best civic purposes' doesn't fit any more," he says. "If you really want your symphony orchestra to survive, you have to find a way to reinaugurate programs in schools" rather than focus on building grand performance spaces that are becoming increasingly difficult to fill. "You have to remember that your base no longer resembles Hodding Carter. The base looks stunningly like the world," he says. Foundations, he says, increasingly understand that "they're not in the monument-building business; they're in the society-building business."

The state's biggest promise and challenge in its collective civic life, he believes, is its educational system. "You can have plenty of development and still leave people in an impoverished status unless you improve the quality and reach of education that the majority of Floridians get. Some people say money isn't the answer, but it is the answer. And the reason everybody knows it's the answer is that they're willing to spend so much of it on private schools for their own children. You simply can't make the system get better by squeezing more out of existing tax formula. You really have got to admit you have to find more productive, that is to say richer, ways to fund the education system."

After a vacation in Maine, Carter will move to North Carolina, where he'll be University Professor of Leadership and Public Policy at UNC-Chapel Hill. He'll keep a home in Miami, which he believes has changed radically for the better since he first arrived -- he's a big fan of Mayor Manny Diaz, who he says has put "some big dogs back in their kennels."

During his time in Miami, he says, he "adapted to the rhythm and sense of the community, and I got to know a variety of people far more infinite than the people who make the headlines in the Herald. I leave as a guy who looks forward to being able to come back because we (he and Patt Derian, his wife) think of it as a place where we think very good things are happening and better things could happen and will happen."Mark Howard can be reached by e-mail at mhoward@floridatrend.com.