April 17, 2024
Dr. Phillips Charities
The Packing District, just a couple of miles from downtown Orlando, is the non-profit's last big development.

Photo: Rendering

Dr. Phillips Charities
Projects can live or dies depending on whether dr. Phillips Charities takes an interest and signed a check. Ken Robinson has been leading the charity for eight years.

Photo: Norma Lopez Molina

Dr. Phillips Charities
Dr. Phillips Charities has an outsized presence in Central Florida, leading capital campaigns in the region and providing millions of dollars of support over the years to local legacy organizations, such as the Boys & Girls Club and YMCA.

Photo: Dr. Phillips Charities

Dr. Phillips Charities
at the corner of Princeton and Orange Blossom Trail in Orlando, Dr. Phillip Charities will construct a replica of an 1,800-sq.-ft. juice stand that stood there in the 1940s and 1950s.

Photo: Rendering


Dr. Phillips Charities combines traditional philanthropy with real estate development to fund non-profits

Amy Keller | 7/30/2021

About eight years ago, Ken Robinson, president and CEO of Dr. Phillips Charities, and his board noticed there were few senior living options in the Dr. Phillips community, the Orlando neighborhood named after the late citrus magnate (and the charity’s namesake) Philip “Doc” Phillips. “You can be born at the Dr. Phillips Hospital, and you can go to school there and you can have a great job there. There’s wonderful restaurants, the Bay Hills Golf Club, but there wasn’t a good retirement community,” says Robinson, who has led Dr. Phillips Charities since 2013.

To fill the void, the nonprofit teamed up with Harbor Retirement Associates, a Vero Beach-based senior living development and management company, and built HarborChase Dr. Phillips, an upscale senior living facility on 26 acres that Dr. Phillips Charities owned on Spring Lake. Adjacent to the facility, the charity built a 60,000sq. ft. medical office building it leases to Orlando Health. “Historically, health care’s always been at a hospital site, and the medical offices were right next to it, but generally those aren’t the most convenient places to get to,” Robinson says. “We’re able to bring health care right into the community, right next to the senior housing.”

The Spring Lake campus provides something additional to Dr. Phillips Charities — a stream of revenue that the philanthropic giant uses to help fund the grants it makes to hundreds of other charities in Orange and Osceola counties.

Robinson prefers the term “community builder” to “developer” when discussing the non-profit’s real estate activities. “We like to improve the assets we have for the benefit of the community but generate revenues from them that we in turn put back into the community. So the rents we charge on the buildings we own ultimately become the grants that we give to the Boys & Girls Club, the YMCAs, the hospitals, the schools, the arts centers around Central Florida.”

Dr. Phillips Charities’ extensive real estate holdings are unusual for a non-profit, enabling it to create a unique business model combining traditional philanthropy with real estate development. It also provides a way for the charity to hedge its bets. “We sort of split up our money equally” between the stock market and real estate, Robinson says. As the value of its stock market investments fluctuates, real estate enables it to get a more stable return.

Rooted in citrus

The real estate holdings that sustain Dr. Phillips Charities today were assembled during the first half of the 20th century by an entrepreneur from Tennessee named Philip “Doc” Phillips. The son of a French horse trader, Phillips moved to Central Florida in 1894 at age 22 intending to raise cattle. Instead, he purchased an orange grove in Putnam County for $5,000. The Great Freeze of 1895 interrupted his plans, decimating his crops, and Phillips returned to Memphis.

But over the next couple of years, Phillips returned to Florida regularly and bought citrus groves throughout Orange and Osceola counties. He returned to the area permanently in 1902, with his wife, Della, and two sons, and grew his portfolio to include groves along the shores of Orlando’s Sand Lake, a key location that tended to stay warmer during freezes. Over time, he amassed 5,000 acres of groves across nine Florida counties, built three packinghouses and became the largest citrus grower in the world, growing and selling more than 100 million oranges a year stamped with the Dr. Phillips brand name.

Doc Phillips, as many called him, wasn’t shy about using his doctor credentials to sell the vitamin C-packed beverage. “Drink Dr. Phillips’ orange juice because the Doc says it’s good for you,” labels on the cans stated. Whether he was a doctor or not, however, remains unclear to this day. Lore has it that he studied medicine at Columbia University in New York in the late 1890s. Another story, according to the Orlando Sentinel, is that he earned an honorary medical degree from the French government “for letting the Red Cross use a chateau he owned as a field hospital during World War I.”

Robinson says it’s impossible to know whether Phillips actually had any medical training — but Phillips’ marketing talent was undeniable. “He was able to go to the American Medical Association, providing them with evidence of the benefits of orange juice and citrus,” Robinson notes — and from the 1930s onward, all of Dr. Phillips’ canned juice products carried the American Medical Association’s seal of acceptance. “He did just a great job of marketing that concept. It really meant something,” Robinson says.

Along the way, Phillips and his team invented and patented a “flash” pasteurization process that eliminated the metallic taste from canned orange juice — an innovation he shared with the rest of the citrus industry. Phillips also blazed trails as an employer: His company established onsite cafeterias with healthy food for employees and had medical clinics at his packinghouses; he cross-trained employees who worked in his packinghouses to be masons, carpenters and electricians so they didn’t have to move during the off-season — and he created permanent housing and schools for workers he recruited from the Bahamas to work in the groves. Employees who died were buried in the Dr. Phillips Cemetery off Apopka-Vineland Road at no cost.

A shift in focus

In 1954, Phillips sold his citrus operations — including 2,500 acres of citrus groves — to Minute Maid for about $50 million, according to the Orlando Sentinel. He retained all his commercial properties that weren’t used for citrus production, however. A few years later, he leased 620 acres to developers from Ohio. The land would eventually become the Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge. Phillips then sold the land to Palmer. Phillips’ late son, Howard Phillips, oversaw the development of the family’s Sand Lake property in southwest Orange County into an affluent, master-planned residential neighborhood called Doctor Phillips. The remainder of the Phillips’ family holdings were moved into two foundations — the Doctor P. Phillips Foundation and Dr. Phillips Inc., collectively referred to now as Dr. Phillips Charities.

The charities, which listed a combined total of nearly $249 million in assets in their latest public filings, give away about $10 million in grants annually and have given more than $200 million in grants since their inception — with the majority donated since 1990. It’s not anywhere near the biggest philanthropic organization in the state, but it’s hard to find too many with the same kind of outsized impact on their regions. “They are our largest philanthropic organization and have given out more grants by far than any other” in Central Florida, says Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.

“I can look out my office window and see one of the buildings that was impacted by a lead gift from Dr. Phillips — the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center,” Dyer says. “They’re active in the arts; they’re active in healthcare-related activities; and they’re active in kids’ activities. I know they’re major contributors to the Boys & Girls Club and the YMCA and a number of different programs at AdventHealth and Orlando Health. We’re deeply appreciative of the impact they’ve made over the years.”

Another part of the charity’s mission: Support of the free enterprise system and private property rights. The foundation makes donations to conservative-leaning groups, such as the James Madison Institute for Public Policy Studies in Tallahassee, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, a non-profit research institute focused on free markets and limited government, and the Pacific Legal Foundation, which fights for private property rights.

Gary Blanchette, who recently retired as executive director of the non-profit Edyth Bush Institute, says he became acquainted with Dr. Phillips Charities over the two decades that he led the Junior Achievement organization in Orlando. “One of the Phillips actually helped start Junior Achievement back in the 1950s,” he says. “Junior Achievement was always on their list, and clearly the reason they liked junior achievement was because it was about free enterprise and providing students an opportunity to understand what America’s all about, helping them understand financial literacy, workforce readiness, entrepreneurship, those type of things.”

Dr. Phillips Charities is also accountability-oriented. “They want to see results; they want to see impacts with those dollars. They want to make sure the non-profit (recipient) measures those results and fulfills whatever they said they were doing to do,” Blanchette says. “It’s not just, ‘Here’s $100,000.’ You better be able to measure it and come back to the board and say, ‘Here’s what we’ve done.’ ”

Blanchette commends Dr. Phillips for bending its rules during the COVID-19 pandemic and making $1.6 million in grants to a number of local non-profits that needed help to keep their doors open. “They listened to the community. They had some resources, and they wanted to provide some help. That was really great. That was Herculean.”

Unpacking the last parcel

Dr. Phillips has reached somewhat of a crossroads. Today, Robinson is overseeing the $700-million development of the last big parcel that the charity owns — 202 acres along the western edge of Orlando’s College Park neighborhood near downtown. The plan, via a public/private partnership, calls for converting an industrial eyesore dotted with warehouses into a mixed-use community called the Packing District, with homes, apartments, offices, restaurants, retail and more. He anticipates half a million square feet of office space and 2,000 to 2,500 residential units when completed.

“This is the last big tract that you’ll see activity on from Dr. Phillips,” says Robinson. “It’s so close to downtown Orlando. It’s less than two miles from the city center, from the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center or UCF downtown. It’s just too valuable to continue as industrial property.”

Work is already underway on the Cannery, a 307-unit, four-story apartment complex that San Antonio–based Embrey Partners is building at the corner of Orange Blossom Trail and Princeton Street. Rents will range from $1,275 for a 490-sq.- ft. studio apartment to $2,745 a month for a three-bedroom, two-bath unit with 1,421 square feet. Amenities will include a 3,000-sq.-ft. fitness and yoga center, a billiards room, as well as a resortstyle swimming pool and a 5,000-sq.-ft. rooftop deck. On 8½ acres in the heart of the district, Toll Brothers plans to build 135 three-story townhomes (starting in the upper $300,000s) called the Brix just off Princeton Street. The townhomes will be flanked by a new YMCA family center to the west, a 105-acre community park to the east and a new city-owned tennis center to the north.

The park — which Dr. Phillips Charities donated to the city — will include a trail system and a covered pavilion. “That pavilion can be used for getting out of the sun, getting out of the rain, used by the city for exercise, used by the farmer’s market, or by the Orlando Philharmonic to put on an outdoor concert for the community or the Orlando Ballet,” Robinson says.

The park will also feature an 18-acre urban farm led by John Rivers, CEO of 4 Rivers Restaurant Group/4 Rivers Smokehouse, which aims to create a “healthy, thriving, sustainable” regional food system. The urban farm campus will conduct demonstration projects using various farming techniques (including hydroponics, aquaponics and permaculture) and engage the public with a farm to table restaurant, a convention/event barn and a discovery center where local students can come to learn more about agriculture.

The project will take anywhere from five to 10 years to build out, Robinson predicts, but one day, like HarborChase, it will generate money for Dr. Phillips Charities. “The real estate that Dr. Phillips retains will continue to get improved in office, retail, grocery, restaurants and those will be what we receive rental payments on,” Robinson says — all part of the charity’s business plan.

“Our goal is to continue to improve our properties and improve our asset base to the extent that we give away more money next year than we gave away this year. That’s one of the driving principles we have,” he says. “A number of non-profits, they take their assets and say we want to give away all of our assets over the next 10 years. We quite frankly have a different opinion on that and want to be a long-term investor in this community — so 20 years from now we’re continuing to give and make a difference.”

A Troubled Family

While the Phillips’ family businesses and charities have prospered over the last century, the family itself was beset by turmoil and tragedy. Phillips’ two sons, Howard and Walter, had little in common and never really liked each other, according to a 1987 article on the family in the Orlando Sentinel. Howard, the more academically inclined, first-born son attended private schools his entire life and majored in English literature at Harvard, eventually returning to Orlando to run the administrative side of the business. Walter, meanwhile, was more comfortable on the land handling the farming, but a rift in the mid-1940s left him estranged from his family, which essentially disinherited him and left him with just one 200-acre orange grove in Kissimmee.

In oral history interviews recorded by the Friends of the Orlando Public Library, Howard described the falling-out as stemming from a quarrel over their stock holdings in the company. “It was a fairly violent situation with a great many personalities involved that didn’t make sense to anybody, except my brother, who provoked the situation.”

With his father’s help, Howard bought Walter out of the business after World War II and took control of the company. While Howard spearheaded the bulk of Dr. Phillips’ philanthropic efforts, he also cultivated a second life across the country in San Francisco and spent most of his later years there, attending the opera and living in an apartment in the swanky neighborhood of Russian Hill. In 1979, Howard, then 77, was found bludgeoned to death in a bathtub in a $35-per-night motel on Market Street. A 27-year-old “drifter” and prostitute named Wayne Reed Golden was arrested and charged with his murder, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Walter died in 1991 at age 86 after a struggle with Parkinson’s disease.

Dr. Phillips Charities: By the Numbers

$200 million — Total grants and pledges awarded since the charity’s inception

$10 million — Annual average distributions by Dr. Phillips Charities

$35 million — Support provided for the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando

$7.5 million — Donation to UCF’s new downtown Creative Village campus, the largest private gift to the project

13 — Buildings and venues in Central Florida named after the Phillips family


Dr. Phillips Charities may not be the biggest private foundation in Florida in terms of assets or spending, but it has an outsized presence in Central Florida, leading capital campaigns in the region and providing millions of dollars of support over the years to local legacy organizations, such as the Boys & Girls Club and YMCA. “Dr. Phillips Charities is one of the big, main private foundations here in Central Florida, and so the way they lead and the way they give — it’s a big deal,” says Min Sun Kim, interim executive director at the Edyth Bush Institute for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Leadership at Rollins College. Celebrations ensue when a gift is awarded from the Dr. Phillips Charities because applicants know they’ve “gone through the fire,” Kim adds. “There is some prestige to it because their process is vigorous.”

Florida Foundations

Florida is home to approximately 9,100 foundations. Among them are 150 community foundations, typically created as a result of the sale of a municipal asset like a publicly owned hospital. The state’s largest community foundation is the Community Foundation of Northeast Florida, with $548 million in assets. It gave $49 million in grants and received $79 million in new gifts in 2020. There are also family foundations, typically smaller than community foundations, that are created as a charitable vehicle by wealthy families. The largest family foundation is the Ted Arison Family Foundation in Aventura, with assets of $480 million. 


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