01/07/2014 10:34 am ET Updated Mar 09, 2014

Turning Lemons Into Sweet Tea

Two weeks ago I attended the press conference announcing the creation of the Water Institute, an innovative new campus dedicated to studying water, both as an asset and as a problem to coastal communities, to be located right here on the Baton Rouge waterfront. The Water Institute is the vision of my colleague and dear friend John Davies, president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. The last time I remember feeling so proud was in 1996 watching Warren Morris's press conference after his bottom-of-the-ninth game-winning homerun in the College World Series. My father, Skip Bertman, changed the face of baseball during his time coaching at Louisiana State University (LSU), and I was lucky to grow up with such a visionary. John Davies, too, is a visionary. I know one when I see one. His leadership has changed the field of philanthropy.

The press conference afforded me the pleasure of listening to many people from across all sectors talk about the Water Institute, one of the many projects of my colleague of more than 20 years. But I also knew a secret: This particular project was prophesized many years ago. The exact timeline escapes me. It was more than five years ago, sometime between Hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, and Hurricane Gustav, but we have had so many disasters down here, who can keep them straight? I was sitting with John when he said, "We need an institute to study water, both its assets and its challenges." I sat silently, not knowing what that could possibly look like. And now today we are building a 27.6-acre riverfront water campus that could create as many as 45,000 jobs over the next two decades. The water management sector is one of the nine key industries listed by the Louisiana Department of Economic Development as key to the growth of the state economy.

John Davies was eighth to speak at the press conference. Other speakers included our Republican governor, a Democratic city mayor, the president of LSU, as well as representatives of the private sector. Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu was not able to attend the event, but she was a pivotal supporter of this project. John said the fewest words of anyone on the dais, and he spoke matter-of-factly, yet he had the largest role in making this happen. The truth is John is bullish, passionate, and does not straddle fences. As the son of a diplomat, he knows how to convene an eclectic group of people with varying motives and backgrounds. He has the unique combination of wanting to build something in order to achieve incredible impact, but also understanding the grace necessary to accomplish the task. Certainly, as a result of dealing with these different personalities, the Water Institute went through several incarnations and almost struck out a few times, but leave it to John to pull it out in the bottom of the ninth.

The Water Institute's success is further proof that philanthropy is not simply a gap-filler or a hapless convener. Thanks to visionaries such as John Davies and others, philanthropists have become entrepreneurs and leaders, both in and out of crisis. The Water Institute is going to save many lives, not only in the state of Louisiana. It is so easy to think from a linear point of view, "We have one state with a receding coastline. We need to fix it." However, philanthropists like John see it as an economic driver, as well as a means to empower coastal communities across the globe. Philanthropy provides innovative ideas, galvanizes people with resources, and solves complex problems through the execution of creativity and leadership. Money is no longer what inspires people. Rather it is bright, courageous ideas with global implications.

As philanthropists, we understand that people in Louisiana may be dancing in puddles of water after a flood, living their lives and enjoying the hands they were dealt. At the same time, people in New Jersey may be lamenting the loss of their historic boardwalk. In other parts of the world, there are coastal communities fleeing for their lives. The implications of the Water Institute are tremendous. It will not only provide an economic driver for Louisiana, it will impact the two-thirds of the population that live near riparian and coastal communities and provide tactics people can use on a global level to bring themselves home or relocate if necessary following a devastating flood.

Learn from Louisiana. I think I just created a new slogan! We have our problems in this state, but as a result, we have also become an incubator of global solutions because of people like John. The lessons in Louisiana are all about sophisticated, ahead-of-the-curve solutions coming from the smartest people and the strongest leaders. Perhaps what makes these leaders so effective is that they never forget the true definition of the word philanthropy, "The love of humankind."