Founded on December 12, 1988, Riverwalk Fort Lauderdale, Inc., was established to serve as a not-for-profit vehicle, in partnership with the City of Fort Lauderdale, to design, develop and coordinate events along a two and a half mile stretch of the New River. When Genia Duncan Ellis, President and CEO of Riverwalk Fort Lauderdale, Inc., and Editor in Chief of Go Riverwalk Magazine, joined the organization 12 years ago, it was a golden opportunity to actively contribute to an initiative she believes in and a community she adores. Ellis shared the story behind her journey, including the challenges and rewards of not-for-profit work and the future of Riverwalk Fort Lauderdale.
“I am originally from Greensboro, NC,” Ellis said. Following college, I spent over 30 years with the Department of Defense and defense contractors designing, manufacturing and implementing decoys and decoy launching systems for both airborne and shipboard use along with other special projects for the Navy, Air Force, and Army. I was pretty much a ‘government girl’ my entire career."
Ellis continued, “When my husband, who also worked for the DoD, and I retired, we were living in Boston, MA. We spent a few years sailing along the eastern seaboard and knew we weren’t going back to the Northeast. We’d been coming down to Fort Lauderdale for years, so when it came time to find a place to ‘retire’, this part of Florida was right where we wanted to be.”
Ellis and her husband relocated to Fort Lauderdale in 1996. Even though she was officially retired, it didn’t take long for Ellis to get involved. For the next 12 years, she, according to her husband, became a “civic rebel and disruptor”. She was engaged in city and community projects and logged countless volunteer hours assisting with project oversight and grant writing. By 2008, Ellis was asked to do much more than just volunteer.
“The President and CEO, at the time, had been with the organization for 10 years,” Ellis said. “She was ready to move on. That’s when they approached me about stepping in as interim President and CEO for six to eight weeks. I agreed to do it, and 12 years later I’m still here.”
Before Riverwalk Fort Lauderdale was incorporated, the City of Fort Lauderdale had a desire to develop an area along the New River for public use. A bond was secured and the design, development, public outreach and coordination with the city, county, Core of Engineers and Coast Guard took place as both sides of the river in downtown Fort Lauderdale were under development. As part of that, the city determined that there should be a separate entity to do oversight. That’s ultimately how Riverwalk Fort Lauderdale was formed. As Ellis shared however, the organization’s mission and focus has evolved into much more than just oversight.
“After overseeing the design, development, outreach and implementation of the project, our next step was activation and getting people to enjoy it. That became our key mission.”
Ellis continued, “Over the years, we’ve had some iconic events, including Jazz Brunch and our annual Burger Battle. These events draw thousands of people to the Riverwalk to eat, drink, listen to music, look at art and enjoy themselves. We host a lot of runs and walks and work to implement art in public spaces. We’re currently finishing up a capital campaign to build a 9-11 monument. We even assist with activation of other parks within the Riverwalk District. Two years ago, we partnered with JetBlue to build a playground in an underserved part of downtown.”
Approximately 18 years ago, Riverwalk Fort Lauderdale launched Go Riverwalk Magazine, a publication designed to inform the public about the charity’s ongoing initiatives and events throughout the Riverwalk District. As Ellis shared, the publication has grown from a three-page newsletter to a highly sought after magazine with nearly 300 drops throughout the city.
“The magazine is an enormous tool,” Ellis said. “I think we’re the only charity to have its own magazine. We partner with a publisher, whose job is to sell advertising, do the layout and distribution, and for that, he keeps the revenue but pays us a stipend to cover our costs. The magazine features stories about new buildings and transportation changes, along with a very robust calendar of social events. It’s delivered to condominiums, office buildings and even Whole Foods. Last year, we partnered with the Fort Lauderdale Downtown Development Authority to produce a video called Fort Lauderdale on the Rise. It was a great opportunity to showcase the amazing things happening in our city. We even won a Telly Award for the video.”
Despite the ongoing challenges of fundraising that inherently come with running a not-for-profit, Ellis couldn’t be more thankful for her team, the Board of Directors and for the opportunity to be part of something special.
“Working with the city and the county and being part of the planning and implementation of what your city is going to look like is very rewarding,” she said. “Engaging with the public, implementing creative ideas and being able to watch Fort Lauderdale grow up has been an incredible experience. Along the way, we’re forever looking for new ways to make our city unique and to attract and retain younger generations. That includes things like water trolleys, kickball, yoga, color runs and themed events. We’re always working on something interesting.”
Looking ahead, Ellis and her team are wrapping up their fundraising efforts for the 9/11 memorial and will continue to focus on new projects and activities that engage the changing demographic. Riverwalk Activities, a separate entity, was created to offer paddle boarding, bicycling, a party cycle and a water party cycle to engage with the younger and more physically active residents moving into downtown Fort Lauderdale. Long term projects include work on layout and defining needs for the Riverwalk’s 10 parks over the next 30 years. That includes seawall restoration to protect against sea level rise.
Ellis shared some great advice for entrepreneurs interested in starting and running their own not-for-profit. “You need to understand that you’re mission driven,” she said. “Stay on your mission to help people better understand who you are and to trust, follow and participate with your organization. Also, focus on collaboration with other charities and partners. You’re not on an island and you’re not competing with others. You are doing a public service. By collaborating with others, you’re more likely to grow and accomplish your objectives. We’ve done this for years. We’ll run the logistics for an event and another charity will handle other aspects of it. We share revenue and everyone accomplishes their goals.”
Ellis continued, “A great example is the collaboration between two historical properties in the city. Together, through a grant, they developed an app that walks visitors throughout the city with a narration that talks about historical things based on the user’s location. They did a collaboration that fostered their shared mission of telling the history of the city. Collaboration is key in the not-for-profit world.”