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Alicia Philipp, Working at the Nexus Between Nonprofits and Philanthropy

As president of The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, Alicia Philipp commands one of the top 25 community foundations in the U.S. (there are more than 730), and is a known leader in grantmaking and community impact. Through more than one recession, Alicia has managed to grow The Community Foundation’s assets from $7 million in 1977 to more than $755 million today. Over her 36-year career with the Foundation, she’s inspired innovation and instilled organizational strength at nonprofits in 23 metro Atlanta counties. At her core, always, is a deep understanding of community—what moves individuals to improve their surroundings with new ideas and hard work. Recently, she sat down with GCN CEO Karen Beavor to discuss the Foundation and the state of philanthropy today.

On the DNA of community foundations

The building blocks of any community foundation are essentially the same. The walls might change, the little things change, but basically you’ve got three things: first, donors with varied types of funds; second, grantmaking nonprofit foundations; and third, the power to convene.

You have the power to bring people together around community issues and to be able to get a very diverse group of people at the same table. Community foundations are at that nexus point between the people who have the resources and the nonprofits carrying out the work. So all community foundations have those building blocks. A community foundation in a less populated part of the state may have less assets from which to make grants but it might be a bigger deal in its town, therefore having a greater ability to convene. So, the three blocks are always there but their relative size to each other may change. In the end, we all have the same DNA.

On the role nonprofits can play in supporting their local community foundations:

The reality is that many nonprofits throughout the state don’t really have the ability to think much about planned giving. Community foundations can often be that place where planned giving can happen. So, partnering to help your community build a legacy for the future—either directly with gifts that are earmarked for particular nonprofits or earmarked in general—is a way that nonprofits and community foundations can work together better.

On the biggest challenges community foundations face in building their grantmaking ability:

Well, foundations have to get donors! It’s a long process. How do you begin to help donors to see there is a need for a community to have an endowment to meet changing needs that can’t be foreseen? That’s a tough message because most people think of institutions, not their own community having one. But what we see is that more and more people really do care deeply about the communities they come from. The question then becomes: how do you make that attachment and connection to a place? That is something that simply takes time.

On the trending concerns for philanthropy:

I am most worried about the future of the charitable deduction. A lot of people say, “Oh, don’t worry about that. Nothing will ever happen to that.” From our recent experience on Capitol Hill, speaking to all the Georgia senators and congressmen, I don’t think that is necessarily true. I think there is a definite desire, if there is tax legislation, to go back to zero deductions and build back from there. All of them will say, “Absolutely, of course we’re going to put the charitable deduction back in.” But at what level, and will they really do it? Of greatest importance is to communicate to our elected officials the impact charitable deductions have on the communities they represent.

Legislators argue that if people are charitable, they will still give. I say, “You are darn right they will, because people care about their communities. But, let me tell you, the size of their gift will significantly change.”

The most critical message I was able to deliver on the Hill was that the charitable deduction significantly affects the size of someone’s gift. Legislators argue that if people are charitable, they will still give. I say, “You are darn right they will, because people care about their communities. But let me tell you, the size of their gift will significantly change.” That fact is something they didn’t get, and that’s the message we really need to carry forward.

On the definition of “impact investing”:

First, there are as many definitions as there are people [defining it]. So, I’ll only state what it means to me. It means using the investable assets to double or triple the bottom line. To others it means ensuring their grantmaking is impactfully invested. Regardless, it blends the best from for-profit and nonprofit systems to impact an organization’s financial stability and to add more opportunities for those they serve.

On the Community Foundation’s key projects right now:

There are three projects I want to mention.

First, we’re coming out with a Civic Health Index and we have partnered with three nonprofits—Georgia Forward, Family Connection Partnership, and the University of Georgia’s Fanning Institute—and two sister community foundations in Columbus and Macon. It is a statewide civic health index that examines national data. It will be released later this month. With a little extra funding, we were able to dig deeper into the Georgia data to pull out specific statistics for metro Atlanta on behaviors such as voting, volunteering, social/family habits, and more. These important civic engagement benchmarks help us to determine what we can do at a regional level to help move the needle in the direction of increasing civic engagement among metro Atlantans.

The second thing is the Atlanta Lettuce Works, a for-profit business where the workers will own the business. Located in the Pittsburgh community, it will produce three million pounds of hydroponic lettuce that will be sold to Emory and other anchor institutions.

The workers will be hired from the neighborhood and they will be trained and coached for five years. They’ll earn a living wage plus benefits. Then, after nine years, we estimate they will have a $50,000 investment in the business.

The object is to make this more than a job, to change the dynamic and to give people the opportunity to build wealth. This is just one of the ways we can deal with the intractable problem around an entire group of people in certain areas. It opens up doors for individuals who might not otherwise be able to gain employment—possibly due to a criminal record or other mistakes—but have now proven they are ready to do the right thing and get to work.

It’s a new idea and we’re already working on our second business plan. We see this as a series of businesses that will all be under the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative.

Community foundations are at the nexus point between the people who have the resources and the nonprofits carrying out the work.

Third is the Higher Ground group, four faith-based leaders representing different faiths. They are all retired from the pulpit but are speaking out on critical issues facing this community. They speak from a faith-based, but not faith-biased, viewpoint on topics like gun violence. They speak at churches and centers where 250 people might attend who are eager to discuss the issues impacting their community. We have lost the faith voice in this community. This is certainly not the only voice, but 36 years ago, when I started with this organization, every major nonprofit board had a faith leader on its board, and you would constantly see op-ed pieces from faith leaders speaking out on various topics of concern. Now, you just don’t see that anymore. This is really an attempt to bring this faith voice back—from individuals in the Muslim, Jewish and Protestant faiths.

On strengthening the sector and nonprofit performance:

There are two things we think about a lot that fall under our bucket of strengthening the nonprofit sector. One is really good succession planning. The other is this whole concept of strategic restructuring—how organizations can figure out how to maximize their impact by working with other organizations—along the whole continuum, from MOUs (Memoranda of Understanding) to mergers.

On top concerns for our city:

I’m really worried about all the school boards, because this is where the rubber meets the road for most of us. Each of these school systems is close to a billion dollars, and this is a lot of money, but mainly it’s our children’s and our communities’ future.

The other issue is that for some reason, the concept of being regional in our approach to anything seems unpopular these days. We’ve got to figure out, step by step, how to approach these big problems for a region. But we’ve also got to make sure it’s not five people in a room making regional decisions. We’ve got to be conscious of how we are involving people in communities, in the knowledge about their communities, and in their ability to have a voice.

Lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

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