The following is a conversation between Frank Fernandez, President & CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Denver: The mission of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta is to inspire and lead the region toward equity and shared prosperity for all. The foundation’s strategic touchstone is TogetherATL, a collaborative approach with community stakeholders, donors, nonprofits, and others to examine complex challenges and to create solutions that build a thriving region.

And here to discuss this with us in more detail is Frank Fernandez, the President and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. Welcome to The Business of Giving, Frank.

Frank Fernandez, President & CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta

Frank: Thank you for having me, Denver.

Denver: So, the foundation was founded in 1951. That’s some 72 years ago. Share with us some of its history and maybe a moment or two out of that history that really stands out for you.

Frank: So, I’ve only been with the foundation for the last two and a half years of those 72 years, so I can share a little bit of the recent history. But to give you a sense of our history,  we were founded, as you said, in 1951, and it was really several banks coming together– which is not necessarily how all community foundations were founded.

But community foundations have been around a little over a hundred years and, really, they are kind of what’s built into their name. A communities foundation is when multiple members of a particular place, because we are place-based institutions, come together to think through how they can give back to their respective communities.

And so, we were founded a little differently in that we were founded by four banks, and we’re effectively a way for banks to give away some targeted dollars for, I would say, the first 20, 30 years or so. And then, my predecessor, who was here 42 years, Alicia Phillips, took over in 1978 or so.

And, for them, the next 42 years, she really focused on how she could grow the foundation. And when she started, we had about $8 million under management. When she left, we were about $1.2 billion under management.

Denver: Wow!

Frank: And she really focused on bringing together and increasing from those four donors to where we are today– of over 800 donors that are part of the Community Foundation family. And to me, a lot has happened in that time, and a lot preceded me. But I think what I would lift up is that many community foundations across the country… what we are set up to do, I would argue, is really to bring our donors together to tackle our respective community’s biggest challenges.

And to me, the last several years really are indicative of that in how we came together, and our donors came together, to address and respond to the COVID crisis and continue to do so right now and in the years ahead. So, to me, that would be the thing I would lift up is that that is what we’re set up to do– to help work with donors to address our community’s biggest challenges.

Denver: You know, Frank, Atlanta has the highest income disparity of any major city, which you know spills over into life expectancy as well. And it also has one of the worst rates of economic mobility in the United States. Why is that the case?

Frank: I think there are a lot of reasons for why you have that, because Atlanta has so much going for it.  It is a robust economic center. We are one of the biggest metros in the United States, but that prosperity and that vitality is not evenly distributed.

And, I think, some of that is a function of really the vestiges of the deep South, of slavery and kind of Jim Crow and all that, and how you unwind that and how you address that over time. And it didn’t happen in 10, 20 years. It’s not going to get solved in 10, 20 years.

And so, for us, that actually is, you know, the focus that we are really trying to address over the next several years and to the future for generations, because when you think about this idea of what are the biggest challenges in our region, it is and are these challenges around inequity.

At a high level, for us, we’re focused on: What could we do to help ensure that every resident in our region, every resident of Metro Atlanta, has a fair shot at a decent and good life?  And then trying to address those things that either circumscribe or amplify people’s access to that type of opportunity.

So, how do we make sure that everyone feels safe walking down the street in their communities? How do we help ensure that everyone’s child gets a good education?  That everyone has access to a good job or a home, whether they’re renting or being able to buy it?  So, for us, that is what we are focused on trying to address because we know it’s a real issue in this community; and understand that in Metro Atlanta, like a lot of places and cities across the deep South, that has not always been the case.

And we have structures and systems that were set up to advantage some over others, and how we address these systemic biases, this institutional racism is something that we are thinking about at both an individual as well as at systems level.

“We want to have them think about, not as charity, because people don’t use that term anymore, but there’s a lot of that still implicit in how we go about doing that work, shifting it to a mindset of giving back.

And so, we have a responsibility, a duty to give back to help ensure and to build a more equitable system and a society and a community that is going to allow others to take advantage and have the same access to opportunity that many of us had.”

Denver: You know, I mentioned in the opening your five-year strategic plan, TogetherATL, and I think you just cited some of the priorities in that plan, but you also challenge philanthropists to think differently about their giving. What do you mean by that?

Frank: So, for us, TogetherATL has very explicitly defined how we can help build a more equitable and prosperous place for all, not just some, a who call Metro Atlanta home. And that is what we’re focused on, and we can talk more about how we do that in particular places, and really tackling certain systems.

But the other real, big goal within that strategic plan, which is more implicit, is what you just said: How do we get philanthropy to think and act differently about how it does its philanthropy?

For many years, while we don’t use this term anymore, philanthropy has been defined by this idea of charity, this notion that those who have, the well-off in some sense, will deign to give and support the have-nots, the less well-off. And it’s this relationship that’s really one-directional, where the haves give support to the have-nots, and the have-nots should feel fortunate that the haves are doing that.

And while, we think it’s important to lift up generosity from donors, our donors– we have 800 plus– and who are doing great work, we also are wanting to push them and ourselves because as a community foundation, we bring foundations and people who want to give together.

We want to have them think about, not as charity, because people don’t use that term anymore, but there’s a lot of that still implicit in how we go about doing that work, shifting it to a mindset of giving back. And the very idea of giving back is that you actually are taking something because you have to give it back.

What you took, what each of us took, who are more fortunate, is the opportunity that this society has allowed us to have, and recognizing that not everyone has equal access to that same opportunity. And so, we have a responsibility, a duty to give back to help ensure and to build a more equitable system and a society and a community that is going to allow others to take advantage and have the same access to opportunity that many of us had.

And so, that’s the shift we’re trying to get. Because in that, it’s no longer one-directional, it is really recognizing this is a shared destiny we have and that, but by the grace of God and a lot of other things and structures that benefit some over the others, we would be in a different situation. So how do we make sure that everyone else has that same access to opportunity?

Denver: That’s a great insight. I also think with the focus on systems change, donors have to have a longer time horizon because these are just not band-aids, these are really fixing those systems, and I think, most of our listeners know that systems change is really changing the conditions that hold a problem in place.

What they probably are less informed on is: How do you start?  How do you measure progress?  How do you have the patience for such a long period of time? What is your thinking as it relates to systems change actually doing the work?

Frank: So, for us, and it’s really implicit in our strategic plan, we are focused on this interplay between systems in place, because part of why we did that is because it captures the tension that has been inherent in philanthropy from the beginning, which is: How much do you focus on the here and now, and the challenges and obstacles that people are dealing with in their daily lives right now, whether it’s: they don’t have access to adequate food, or they’re getting substandard or inadequate access to healthcare.

People are experiencing that right now, today, across this country, and you’ve got to address that. But we also recognize those are the symptoms of a system that’s not set up to benefit everyone equally. And so, we also have to get like earlier and get at root causes, and that’s the systems change work.

And so, for us, you can’t do one or the other. You’ve got to think about where you can do both. And for each individual, each foundation, where do we have a unique contribution to make?  And, for us, we decided a little bit of both. But on the system side, it really is about thinking about there’s lots of different, we say, systems… it’s kind of this generic term or nebulous term.

Denver: Yeah.

Frank: There are a lot of different systems that are part of our basic communities and our society. So, you think about housing as a system out there in terms of how it gets developed, who rents, who owns, and how those decisions get made. There’s a lot to that, how people have access to the supports that enable you to be able to have stable quality housing and that is affordable for you.

Education’s another system. The health system is another system. So, all these are different systems, and they all interact from our perspective. And so, for us, when we think about systems change in particular, it’s: how do we think about a particular system or particular ecosystem because it’s made up of a lot of different component pieces? And how do we change and affect that so it works differently and produces ideally a more just outcome, but at minimum, a less inequitable outcome?

And so, for example, for us, housing is one of those systems that we’re really focused on, and we think about what is it that we need to do from a policies perspective or a program perspective or you say a production perspective; we kind of try to make three Ps.

Denver: I got you.

Frank: Policy is really key because it speaks to how resources get allocated, how certain folks have access or not to particular programs. So, you think about in the US, we have different types of zoning, different types of access to mortgages. And who has access to those and how?  Because we know, historically, a lot of folks… like say folks who are Black or brown have not had the same type of access to mortgages and mortgages that are accessible for folks who’ve never owned homes.

If you don’t have access to that, you’re never going to get a home. And, we know for most people your home is how you build wealth. So, if you have been systemically marginalized or unable to access that, that’s going to lead to unjust outcomes.

So, policies are huge in how we should think about that, how we think about programs and that the programs that are out there now, for example, during COVID where we had eviction prevention, rental assistance, but not everyone had access to those things.

So, how do we adjust those programs such that everyone has access to them? And production, for us, is really about the system of producing and preserving affordable housing.

Denver: Yeah.

Frank: Because it is such a hard thing to do, and we’ll do a lot of component pieces to that. And so, that’s how we think about systems change; it’s: how do you think about that ecosystem?  And what are the different key foundational drivers of work that need to happen in those systems?

“… it’s only in working together that we have a shot at making these changes.”

Denver: Yeah, and I always find as a community foundation, you were really uniquely perched to be able to do that because my adjective before systems change is always “collaborative” systems change. There’s just no way that one single entity can do it. What do you find are the keys to be that honest broker, that collaborator in Atlanta in terms of bringing people together? What makes that work?

Frank: So, I think, for us, the collaboration is foundational too. This is why our new strategic plan is called TogetherATL because it’s only in working together that we have a shot at making these changes.

And, for us, that means the philanthropic sector working with the nonprofit sector, working with the public sector, working with the private sector. It really is: you’ve got to be able to connect the dots across all these things.

And we think part of the role of the community foundations across the country is: we are that connective tissue at minimum within the philanthropic community, because we work not just with individuals and families, but we work with corporations; we work with a lot of private foundations and help bring them together.

So, definitely, that’s part of structurally what our role is in the philanthropic space; we are the connective tissue that thinks about how philanthropic capital can work with and alongside public and private capital in support of nonprofits who work with the community. And so, for us, we try to do that.

We try to bring together a philanthropic sector. We try to engage the public sector because… I was just in a meeting last week where we’re meeting with other foundations and talking about work we were doing with the City of Atlanta, and recognizing that working with the public sector can be challenging because they do have a lot of bureaucratic stuff you’ve got to work your way through.

But one of the things we committed to is that we know that’s hard, and that can sometimes be frustrating for us and for our team. However, we don’t have a choice in our opinion and, in my opinion, to not do that because if it’s hard for us, it’s even harder for nonprofits who don’t have the same financial resources we do.

And so, we got to help play that bridge to make those connections work better, to kind of reduce some of the friction that’s in the system between say the public sector and the funds they have, and nonprofits who want to take advantage of that, but may not have all the infrastructure in place to be able to work seamlessly with the public sector, especially groups who are smaller, more community-based, which again tend to be groups that are BIPOC-led.

Denver: Yeah, I can’t agree with you more because you can’t really ever scale unless you’re partnering with the public sector. So, despite the frustrations, just stick it out because you really need to do it. You know, we talked about place a moment ago and you explained, I think, really well why place does matter.

You’re focused on three places in Atlanta right now– Thomasville Heights, South Cobb, and South Fulton. Give us a little flavor of one of those in terms of the kind of work that you’re doing and how you’re engaging the community.

Frank: Sure. So, I’ll talk about Thomasville because that is the place where we have the deepest and longest- standing work. And so, for us, our place-based work is what our contribution that we think we can make to helping to work with community because, really, the grounding and community is central to our place-based work, and this idea of we’re not trying to work for or to this community we’re trying to work with.

Work alongside and ground them, and they are the center of this work. And it is focused on: How can we help work with residents and other community stakeholders to change the trajectory of what is happening in their respective communities because for many of the communities that we’re focused on, there is a lot of disinvestments.

And at the same time of… you have this disinvestment… there also is some investment, but it is potentially occurring in ways that folks may fear will displace them in lots of different ways. And so, for us, how do we help make these communities so that they have a lot more agency in and that they see the value, and they see it going the direction they want?

Whether it’s what amenities they have, to what kind of educational access they have in terms of how safe it is, all these things that, to be honest, most of us take for granted that all communities don’t have. So, for us, that’s the grounding. And in terms of how we go about this work, it really is, for example, we have been working with the neighborhoods in Thomasville for a year and have consultants who come in and have been working with them to really plan out the future of that neighborhood.

What are the amenities? What kinds of uses would you want to see? What kinds of homes do you want to see preserved or not? And then, hopefully, in the next few months, get that neighborhood plan approved by the City of Atlanta, so that it memorializes: “This is what this community wants to see happen from a redevelopment and evolution perspective here.” and then how do we bring resources there to bring that to life.

So, one big thing that we’re focused on, based on all the feedback we’ve gotten from residents is: “Okay, that’s wonderful that you have this,” but because gentrification is almost like an existential threat for a lot of residents is: “Okay, how do we help ensure that homeowners and renters are able to stay?”

Denver: Yeah.

Frank: So, for us, in this particular community, we have a lot of homeowners, so it’s doing things like, Well, do you have clear, marketable title to your home for those who are homeowners?  There’s a lot of seniors. And, in these communities, a lot of folks didn’t have the resources to go through probate and have wills and such, so you got to make sure that that is clean with the county.

Do you have any liens? Because sometimes there are liens on the property that people don’t even know about.

Denver: Yeah.

Frank: Because if you didn’t go through probates then I don’t get all the documentation, so make sure; that could be a lever that people can use to take a property from you. Do you have any deferred maintenance, so any home repairs and things like that that we can help you take advantage of?

And then, the fourth to me is just basic education because we’ve heard from residents in a lot of these community meetings about how they’ll get calls from investors who want to give them cash for their property, and a lot of times, they’re low-balling them and saying, “Hey, you, here’s a property that may be worth $300,000, but we’ll give you cash in a week for $150,000.” And you’re like, “Wow, that’s a great deal.” Like, actually, it’s not.

And it’s not that we want to tell residents that, “Oh, you can’t sell your property.” No, this is your choice, but we want them to be able to make informed choices.

Denver: Absolutely.

Frank: And they’re not being forced out, it’s something they’re choosing to do or not. So, that’s just an example of a little bit of some of our place-based work.

“And so, for us, you have to have a generational commitment to change, to making this work possible because, as you said earlier, systems do not change overnight.

And you have to have that mentality that I stand on the shoulders of others, and then others will stand on these shoulders, recognizing that this happens over time. And being okay with doing whatever you can during this moment, but you’ll have to pass the baton to them to keep this work moving forward because it does take generations.”

Denver: Yeah, and it’s complex, as you say, it’s just not one-dimensional, it is very multi-layered, and you have to look at it from a lot of different perspectives.

Let me ask you about change because there’s an awful lot of change going on, a lot of change with COVID, a lot of change in this country with the racial reckoning we’ve had over the course of the last three years, probably a lot of change in your organization, and also there’s been a changing of the guard in community foundations.

You know, I spoke to New York the other day, in Seattle and Oregon and Fairfield and Rochester, and they go on. Give me your sense about change, how you look at change, how you approach change, how we need to embrace it.

Frank: So, change, over the last two and a half years, when folks have asked me: what’s the biggest challenge that you’re facing over here, and there’s a lot going on, obviously, over the last two, two and a half years with COVID, because I started about four or five months into the COVID crisis, but change management, I would say, is the biggest challenge. And, I think, that is because as human beings, we find change hard.

Denver: Yeah.

Frank: And so, how we navigate that change and how we embrace it and how we get people comfortable with it, whether at an organizational level, internally or externally, is really, really hard.

As you said, there’s a large community foundation conference happening next week, and I’ve now been to a couple of these meetings over the last two and a half years. And it is very striking that there is, as you said, a changing of the guard, a lot of folks retiring who’ve been in the community foundation field for… you know, my boss, my predecessor was here 42 years; others, 30 years, 20 plus years.

So, a lot of new folks coming in to these different community foundations. And, I think, the thing that we are not struggling with but grappling with, I would say, is how you move forward, moving forward into the future with respect for the past. A lot of good stuff has happened, I can speak from my organization… you know, my predecessor, she did a lot of great work.

And so, we want to honor, respect that, but we’re in a different moment in time, especially with the racial reckoning and COVID over the last two and a half years, and then: How do we move forward differently into the future, move forward in a way that is responsive to what the needs are now and evolving to become?

And so, for me, that’s the challenge and the opportunity. How do we think about that? How do we address some of these problems differently than we have historically, because a part of it for me is that there is this pendulum, public opinion that happens around all these different issues?

And many of us knew, post-George Floyd, that a lot of people were thinking and focusing on racial justice, for example, or racial inequities, and that pendulum would go back, and there would be some sort of backlash, or people would just start focusing on other things.

And we knew that the window of time where people focused on it was not going to be long, a year or two, and then it was going to kind of go back. But to address these issues… kind of to the point earlier… doesn’t take a year or two. It takes generations. And so, for us, you have to have a generational commitment to change, to making this work possible because, as you said earlier, systems do not change overnight.

So, you have to have this generational commitment. I had a committee activist who I work with. She framed it as: you’re in the cathedral building business, right? Cathedrals took often hundreds of years to build… or at least a hundred years to build.

And you have to have that mentality that I stand on the shoulders of others, and then others will stand on these shoulders, recognizing that this happens over time. And being okay with doing whatever you can during this moment, but you’ll have to pass the baton to them to keep this work moving forward because it does take generations.

Denver: Well, that’s a really interesting perspective on change because I guess what you’re really saying is: you’re just here to kind of point it in the right direction and get it on a track and do your duty during this very finite time that we have. And then it’s almost like a race where you’re going to be passing the baton, and you just want to be in the perfect position to pass the baton.We’re not going to solve it. It’s going to be over some time. 

Well, you know, another change that’s gone on has been in the workforce. And, tell us a little bit about your corporate culture and how you have found some of the best ways to lead remotely to the extent that you guys are remote.

Frank: Yeah, no, I think we all are still figuring out, I would argue, what the work environment looks like in a post-pandemic world.

For us, for example, we are currently a hybrid environment where we’re in the office three days, and then people have the option of working remotely two days. And we ask everyone to be in the office Tuesdays and Wednesdays together. And then that third day, you can flex across the remaining three days.

It’s interesting because, clearly, not every industry has the flexibility to be able to do that. So, if you’re in the service industry, it’s a place-based thing. You have to be at work if you’re in a restaurant or a bar or what have you, or store. So, it’s different for different industries.

And I think part of it, for me, is just we collectively recognize we’re privileged in that regard, that we have the opportunity to be able to provide that flexibility. And so, for us, we’re still figuring out what the right mix is. I don’t think for those who have the flexibility, going back to five days a week is probably something that’s in the cards.

Just because I think the workforce, especially the younger generations, whether millennial or Gen Z, are definitely asking and requiring that you provide that flexibility. But I also think fully remote, at least for the work we do, because it is so relational, doesn’t make sense either, because all these things we’re talking about in terms of community change will not happen or be successful if you’re not in relationship with people, whether people and the community, people and nonprofits, people in government or what have you.

And one of the things, for me at least, that has been clear is that you can only go so far with what we’re doing right now, remote. It’s much better to be in person. Now, this helps, and there’s an important role for remote and Zoom, but it cannot be the only way we connect with people because at least in my experience, it’s demonstrating to be limited.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. You know, we talk about change; obviously, you have to change as a leader because it’s the only way we can change all these institutions and the community. How do you believe you have changed as a leader? And what other changes are you working on?

Frank: I would say you have to be lots of ways. One, you have to be more flexible. You’ve got to be able to change on a dime because lots of things are changing. So, that’s one ability, as so much has changed over the last two and a half years, and I think will continue to change.

And so, the pace of change is accelerating; so you have to be able to change at that pace and shift and pivot as needed. The other thing, I’ve become much more focused on– generational differences that in my experience– I’m a Gen X-er– for Millennials and Gen Z, for example, they have different expectations of the work environment and of their leaders.

You know, some of that is actually being more transparent, being less rigid around hierarchy, and really lifting up, and living values that resonate with them, right? So, we have the advantage of being a mission-driven organization, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to be grounded in core values that undergird that, that resonate with them.

And so, some of that is about making yourself more vulnerable as a leader than I think you historically have. And so, I’ll say, you know, for me, that’s something I’ve had to embrace over the last two and a half years and during this time.

Denver: Yeah. It’s been a challenge. I don’t think we talk enough about the generational differences in the workforce, and it can really be an asset with those different perspectives, or it can be a big-time liability.

Let me close with this, Frank. Tell listeners something about Atlanta that the ordinary everyday visitor, such as myself, would not know, which really makes it a special and a unique place.

Frank: So, Atlanta has all these different monikers. It’s like the Black Mecca, the city too busy to hate; it’s the cradle of the civil rights movement.  And all those things are true, and it’s complicated, as you cited the stats of high income inequality, low economic mobility.

So, in some ways, it’s this place of contradiction. But, to me, what I would argue for Atlanta, it is also this beacon for the rest of the US in a lot of different ways, because it is one of the few places… I’ve lived in different places across the country… where while you do have some segregation, you do have some mixing, you do have integration.

You do have an example, in pockets that we need to broaden it, of a city that is more integrated, as a city that does bring people from different backgrounds, different races working together. And I think that cannot be underestimated because I think a lot of folks will aspire to that or talk about it; very few do in terms of places and cities.

And we don’t have the choice. We don’t do it perfectly, to be clear, but we continue to focus on it.

Denver: Yeah, for people who want to get in touch with the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta, whether it’s to set up a fund or learn more about the work you’re doing, or apply for a grant or whatever, tell us what they need to do.

Frank: So, the easiest way to do that is just to go to our website, cfgreater, and we have it there, very clearly, different ways to engage with us, whether you’re a nonprofit looking for grant support, or a donor who’s looking for a partner to help them think through how they want to do their philanthropy and how they want to have impact in the community.

We have all that information laid out very cleanly there.

Denver: Fantastic. Well, thanks, Frank, for being here today. It was a real delight to have you on the program.

Frank: Yeah, no, thank you. I appreciate it, Denver. 

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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