'Impact Areas' Focus Philanthropy on Solving Atlanta's Greatest Challenges

 Photo courtesy of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta

Photo courtesy of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta

By Gerry Weiss

Take a snapshot of the metro Atlanta area, and you'll find a home to more than five million people in one of the fastest-growing regions in America.

You'll see a dynamic arts scene that contributes $700 million annually to the local economy, and a nonprofit sector that boasts nearly 5,000 organizations. 

But take a closer look -- like the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta started doing as part of a strategic plan in 2016 -- and you'll find many cracks in Georgia's historic capital. 

Some of the worst educational outcomes for children in the nation. Densely populated areas marked by high concentrations of poverty and public disinvestment. Rising home foreclosure filings, and an ineffective public transportation system for many struggling residents. 

The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta has been a transformative leader in its region since it formed in 1951, using its expertise, stature and grant funding to make real and sustained change

But with its "Impact Areas" initiative, the foundation aims to alter the course of Atlanta's future for generations to come, tracking and tackling the greatest challenges and needs their residents face on a daily basis -- from Barrow County to Walton County, and 21 other counties in between.

Leaders with the project have targeted these five Impact Areas:

  • Arts
  • Community Development
  • Education
  • Nonprofit Effectiveness
  • Well-being

When asked what the Foundation hopes to accomplish with this massive effort, Lesley Grady, the Foundation's vice president for community who also leads the Impact Areas team, said "from providing broader access to affordable housing and quality healthcare, to enriching lives through innovative and thought-provoking arts programming, we have identified and are tracking specific metrics for where we stand, so that we can define the path for where we need to be."

Those metrics (found at http://cfgreateratlanta.org/community-impact/areas-of-impact/education/) began with collecting baseline data for each county. Profiles of the 23 counties were created through data connected to age, education, employment and unemployment, ethnicity, housing status, income, population and race. 

Foundation officials then paired the five Impact Areas with the region's top nonprofits, identifying the organizations that best address each individual need, before directing competitive grants and donor-advised funding to those groups. 

"We are driving funding to strong nonprofits working on the front lines of our communities to drive notable change," Grady added.

The reasons for the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta aiming to bolster -- or in some cases reinvent -- the five Impact Areas they chose for their region speak for themselves. And speak loudly. 

Access to diverse artistic programs and high-quality cultural experiences are valuable to student achievement, tourism and civic revitalization of depressed neighborhoods. 

In metro Atlanta, the arts industry is the seventh-largest nongovernmental employer, supporting more than 8,000 full-time jobs.

Yet despite the area's identity as a major arts center, budget cuts to Georgia's arts programs have made it challenging to provide art instruction in public schools. 

Impact Areas will measure progress by tracking audience participation in arts programs, and annual operating budgets and revenues for about 450 small and midsized nonprofit arts organizations, theaters, dance and music companies and visual arts centers. Long-term stability going forward is crucial, as about 80 percent of metro Atlanta's smaller arts nonprofits have less than three months operating liquidity. 

When it comes to community development, the region is uniquely complex due to racial and social stratification and geographic sprawl. As a result, economic prosperity exists alongside poverty, and educational disparity deeply widens.

The median household wealth holdings for whites in metro Atlanta is $111,146, compared to $8,348 for Latinos and $7,113 for blacks, according to the Brookings Institution.

Another sobering reality: Seventy percent of all foreclosure filings in all of Georgia are on homes in metro Atlanta.

The foundation's leaders know that healthy communities develop through access to critical needs and services, such as jobs, affordable housing and transportation. 

But how does that community get healthy when only 38 percent of its residents, as it is in Atlanta, live near a transit stop? That number jumps to 69 percent nationwide. 

Metro Atlanta's education dilemma is an indisputable tragedy, where 27 teenagers drop out of school every day, according to a report by the United Way of Greater Atlanta. 

Schools in the region face a host of challenges, including densely populated areas marked by escalating poverty, declining community and parental support, and a severe lack of stable housing, quality nutrition and overall safety.

The Impact Areas' long-term comprehensive and collaborative effort includes quality early childhood and youth development programming, scholarships and employment preparation. The project will measure progress by tracking, among other metrics, the percentage of children ready for kindergarten, rate of school attendance and the percentage of students who graduate high school on time. 

The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta is leading the way to make its region a better place for all its residents, a part of the country that can thrive despite a flurry of massive and seemingly overwhelming systemic problems. 

"Impact Areas," created a mere two years ago, is well-positioned to be a guiding force down that path

Peter Panepentoimpact