Atlanta's largest nonprofit patrons 

Few have shaped the city's philanthropic world like Robert Woodruff and Alicia Philipp

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Robert Woodruff’s impact is felt throughout much of Atlanta, including several buildings on Emory University’s campus.

Joeff Davis

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Robert Woodruff’s impact is felt throughout much of Atlanta, including several buildings on Emory University’s campus.

Robert Woodruff used to keep a small, gold die-cast sign on his desk at the Woodruff Foundation. It read: "There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit."

That creed still drives the Woodruff Foundation, one of Atlanta's most influential charitable organizations, nearly 30 years after the death of the longtime president and board member of the Coca-Cola Company.

It's a philosophy that's also guided Alicia Philipp, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta, for nearly four decades with her charitable organization. Both became de facto patrons that changed lives, uplifted communities, often times by doing so with relative anonymity and behind-the-scenes efforts. Each has done so in a way that's transformed the city and metro region for the better.

Although today you'll find Woodruff's name on such Atlanta institutions as the Woodruff Arts Center and numerous buildings on Emory University's campus, he preferred to stay out of the spotlight with his philanthropic contributions. He regularly declined to put his signature on giant checks, cut ribbons, or issue press releases about helping others. In 1971, he anonymously purchased a 4-acre parcel and donated the land to the city. Years later, the urban greenspace was renamed Woodruff Park.

"Mr. Woodruff felt strongly that it was his personal responsibility to share his immense resources," Russ Hardin, the foundation's current president, says. "He had a Southern chivalry about him and a disdain for folks who engaged in philanthropy for their own benefit or glory. He recognized he could do more and get more accomplished if he let other people take the lead and invest in other people's ideas."

Woodruff started the charitable organization in 1937 with only several million dollars to back his efforts. Over the years, the business executive amassed financial resources from the international sugar-water empire and made massive donations to the city's arts, civic, education, environmental, and scientific causes. The foundation's assets have swelled to more than $2.8 billion today. In 2012, it doled out 53 grants worth an estimated $133.5 million, including sizeable donations to the Atlanta Beltline, Drew Charter School, and the PATH Foundation.

Because of its mammoth size, Hardin says the foundation can rally investments and support for transformative projects like Centennial Olympic Park, which eventually helped spark Downtown's revitalization. The nonprofit also came to the rescue with a timely $200 million to help save Grady Memorial Hospital, the state's largest safety-net facility, from closing its doors.

"He was about what was best for his community," Karen Beavor, President and CEO of the Georgia Center for Nonprofits, says. "He had this foresight about how the great wealth he amassed might be used to propel Atlanta, not only in his lifetime, but forward into the future."

If Robert Woodruff's influence remains evident in the city's most important institutions, the impact of Alicia Philipp, the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta's president, can be witnessed in local nonprofits throughout the greater metro Atlanta area.

For the past 37 years, Philipp has transformed the organization, now a gatekeeper between donors and causes throughout 23 different metro Atlanta counties, into one of the Southeast's largest philanthropic organizations. The foundation, one of many similar nonprofits across the country serving specific regions, steers money from generous families looking to make a difference to charitable organizations and effectively acts as a giant philanthropic checking account.

The 33-person nonprofit today works with more than 1,100 private donors and oversees $793 million in assets. Last year it gave away more than $80 million. When Philipp started, the foundation only had $7 million in assets and made a fraction of the number of the grants it currently does. According to Lesley Grady, the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta's senior vice president of community partnerships, Philipp's early role in the metro area's nonprofit sector transcended dollars and cents. In the late 1970s, Atlanta's biggest philanthropists, a mostly male-dominated insular world, granted the Emory alum rare access into their inner circle.

"There were just a handful of elderly white men who came together in a room, with all good intentions and integrity, to make good decisions on behalf of the community," Grady says. "She was allowed in that room, started busting out the walls, and [helped them become] more inclusive [to more diverse causes]."

Philipp has long had the ears of Atlanta's movers and shakers, aiming to convert them from benevolent givers into "raging philanthropists" who care about the causes they fund. She's also a boots-on-the-ground leader committed to her work, remaining widely accessible and exuding passion for her work in a way that's infectious.

"Nothing trickles [with Alicia]," Grady says. It comes out in a roar. It's a force of nature. ... If you see Alicia on the street and you're a community resident trying to figure out how to gather your community together to address [an issue] ... you've got Alicia."

Philipp has also used the Community Foundation's influence and assets to shine a light on overlooked issues. For instance, she helped start the Metropolitan Atlanta Youth Opportunities Initiative, an effort that provides transitional services to emancipated youth released from state custody. The program each year prevents hundreds of at-risk children from becoming homeless or unemployed.

While there are numerous metro Atlanta philanthropic foundations and patrons that do impactful work, Beavor says few have made as much of an impact — and for as long — as Woodruff and Philipp. In addition to keeping nonprofits afloat and nurturing a sense of philanthropy, the giving contributed to the economy, boosted academic endowments, and created more jobs. Despite their reluctance, all of that deserves more recognition.

"Foundations give credibility to the city," Beavor says. "I don't think it's something that everyday Atlantans or Georgians think about."

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