Alicia Philipp recognizes the fix for Atlanta’s vast inequity—but you might not want to hear it

After four decades of leading the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, Philipp is stepping down with a call for innovative, systemic, and drastic change

Alicia Philipp
Alicia Philipp

Photograph by Frederico Martins

Alicia Philipp stands to the side of a stage in a dim downtown banquet hall, steeling herself to deliver a speech to 1,500 people, and she genuinely thinks she might vomit. She speaks in public often but not usually to so many people—and never saying what she’s about to say.

The lights come up, and she pulls herself together. She eases into her big moment by asking the audience to think back to 1977, before some people in the room had been born: Jimmy Carter was president, Atlanta and the nation were emerging from a recession, and Philipp was a quick-witted, overconfident 23-year-old Emory grad. She’d lucked into a seat at the proverbial Table by landing a job with Dan Sweat—a benevolent “fixer” who was instrumental to mayors, governors, even Carter, and the first executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, the organization for which Philipp is delivering this speech today. Having Sweat as a mentor granted her access to Atlanta’s power brokers and entry to the exclusive downtown offices where decisions were made—and where she was often, in a room full of white men, the only woman who wasn’t someone’s secretary.

“So, reflect with me, 42 years later,” Philipp says. “What’s different?”

Not much. The region has diversified, but the Table has not.

From 1980 to 2015, the proportion of white people in the metro area dropped by a quarter. Now, just 51 percent of households in the metro are white, but those households account for 64 percent of the ones bringing in more than six figures. And the people at the top look almost exactly like they did four decades ago: All but one of Atlanta’s 30 Fortune 1,000 CEOs is white (and just two are women). The future of the Table looks homogeneous, too: White students outperform their Black counterparts on every metric in grade school—because of the opportunities their race affords them—and then graduate to earn more than them even at the same education levels.

“Decisions are still made, and power still lies, with a small group that doesn’t reflect the future of our region,” Philipp says on stage, essentially telling a large portion of the crowd that, in fact, they are the problem.

Atlanta, as its former mayor Shirley Franklin explains in an interview, is a city primed for boosterism: “How many times have we heard about what a good place Georgia is for business investment? We hardly ever hear public leaders or elected leaders talk about what a miserable place it is if you’re making the minimum wage, or if you’re an immigrant, or if you’re an eighth-generation African American who’s had very few opportunities along the way, if you just moved [to Atlanta] from one of the poorest counties. Nobody ever talks about that side of it,” she says. “We only talk about the cherry on the top.”

Of course, Philipp, a white woman, is not divulging in her speech anything particularly revelatory about racial inequity. Nor is she the first person in power to complain about the status quo. But her perch has afforded her a unique platform and an unparalleled view: As the leader of one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the Southeast, the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, she has embedded herself in the lives of people from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds—people who seldom come into meaningful contact with one another. For 43 years now, Philipp has studied the city’s income gap from nearly every possible angle, and she’s finally ready to say that what we’re doing isn’t working. Leveraging the credibility she’s earned over a lifetime of gently nudging people out of their comfort zones, Philipp is now trading her polite messaging for something more subversive. Philanthropy as we know it won’t solve Atlanta’s astounding inequity; change has to be innovative, systemic, and drastic—and it has to start at the Table.

Alicia Philipp
In November, Philipp spoke at the Atlanta Regional Commission’s State of the Region. She regularly challenges her Foundation staff to “do something once a quarter that makes them want to throw up.” For her, that was this speech.

Photograph courtesy of ARC

Franklin has known Philipp for most of her public life. They started their careers around the same time and shared Sweat as a mentor; later, Franklin served on the Foundation’s board. But in the early ’80s, she didn’t realize the Foundation’s potential impact on the region. Its depth became clear to her two decades later, when, as mayor, Franklin was raising funds to help college-bound students cover relatively small costs remaining after grants and scholarships. She remembers Philipp calling her to say that several funds at the Foundation already had been created to do just that. “That opened my eyes to the breadth of their work,” Franklin says.

“We talk about the political leadership, we talk about the business leadership in Atlanta, but [Philipp] clearly is someone who started young, stuck with it, and had an institutional impact on the greater Atlanta area,” she says. “That’s not necessarily easy to do when you think about how male-dominated it was at the time, how divided people were.”

In many ways, though, they’re still divided. In the city of Atlanta, the top 5 percent earns nearly 20 times more than the bottom 20 percent, whose wages have barely increased in the last two decades. In more recent years than not, Atlanta has had the worst income disparity in the country. It’s also a city where low-income people are displaced at a higher rate than most anywhere else in the U.S. More than a quarter of metro Atlanta’s families don’t have $400 on hand for an emergency; a third spend so much on housing that it’s difficult to afford other necessities, like food.

“People like to talk about ‘The Atlanta Way,’ this nostalgic idea that we’re special, that there’s no such thing as racial lines or gender barriers in the way we work,” Philipp says. “It’s time to get over the nostalgia for this narrative we keep telling ourselves.” Being the City Too Busy to Hate is a low bar.

After leading the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta for four decades, Philipp steps down this fall with a call to action for her successor, for the city, and for the broader region: The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference. We may not hate our neighbors who are poorer than we are, who don’t speak our language, who don’t look, pray, or love like us, she says, “but we are clearly indifferent to their opportunities, their well-being, their pain.” And in that indifference, this gap between the haves and the have-nots is deepening into a chasm—one that will be widened still by the crisis of a generation.

For all her influence, Philipp isn’t a household name; likewise, the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta is one of the most powerful organizations in the metro you’ve probably never heard of. It connects people interested in high-level philanthropy (read: $50,000+ donor-advised funds) with nonprofits that fit their interests—a “philanthropic GPS,” they say.

Philipp’s job is decidedly less high-profile than her teenage dream of becoming a politician. Early in her career at the Foundation, she wanted to quit and run for city council, but Sweat assured her she’d have the greatest influence on the community—even greater than if she ran for office—by staying put. He was probably right. Philipp has grown the organization into one of the three largest foundations in Georgia; under her leadership, its assets have increased more than 170-fold, from $7 million to $1.2 billion.

When Philipp was named the Foundation’s executive director (with a staff of one, herself), it had been around for a little less than three decades. After a few years of neglect and, later, an operating deficit, its future was unclear. In Philipp’s new role, her age turned out to be an advantage: Most seats at the Table were filled with middle-aged men, who, she says, projected onto her their aspirations for their children: “Many of them commented that I was their daughter’s age, and they hoped that their daughter would have a successful career.”

For its first 30 years, the Foundation mostly dished out funds, but under Philipp, it adopted a more personalized approach. That doesn’t come without some spectacle: To determine their “giving story,” donors are invited to play custom-made board games, created by a company specializing in multigenerational giving. Its founder often talks about how to help next-gen donors feeling paralyzed by predecessors, privilege, or possibilities.

Most importantly, under Philipp, the Foundation became an incubator. It has helped launch initiatives like the Atlanta Women’s Foundation, to help low-income women and girls break the cycle of poverty, and the Neighborhood Fund, to support hyperlocal, grassroots initiatives from individuals or groups that may not be registered nonprofits. Last year, the Foundation launched GoATL, which offers low-interest loans to nonprofits.

Of course, the byproduct of such innovation is failure. The Foundation started a few hyperlocal funds that fizzled. Working Capital Atlanta relied on a group microlending model in which individuals would borrow money to start their business and then pay it forward, except people didn’t really do that last part. The Foundation led an initiative to enable individuals in low-income communities to grow and sell produce; it had a promised $6 million grant from HUD to be used within Atlanta city limits but could never get the land.

But that fail-fast approach is part of what’s taken Philipp from being a one-person staff, working out of an office she describes as a broom closet with a sink in the middle of the room, to a 50-person staff, working out of the 10th floor of 191 Peachtree, with a slightly better view.

Four years ago, the Foundation created a program focused on residents of Thomasville Heights, where the median household income is $17,000—five times less than Grant Park, just two miles away. Thomasville Heights Elementary long has been among the lowest-ranked schools in the state, with about one in 10 third-graders reading on grade level, a metric used to predict a child’s likelihood of graduating from high school. Three years ago, media specialist Intiasar Frankson helped launch a pilot program at the elementary school that, thanks to a Foundation grant, offered third-graders incentives like gift cards if they read a certain number of books. The Foundation was supporting other organizations that work on-site at the school, including CHRIS180, which provides counseling for students, and the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, which helps families fight for better living conditions. At the end of that school year, students’ Milestone scores had increased by 19 percentage points in English. The next year, Frankson scaled the program and used a second grant to purchase graphic novels and trendy titles, which, alongside the literacy push, Frankson says, sparked a change at the school: “Now, reading is ingrained in the Thomasville culture.”

THRIVE Thomasville
In 2019, the Foundation launched a resident-led grant-making initiative in Thomasville Heights.

Photograph courtesy of Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta

Though the Foundation is working to challenge existing power structures at the Table, there’s an imbalance written into its own DNA. People of means, albeit with benevolent intentions, make decisions to affect a community they’re not a part of. As Foundation program associate Mindy Kao explains, philanthropy “was built to keep decision-making power in the hands of a few.” So, the Foundation has taken steps to flip the script in Thomasville Heights. In 2019, the Foundation spun off a new grantmaking initiative that shifted decision-making power to a committee of community members, ages 16 to 70, who take proposals from and award microgrants to their neighbors.

Roderick Thomas Jr., who’s 17, is now in his second year serving on the committee. He says the ideal plan for Thomasville Heights’ future is the one imagined by the people who live there: “When we’re given the opportunity to direct and choose what we think would fit best in our communities, that’s the best thing possible.”

On a chilly, mid-December morning, in the midst of the Foundation’s end-of-year philanthropy rush, Philipp woke up at 7 a.m., threw on a pair of jeans, and headed downtown to help prepare and serve lunches to hundreds of Atlantans with special needs. A few hours later, she gave a presentation on giving at Tiffany & Co., where well-heeled women played dress-up in $20,000 jewelry. The Foundation’s goal is to connect those worlds. Philipp worked the Tiffany crowd and left that night with three donor prospects. “It’s not a complete disconnect between wearing baubles and caring,” she says.

Even when there is a complete disconnect, though, that’s not the most frustrating part of her job; it’s that if everyone in the Tiffany crowd became donors, the Foundation still can’t solve what it’s tasked with solving. “We need more philanthropy; we need more people giving. But we need them thinking about the key issues—is their philanthropy and their advocacy really helping at those key issues and not serving as a Band-Aid?” Philipp says. “There is a need for Band-Aids in some cases, but we also really need to get deeper.”

Philanthropy should be agile and innovative, but it should work in tandem with the government rather than make up for governmental inaction. “The two ought to be talking to one another,” Philipp explains.

That’s the way it used to be: Philanthropy would test ideas, and the government would back the successful ones. Think: Head Start, public libraries, or, locally, Open Hand Atlanta, which began as one man and his neighbors delivering food to 14 friends living with AIDS. Early support came from individuals, corporations, and, later, the Foundation. Today, Open Hand delivers 5,000 meals a day, with the government footing about half the bill.

The problem with that relationship is it has become increasingly lopsided.

The top 10 percent of humanity holds 90 percent of the world’s wealth, according to Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All. This widening gap, coupled with lower taxes and weakened regulations, has led to a power imbalance favoring the wealthy. Last year, Philipp invited Giridharadas to Atlanta to speak to her donors about problems causing (and caused by) an atrophying public sector. In his talk, he quoted Martin Luther King Jr.: “Philanthropy is commendable but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

Giridharadas went on to explain: While we live in an age of extraordinary generosity, the plutocratic class behind the giving is the same one fighting against minimum wage increases and for lax labor regulations and lower taxes. “The government, like any animal you starve, turns out to be less effective when you starve it,” he said.

“So, we have very rich people, a slightly anemic government, and festering social problems—and the rich come along and say, ‘This is a real shame! I’m troubled by these social problems, and I’m troubled the government that should be dealing with this is not! Allow me to step in and help, and I’ll get a tax deduction.’”

For the last 14 or so years, Philipp has lived in Decatur, in a two-bed, two-bath, top-floor condo with tall ceilings, a tiny balcony, and a view of downtown Atlanta’s skyline, just over the treetops. A mentor and former Foundation board chair, Larry Gellerstedt, through his company Beers Construction, had a hand in many of the buildings she can see, a reminder she wouldn’t be where she is without people like him lending her their credibility early in her career, helping her form connections with powerful people who might not otherwise welcome her in. Philipp has now mentored hundreds of young people herself.

Dozens of picture frames are neatly arranged on the dresser in Philipp’s bedroom: her son, Connor, in his Coast Guard uniform; her daughter, Alice, with pink hair. There are pictures of her three-year-old grandson, Manuel, and one of herself at 16, with her two older brothers. The three grew up in Maryland in a middle-class family, attending Catholic schools. One of Philipp’s earliest memories is of her mother, on her hands and knees scrubbing the church floors as a volunteer. Her maternal grandfather worked at the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard and got her father a union job there. He eventually worked his way up to a management role. When Philipp started school, her mom decided to try real estate, selling houses for $15,000 a piece, eventually hitting the million-dollar mark.

Alicia Philipp
Alicia Philipp in the 1980s, at the former home of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, which was housed in the Hurt Building for nearly two decades

Photograph courtesy of Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta

Philipp keeps magnets of Anderson Cooper and Che Guevara on her fridge. In the kitchen, there’s a painting by a self-taught artist in North Georgia that depicts a kid skinny-dipping in the river at a church baptism. Hanging above her couch is an earth-tone abstract she bought in the late 1980s, like most of her art, at a charity auction, this one benefiting the Atlanta AIDS Fund. The artist was a man living with AIDS; he died soon after the auction. The painting reminds her of how heart-wrenching the early days of the crisis were, a time of fear, uncertainty, and homophobia, as “gay-related immune deficiency” silently claimed hundreds of lives. Just a few years before, the Foundation had been approached for a grant to support “cultural competency education” for health-department workers so they could more compassionately assist their LGBTQ clients. Half the board voted against it, but the chairman at the time, Sweat, voted in favor to break the tie. Philipp said that was the proudest moment of her time with the Foundation, which would later help establish the Atlanta AIDS Fund. Since 1991, the Community Foundation has provided $11 million to AIDS-serving organizations.

Still, today, Georgians have the nation’s third-highest risk of contracting HIV—about one in every 51 people will be infected in their lifetimes. The vast majority of those cases will be people of color: Black people make up about 30 percent of the population in Georgia but represent 77 percent of new AIDS cases. Now-retired Foundation Senior Vice President Lesley Grady, who worked alongside Philipp for 20 years, says that this particular public health crisis has persisted because of a bigger problem, one that plagues the city, state, and nation: The masses have been too slow to suspend their disdain for gay people and poor Black people.

Philipp addressed the lack of progress last winter: “I look at that [first grant, in 1982] with pride at being there early, but I look with distress because not much has changed.”

Doctors Jeff and Sivan Hines got involved with the Foundation seven years ago, after they showed up to a fundraising event and realized they were the only people of color in the room. Jeff is Black; Sivan is Sri Lankan. For them, the Foundation was more than just a way to augment their giving; Jeff Hines says it gave them a place at the Table. The city of Atlanta is majority Black. “But Black donors, people who have donor-advised funds at the Community Foundation?” Hines says there are fewer than 50. The Foundation has more than 1,000 donors but “has not evolved to a place where we currently track the race of its donors,” says Elyse Hammett, its vice president of marketing and communications. The Hineses were upfront with Philipp about why they started a fund and what they want: a Foundation more representative of the community it serves.

“There’s Black wealth in Atlanta. There’s old Black wealth; there’s new Black wealth,” says Hines. He thinks part of the Foundation’s lack of diversity among its donors stems from the fact that different communities have different approaches to philanthropy. A study on regional giving found that Black people give a larger percentage of their income to charitable causes than any other racial group and that they’re more likely to volunteer; however, they’re less likely to give to trusts and foundations than to individuals and the church. Another issue is that there are few Black people on the Foundation’s team who manage donors’ portfolios: “It’s very difficult to engage families of wealth of color, particularly Black people, when your people who are your financial advisors don’t look like me,” Hines says. “It’s important for a potential donor to realize this organization really appreciates and embraces diversity.”

Hines explains that the Foundation employees who lead programs in the community are in fact a diverse group. He’s pushing to extend that diversity to the portfolio managers as part of the Foundation’s new strategic plan. That plan revolves around improving economic and social mobility across metro Atlanta and is focused on seven metrics that stunt racial equity, from the percent of babies born low-weight (which is tied to health and educational achievement) to the percent of students who graduate high school (which is tied to incarceration rates in adults).

The Foundation is pushing to look at inequity holistically: Ensuring an expectant mother gets the care she needs so her baby is born healthy is crucial, but it’s not enough; that young family needs safe, affordable housing and access to good schools. Supporting young students so they perform at grade-level and graduate high school is impactful, but those young adults should then earn a wage that allows them to make rent, buy groceries, and go to the doctor if they need to. A push for postsecondary education is ideal, but how can we help that family build wealth, so its next generation starts from a better place?

Part of the “hard work” Philipp says she’s trying to do is speak out against a Southern politesse lulling the metro into a false sense of accomplishment. That means honestly addressing current power dynamics and then actively working to balance them, which will require those in power to relinquish some control. But if power has unjustly resided in the same hands for far too long, why is Philipp just speaking up now? “I think that the veil wasn’t really off my eyes totally,” she says. “I think it was partially a gradual awakening to the situation that we’re in.” Also, her coming retirement gives her “the liberty to be able to say this in a way that I would not have been able to say it before. Maybe I should have awoken a long time ago.”

A few donors and nonprofit leaders said they thought Philipp’s more subdued messaging was strategic, a way to push for incremental change from the inside; they said her belief system regarding racial inequity has been consistent these four decades, though she has grown bolder with time. Or perhaps, as former mayor Franklin explains, “her position allowed her to be in high places but probably did not allow her to push as hard as she thought was needed to open the door.”

Philipp says she hopes others will continue that push—namely, her replacement. Frank Fernandez, Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation senior vice president, will assume the position in August. Fernandez, a second-generation American whose parents emigrated from Cuba, graduated from Harvard and the University of Texas and has served in the nonprofit sector for 20 years. Most recently, he’s led the Blank Foundation’s efforts in youth development, social justice, and revitalization work on the Westside.

In a June 26 press release announcing the appointment, Fernandez called the pursuit of equity his “North Star.”

It’s 63 degrees and sunny in São Pedro do Sul, Portugal, at the Quinta da Comenda bed and breakfast, where Philipp sits on a stone bench, flanked by an olive grove and a small vineyard. She starts every morning with Manny, her grandson, just down the road at her daughter’s organic farm, where 10 years ago, a 22-year-old Alice came to volunteer and never left. Around noon, as Community Foundation team members are just waking up in Atlanta, Philipp heads to her daughter’s bedroom for WiFi and works well into the night.

She’d planned this trip in lieu of taking a vacation during the holidays, because that’s the Foundation’s busy season, and it would be her last. She’ll spend part of her imminent retirement here; the rest in Guatemala, working in women’s economic development, and in Atlanta. She’s studied Spanish for a decade to prepare. Her ex-husband planned to arrive the day after she left, but his travel plans changed and he arrived a week early. Then, before Philipp could fly home for her last few months as the Foundation’s president, Portugal locked down to prevent the spread of COVID-19, leaving them both stranded in what her daughter refers to as “the Grandparent Trap.”

This story, like many others, was different before the pandemic. Before, the problems Philipp talked about—food and economic insecurity, the importance of an adequate social safety net, the widespread perils of racial injustice—simmered. COVID-19 brought them to a boil.

Three factors put people at increased risk of hospitalization or death as a result of the virus: advanced age, preexisting health conditions, and low socioeconomic status. According to the New York Times, low-income individuals are about 10 percent more likely to have a chronic health condition, and those conditions can make COVID-19 up to 10 times as deadly—a problem compounded by unequal access to healthcare. Last year, a quarter of Americans put off a doctor visit or treatment because of finances; and, though nearly everyone whose income is in the top quarter has paid sick leave, the majority of those in the bottom quarter do not. In the days of social-distancing, working from home was a privilege essential workers weren’t afforded, putting many people in traditionally lower-paying jobs at greater risk. At one point, among a sample of COVID-19 patients at eight Georgia hospitals, more than 80 percent of those hospitalized for the virus were Black. Hundreds of thousands of metro Atlanta workers were furloughed or fired, and the loss of income hit communities of color hardest: About 70 percent of Black Atlantans make $40,000 or less, compared to 50 percent of Latinx Atlantans and 30 percent of white Atlantans. Just two in five Black and Latinx Atlantans have enough in savings to keep them out of poverty for three months, compared to four in five white Atlantans.

As schools closed to slow the spread of the virus, some districts set up food distribution sites for families whose children depended on those meals; others had buses run delivery routes. In Atlanta, 76 percent of Black children and 40 percent of Latinx children live in high-poverty areas, compared to just six percent of white children.

Los Niños Primero, a nonprofit serving Latinx preschool children, has received support from the Foundation for 15 years. Executive director Maritza Morelli says because of COVID-19, the vast majority of their families, many of whom are undocumented and ineligible for government assistance, have lost substantial income. Morelli says most of the children they serve don’t have internet access or computers and are in danger of falling further behind. “Parents, you know, they’re losing hope,” Morelli says. “They’re in despair.”

In an effort to cushion the pandemic’s blow to metro Atlanta’s arts community, the Foundation, through its Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund, awarded $580,000 in grants in late May to organizations such as Burnaway and Dad’s Garage. But not one of the 11 grant recipients in this first round of funding was a Black arts organization. In an open letter to Philipp—published June 4, as this issue went to press—more than two dozen leaders in Atlanta’s Black arts community shared their frustration over the fact that the Arts Fund has not made investments in the metro Atlanta Black arts community in ways remotely comparable to the white arts community.

“If Black organizations have succeeded in breaking through the Community Foundation force field, it is the exception, not the rule,” the letter stated. “Your philanthropic model was never designed for our success.”

The letter called for further conversation between the Foundation and members of the metro Atlanta Black arts community. Plans for that conversation are underway.

“I think racial equity is a journey, and I think in every journey there’s a stumble,” Philipp says. “This is definitely one for us. We did not live up to what we said we want to do, but we’re rectifying that and learning from it.”

Before the pandemic, Philipp had been laying the groundwork to help prevent such blindspots. “I don’t always take the time to stop and understand where somebody’s coming from and what their personal experience is,” she admitted in February. “They’re bringing so much to the table, and I’m missing it.” She did know that whatever shape the Foundation’s new solutions would take, the power and authority for those solutions should belong not to wealthy givers but to members of disenfranchised groups. That shift in power is now more necessary than ever. “For all [the pandemic’s] horribleness,” she says, “I hope that we have learned some lessons that we never can unsee or unlearn.”

Lately, donors are becoming more comfortable questioning whether they’re right in making decisions—even in the form of charitable gifts—for others and more comfortable relinquishing power when it comes to those gifts.

One donor, Angie Allen, says the Foundation’s efforts in Thomasville Heights have provided “a window into other lives.” Those lives are so different from hers, she says, “that my own opinions, my ideas, my solutions have very little bearing.”

In a memo to her successor, Philipp writes: “What will this different decision-making environment look like? What new models and processes will transform how the region includes and synthesizes diverse voices?” Philipp doesn’t know the answers. But she believes the Foundation and her successor must be instrumental in figuring them out.

As Philipp said in that speech that made her so nervous: “The future is not one voice, one language, one race, or one gender. We don’t all look the same—and the center of power should look like all of us, not just some of us.”

This article appears in our July 2020 issue. This version was updated to include the announcement of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta’s new president and CEO, Frank Fernandez.