Written by Janece Shaffer Wednesday, January 25 2012Alicia Philipp, president of The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, is a force of nature. Under her watch, The Community Foundation has become one of the largest and fastest growing philanthropic service organizations in the country. With over $740 million in assets, The Community Foundation averages more than $75 million in grants annually to an estimated 2,000 nonprofit organizations locally, nationally and internationally.
With a wide smile and bright blue eyes, Philipp is a plain-talking, hard driving, “Why not?” asking, innovator. She drinks up to 20 cups of coffee a day; works 60 hours a week and for 30 years, has dedicated herself to building a more healthy, compassionate, artistic and financially secure Atlanta.
Kenneth Bernhardt, a professor of marketing at Georgia State's Robinson College of Business and chair of the Community Foundation board, says, “Alicia is an amazing person, one who is always seeking a new way to do something. She senses that blowing up the box will result in an innovative way to do things better.” He adds, “She has a passion for excellence and continuous improvement, motivating all of those around her to want to do better as well.”
How does Philipp stay energized about the work after all these years? “There is always something to be done. And I’m always thinking – someone will say something and you think, 'Well, that could motivate that.' You put the pieces together. That’s what I am good at -- making the connections.”
Without missing a beat she asks, “Do you want to hear my latest plan?”
Philipp is now trying to rally support and funding to launch cooperatively owned, for-profit businesses in low-income communities – the first being a 10-acre under-glass greenhouse in the Pittsburgh community (of Atlanta) that would produce huge quantities of lettuce and basil with a food processing plant next door. The produce would be sold to anchor institutions in the community that are working toward a goal of serving more locally grown produce.
She says, “This would be a for-profit business owned by the workers in a low-income community, and after a certain number of years, the workers would have a $60,000 investment in the business that they could then cash out when they retired. They could actually be building wealth, which never happens to poor people. They never get to build wealth.”
What is at the heart of Philipp’s passion is a belief in what Robert K. Greenleaf has called Servant Leadership.
“It may sound trite or overused, but it’s the idea that you’re not here to lead. You’re here to serve, and by serving, you lead,” said Philipp.
One of the small ways she reminds herself and her staff of this is, “when someone comes to our office – whether they’re a small non-profit director or if they’ve given us $50 million -- we meet them at the front, we walk them back, we get their coffee.”
When asked what she expects from her staff, she answers, “perfection. “ No apologies about it. “But I am not asking them to do anything that I wouldn’t do. But I also offer a lot of support, feedback and we have an open door policy. My door is always open.”
And how does her staff respond to her pace and her expectations? She jokes, “They get it. But when I had my appendix out, I think they were a little disappointed that the recuperation wasn’t as long as expected.”
Philipp has always pursued excellence.
“In first grade I was certain that I would be the first female president of the United States. By the time I made it to grad school I had revised my plan and set a more realistic goal of becoming the first woman U.S. Senator from Georgia,” said Philipp.
But when she actually considered entering a local race, her mentor Dan Sweat then president of Central Atlanta Progress, advised that politics was not for her -- “too many compromises” -- and that she could get far more done at The Community Foundation.
And she has. Under her watch, The Community Foundation has served as an incubator for successful initiatives such as the Georgia Center for Nonprofits and the Atlanta Women’s Foundation and has also created other key initiatives including the Atlanta AIDS Partnership Fund, the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund and the Neighborhood Fund. She helped bring the Dr. Martin Luther King Papers home to Atlanta. In 1981, years before other communities responded to the crises and when AIDS was still referred to as GRID, the Community Foundation funded a program to sensitize healthcare workers to their GRID patients.
According to Philipp, her confidence comes from her mother – “the absolute optimist of the world who thought her children could do anything” and to an all-girls education. Philipp attended Catholic schools through her sophomore year in college, and then she transferred to Emory University where she completed her undergraduate degree.
“I think an all girls education is the best thing. You don’t say, ‘Oh I can’t do that; boys do that.’ Everything is open to you, and you can be exactly who you are,” said Philipp.
For three decades, Philipp has been dreaming a dream for Atlanta, and now she is working on one for herself. In 10 years she plans to retire – “assuming my board will have me till then” -- to a small town in northern Guatemala, and there she wants to see what she can do to grow economic opportunity.
To prepare for life in Guatemala, she has studied Spanish every Saturday for the past five years at the Latin American Association, and she also endures a series of triathlons every spring.
“I hate all three sports. I hate all that exercise, but I want to be in good shape when I’m a 68 so that I can live in a place that doesn’t have the greatest medical care,” said Philipp.
About her hopes of bringing opportunity to the Guatemalan town she has yet to visit, Philipp concludes, “I’d like to do it on a really small scale in one tiny community and see if I can make a difference.”
Janece Shaffer, senior editor of Womenetics, is also an award-winning, professionally produced playwright. Her plays have been produced in theatres across the country including the Asolo Repertory Theatre, Alliance Theatre, and Taproot Theatre. She also has more than two decades of experience in the communications field and has held communications positions at Emory University, The NAMES Project Foundation/AIDS Memorial Quilt and the Alliance Theatre. Shaffer holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in communications from Georgia State University.