Column: Fraud hits Woodruff Arts Center amidst fundraising effort

By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Friday, November 30, 2012

In early November, the Woodruff Arts Center announced that the goal for its 2012-2013 corporate campaign would be $9.2 million — the most ambitious in its history.

Then as the next few days unfolded, the top management at the Woodruff Arts Center realized, through an intense three-week investigation, that a former employee had stolen $1.44 million over the past five years with a series of fraudulent invoices.

The juxtaposition of both events has landed in the lap of Paul Bowers, president and CEO of Georgia Power Co., who is serving as chair of the 2012-2013 corporate campaign of the Woodruff Arts Center and who led the effort to set a record goal.

On Monday, Nov. 26, Bowers got a call from Larry Gellerstedt, chair of the Woodruff Arts Center board and CEO of Cousins Properties, who told him about the fraud.

“Organizations have bumps in the road,” Bowers said. “How you react to them is what really demonstrates the strength of an organization.”

Bowers applauded Gellerstedt and Virginia Hepner, who has been president of the Woodruff Arts Center since July 1, for responding so decisively on the investigation and the subsequent actions.

“They’re making sure the financial controls are in place,” Bowers said. “For donors and contributors to the arts, the question they’re asking is: ‘Are my dollars at risk?’ The answer is no. This is now going to even enhance the proper oversight and governance of the center’s operations.”

Asked about what impact this could have on the campaign, Bowers was not particularly concerned. The business community understands that “a thriving city has to have the arts,” and he believes people have confidence in the Woodruff Arts Center.

Still, on Tuesday, Nov. 27, each of the cabinet members were called. Bowers followed that up with a conference call on Wednesday with the campaign cabinet to reassure the team.

“It should not impact the campaign,” Bowers said. “We are addressing the issue up front.”

And he remains committed to the “stretch” goal of $9.2 million. “For anything positive, you need to stretch,” Bowers said.

Georgia Gives Day

On Nov. 27, Giving Tuesday brought several dozen nonprofit organizations in Georgia together to solicit donations and establish a giving day to follow Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

And on Dec. 6, the state will hold its first-ever Georgia Gives Day where donors will be able to easily make a gift to a wide variety of nonprofits.

“This is a new effort for Georgia,” said Karen Beavor, CEO of the Georgia Center for Nonprofits. “It’s a growing phenomenon to have nonprofits collaborating on fundraising.”

Up to 1,000 nonprofits are participating in the first Georgia Gives Day. Beavor said that several other states and metro regions have launched similar efforts, and giving has grown from a couple of million dollars to $15 million or $16 million in a matter of a few years.

“We are very hopeful we’ll have a broad reach,” said Beavor, who helped organize the one-day, cyber-giving event in Georgia. “We are trying to transform the way giving happens. It’s a flash mob of giving.”

Beavor added that all the money, except for the small credit card transaction fee, will go directly to a nonprofit’s bank account.
Wells Fargo and a host of media partners have been promoting the day of giving.

To make a gift, donors can go to www.gagivesday.org. The site already is live and able to handle donations.

For those who would rather make a donation by phone, a call center staffed by the Atlanta-based Center for the Visually Impaired also is available.

Women’s Solidarity Society

The 2012 Women’s Empowerment breakfast Nov. 27 at The Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta, was a celebration of the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as a way to support the National Center of Civil and Human Rights, which is being built in downtown Atlanta.

“This was a mere idea on a sheet of paper,” said former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who is chair of the National Center’s board. Bank of America has contributed $1 million to the attraction to focus on women and human rights.

And the Women’s Solidarity Society, made up of some of the most powerful women in the city, has pledged to raise another $1 million for the center.

Franklin said: “We are $635,000 to our $1 million goal. I think it’s vital that we are leading the conversation about civil and human rights around the globe.”

The meeting featured a conversation between top women in communications and media — CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien; filmmaker Abby Disney; documentary producer Dyllan McGee; Desirée Rogers, CEO of Johnson Publishing Co.; Alexis Scott, publisher of the Atlanta Daily World; and former WSB-TV anchor Monica Pearson.

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