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ATL Business Chronicle Maria's Metro

Atlanta a national leader in nonprofit sector

By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on November 1, 2013

When it comes to pure horsepower, metro Atlanta’s nonprofit sector rivals any other metro area in the United States.

Of the top 20 nonprofit organizations in the country, five are based in metro Atlanta, according to the 2013 Philanthropy 400 listing just published by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. No other metro area is home to as many of the top 20 nonprofits in the United States.

New York, which is home to 72 organizations on the Philanthropy 400 list, surprisingly does not have one nonprofit in the top 20. Virginia, however, has three in the top 20, including the No. 1 nonprofit in the country — United Way Worldwide.

Despite Atlanta’s stature in the nonprofit arena, economic development leaders in the region and state have not seized on marketing Georgia as a strategic location for philanthropic organizations.

Economic development strategies do not highlight the region’s nonprofit sector as an opportunity for growth.

“I think many business leaders don’t necessarily see the nonprofit sector as important to the economy as the for-profit industry,” said Virginia Hepner, president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, which ranks No. 382 on the Philanthropy 400 list. “Frankly, we need each other.”

Hepner said the Woodruff Arts Center spends about $100 million a year on the local economy and has 450 full-time employees. The Arts Center also plays a critical role in creating the kind of community that is attractive to companies and highly sought after employees.

“We are an integral part of attracting and retaining talent,” Hepner said. “We are about job creation. Arts and culture can help achieve many of the goals you want to achieve as a business community.”

Georgia, which has a total of 16 nonprofits listed on the Philanthropy 400 list, has distinct areas of strength.

The top-ranked nonprofit in Georgia is the Decatur-based Task Force for Global Health (No. 4). It is one of several nonprofits in the state that is in the public, global health and international services arena.

Other Georgia nonprofits in those fields include the American Cancer Society, Habitat for Humanity International, CARE, MAP International, The Carter Center, Emory University, the Arthritis Foundation, Mission to the World and the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Foundation.

Pete McTier, retired president of the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation who continues to serve as a trustee, attributed much of metro Atlanta’s strength in those areas to the presence of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’ve got a cluster of major nonprofit organizations, some of which are the largest in the country,” McTier said. “We have a strong cluster within the health sector. You put health-care organizations like CHOA, CDC, Shepherd Center, CARE, the Task Force for Global Health. That’s one of the most powerful clusters in the world, and that in itself is an attraction.”

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, metro Atlanta successfully attracted several major nonprofit headquarters to the area — such as the American Cancer Society, CARE and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Although the Woodruff Foundation did provide significant grants to help those organizations make a home in Atlanta, McTier said the foundation was part of a community-wide effort to welcome nonprofits to the city. “If there were an opportunity to attract a major nonprofit, the community would come together. We were opportunistic. We responded when these organizations determined that the costs of doing business in New York were just too great.”

Today McTier said that if a major nonprofit were looking to relocate, “we want them to know that the welcome to Atlanta would be warm.” Still, there does not appear to be a concerned economic development strategy to attract those nonprofit headquarters to the city or state.

“I don’t think they’re being ignored, but I don’t think they’re being targeted,” McTier said. “If there were an opportunity to attract a major nonprofit, the community would come together.”

McTier said that nonprofits might also be able to help economic development leaders build strategic relationships in the for-profit sector. For example, the Task Force for Global Health and the Carter Center have built strong relationships with the executives of pharmaceutical companies — an industry that is on every state’s wish list.

“There may be a way that nonprofits can be helpful to get major for-profits to invest in the community,” said McTier, who serves on the board of the Task Force for Global Health. “The opportunity is there, and we need to seize it.”

Metro leaders are quick to say how the region is a major hub for Fortune 500 headquarters. Yet the top-ranked Fortune 500 company in Atlanta is The Home Depot Inc. at No. 34. Among metro areas, the Atlanta region ranks no higher than eighth when it comes having a concentration of Fortune 500 company headquarters — following New York, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

But it is indisputable that metro Atlanta has a strong concentration of the nation’s top nonprofits.

Atlanta’s prominence in the nonprofit sector may emerge as one of its key bragging points and become a focal point for future economic development.

Philanthropy 400: States with the most nonprofits: (including those in the Philanthropy 400 list of Top 20 nonprofits)*

State Nonprofits in 400 Top 20
New York 72 0
California 42 3
Virginia 30 3
Washington, D.C. 23 1
Texas 21 0
Massachusetts 20 1
Illinois 15 2
Pennsylvania 14 1
Florida 13 1
Ohio 12 0
Maryland 10 1
  • Tennessee and Washington state each have one nonprofit in the Top 20. Tennessee has five nonprofits in the Philanthropy 400; Washington State has seven Source: Chronicle of Philanthropy
Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.


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