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Coca-Cola Foundation shifts focus of its local charitable giving

By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on July 18, 2014

The Coca-Cola Foundation’s local giving is being adjusted to fit with the company’s strategic priorities.

For decades, The Coca-Cola Co. had emphasized education as its top giving priority. Although education is still important, the company’s giving and business strategy is now targeting water, women and well-being, according to Lisa Borders, who has been president of the Coca-Cola Foundation since 2013.

That was when The Coca-Cola Foundation became part of the company’s Office of Sustainability to reflect its new priorities.

Borders, however, said that the company also will continue supporting local priorities in the communities where it does business. The category of well-being can be viewed as quality-of-life issues, such as promoting the arts, physical activity, parks and green space, and education.

Atlanta will continue to be a philanthropic focus.

“Atlanta is a first among equals because Atlanta is our hometown,” said Borders, an Atlanta native who previously served as president of the Atlanta City Council as well as president of the Grady Health Foundation.

The realignment of priorities, however, has caused a level of concern among some local nonprofits that have relied on regular contributions from Coca-Cola, a concern that Borders understands.

“We realize there are tons of great organizations doing great things in the city,” Borders said. “We can’t do everything. What we have decided to do is to become laser-focused on areas where we think we can do the most good and have the greatest impact.”

Borders said nonprofits are still welcome to apply for grants, as they have in previous cycles. But they may want to try to ask for money for programs that fit in Coca-Cola’s new areas of emphasis.

There also are “other buckets” of money in the company, whether it be in marketing or on the business side, that might be available.

“If there are strategic benefits to the company and the community, we will fund those,” Borders said.

Asked which nonprofits have not received Coca-Cola Foundation funding that previously were beneficiaries, Borders said there were several, but she only mentioned one – Zoo Atlanta. Although it continues to “do fantastic work,” it does not fit with the foundation’s priorities.

She added that “there is some flexibility across the company.”

For example, the company has 56 executives who serve on the boards of 84 different organizations. Those board members are able to make contributions with company funds to support those nonprofits, even though Borders acknowledged that those donations, for the most part, wouldn’t be considered to be major gifts.

“Anyone we have told that we are no longer going to be supporting them, we are giving those organizations a year,” Borders said. “That’s almost unheard of in the corporate world.”

As to whether those nonprofits could ever become part of Coca-Cola’s giving plans in the future, Borders said that the company’s strategy is always evolving, depending on the changing needs of the community. The foundation has experienced several of those changes since its inception.

“This is a special year for us, because 2014 is our 30th anniversary,” Borders said of the Coca-Cola Foundation. Since it was established in 1984 by then-CEO Roberto C. Goizueta, the Coca-Cola Foundation has given away $650 million, and the pace of its global giving is accelerating. In 2013, the foundation gave $98 million – gifts that impacted about 134 million people across 122 countries.

Looking at just Atlanta, the foundation has given away $168 million to support programs and initiatives since 1984.

In the past four years, the foundation has given away $33 million in local donations; and The Coca-Cola Co. has contributed about $10 million to Atlanta organizations through sponsorships and marketing of events or programs.

In other words, the company — including the foundation and the business side — contributes about $10 million a year to local civic causes and organizations.

“We expect we will continue to give comparable dollars in Atlanta in future years,” Borders said.

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola’s global contributions are growing dramatically — which roughly mirrors the company’s soft drink sales around the world.

The notable uptick in giving began in 2009 when Coca-Cola publicly committed to giving back 1 percent of the prior year’s operating income through the foundation and company contributions.

The international focus on sustainable issues, such as water, really began under the leadership of former CEO Neville Isdell, who declared that the company would be water neutral by 2020. “We are at 68 percent of goal,” Borders said.

Isdell’s successor, Muhtar Kent, has only magnified the company’s commitment by adopting a sustainability agenda that, in addition to water, includes women and well-being. The aim, Borders said, is how the company can have a “broader impact” in targeted areas.

For example, in 2013, the company donated $4 million in Georgia on an Active Healthy Living Initiative that went to numerous nonprofits, including $2 million to Georgia SHAPE and Walk Georgia. Another $1 million went to the city of Atlanta’s Centers of Hope to expand fitness and recreation programs.

No matter how its giving strategy evolves, Borders wanted to reassure concerned nonprofits and organizations that Coca-Cola will continue to be a strong civic partner in Atlanta.

“We are going to be good community citizens – giving of our time, talent and treasure,” she said.

Timeline of the Coca-Cola Foundation

1984 The Coca-Cola Foundation was established.

1988 Education became the primary focus.

1990 Begins funding international programs.

2007 The Coca-Cola Foundation strategically evolves and announces global priorities: water, active healthy living, and community recycling and education, in addition to local priorities, e.g. arts and culture, diversity, HIV/AIDS and malaria treatment, youth development.

2009 Commits to annually give back 1 percent of prior year’s operating income.

2013 Joins Coca-Cola’s Office of Sustainability and adopts its global Sustainability agenda: water, women and well-being.

2014 Celebrates 30 years of giving back to communities. Since its inception, the foundation has awarded more than $650 million to sustain local communities.

Source: The Coca-Cola Foundation. 

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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