Column: AGL’s CEO pushing hard for United Way goal

By Maria Saporta
Friday, August 28, 2009

John Somerhalder may not know what this year’s United Way goal will be until moments before the campaign kicks off on Sept. 1.

Somerhalder, CEO of AGL Resources Inc., who is chairing this year’s United Way campaign, is still meeting with executives to push the goal number “as hard as we can.”

The 2008 United Way campaign raised $80.5 million, not that far off its goal of $82 million. But the final number included a $3.7 million one-time Critical Needs campaign to help meet the increased social, economic and humanitarian needs in the community.

“We are working real hard to come up very close to where we ended up last year, which means a campaign that starts with an eight,” said Somerhalder, adding that the final goal number has to be “realistic.”

A goal of at least $80 million could be a stretch during this weak economy. But the weaker the economy, the greater the needs are in the community.

“It is just clear that the needs are greater,” Somerhalder said based on the number of calls for help that the United Way’s 211 service is receiving. “There are so many people who in the past did not need to call for help who are now calling.”

The campaign cabinet has been trying to see “how hard can we realistically move this goal,” Somerhalder said. “The tough part is that when we go out and meet with companies, there are some real issues.”

Many companies have had to reduce their workforce, which makes employee-based campaigns even more challenging. “I feel very fortunate because the Atlanta business community pulls together in times of need,” he said.

Milton Little, president of Atlanta’s United Way, said the keys to a successful campaign will be that companies make United Way a priority, that new companies undertake campaigns, and that “in all but a small handful of companies, there are tremendous growth opportunities.”

The actual campaign goal will be announced at the kick-off event Sept. 1, which will be held at 4:30 p.m. at the Georgia Freight Depot.

$16 million plus

The Atlanta Jewish Federation will launch its next campaign on Sept. 1. The federation is the second-largest human services campaign in the community: Last year, it raised $15.6 million that was distributed to 17 social service agencies.

Joel Marks, vice chairman and chief operating officer of Advanced Equities Financial Corp., is chairing the 2010 campaign for the federation. That campaign will end on June 30 next year.

“I have got a personal goal,” Marks said in a recent interview. “My goal is to do better than we did last year. It is $16 million-plus. I want to raise the bar because there’s a lot of need out there. It is incumbent upon us to try to meet those needs.”

Marks then said that the federation’s campaign theme of “the good we do is up to you” says it all.

Last year, the federation raised 11 percent less than its goal of $17.9 million, about the average that had been raised for the past several years.

But Steve Rakitt, president of the federation, said last year’s campaign did have some positive results. Its under-40 donors increased their giving by 3 percent. It also had more new donors than the year before.

“Those are a testament to us reaching out and broadening the base,” Rakitt said. Also 91 percent of its donors were able to renew the same level of giving or increase it over the year before. And Rakitt is convinced that the 9 percent who had to lower their giving will return when the economy rebounds.

The Atlanta Jewish Federation was founded in 1906. Today metro Atlantahas about 120,000 Jews out of the region’s population of nearly 5 million.

“This federation has raised over a half billion dollars from the Atlanta Jewish community in its 103 years,” Rakitt said. “That’s a testament to the generosity of a very small segment of our population.”

The federation’s campaign also is unique because 40 percent of its grants are given overseas helping Jews in 60 countries around the world.

Carol Cooper, a community leader who chairs the federation’s board, said its 38-member executive committee will be the first to contribute to the campaign, which is more than just money.

“We talk a lot about living generously,” Cooper said. “We want people to feel that their time and energy is valued.”

In addition to its campaign, the federation also received $10.3 million in contributions from its planned giving and endowment effort.

New blood

There’s new leadership at the American Red Cross Southern Blood Services Region.

Janis Martinez, president of Ashford Management Group, is serving as its 2009-2010 board chair. Meredith Forrester, first vice president of finance and risk management at SunTrust Bank, will serve as vice chair.

The organization also announced that 10 new business and community leaders will be joining its board.

Michael Jackson’s estate

Nationally renowned entertainment lawyer Joel Katz is not one to seekpublicity.

So very few people realize that the attorney with the Atlanta office of Greenberg Traurig LLP is one of the closest associates of the late Michael Jackson and his estate.

“I am co-chief counsel of the Michael Jackson estate,” Katz confirmed. “I’ve been involved in doing the business of the estate ever since the day after Michael passed away.”

But that’s not all.

“I was Michael’s counsel in the last nine months of his life,” Katz said. “I’ve also represented his brother, Jermaine, for over 30 years.”

Katz said he has not spoken publicly about his relationship with the Jackson family because he respects the privacy between clients and their lawyers.

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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