Frank Fernandez: Atlanta well positioned to lead on race and equity
By Maria Saporta
The incoming president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta – Frank Fernandez – hopes to unleash the power of collaboration to galvanize metro Atlanta to address issues of inequity in our region.
Fernandez, senior vice president of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, sat down for a recent exclusive, in-person interview about how he will approach leading one of the most important organizations in the Atlanta region.
When Fernandez read the search committee’s leadership profile for the CEO role, he was impressed to find out “how central equity had become to the mission of the Community Foundation” as it was looking for someone to succeed Alicia Philipp, who led the organization for 42 years.
“For me, that’s my professional north star,” Fernandez said of his quest for equity.
Fernandez has worked in the area of community development for most of his career. When he came to Atlanta in 2014, he was tasked to lead the Blank Foundation’s initiative to revitalize the Westside – especially the Vine City and English Avenue neighborhoods across from the Mercedes-Benz Stadium that was under development at the time.
Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank had made a pledge before the stadium was built that it was just as important to revitalize the surrounding communities as it was to build a new home for his football team.
Fernandez, a Florida native, is the son of Cuban immigrants. He holds a Bachelors’ degree in Philosophy for Harvard University and a Master of Arts degree from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.
From 2001 to 2006, Fernandez was deputy director of Austin’s PeopleFund, an entity that provided loans and financial advisory services to small businesses and nonprofits in lower-income communities. He went on to become executive director of Green Doors, an Austin-based housing nonprofit that connects lower-income communities to greater socio-economic opportunity through affordable housing and supportive services.
More recently, Fernandez has been one of the leaders behind HouseATL, an organization dedicated to making sure Atlanta residents have access to affordable housing.
In the interview, it was clear Fernandez considers the job at the Community Foundation as a vehicle to have a broad impact on issues facing the region.
“There’s a unique value proposition that the Community Foundation can bring,” Fernandez said. “It functions as a go-between between the donor community and the community at large.”
The Community Foundation currently has a $1.2 billion endowment, making it the second largest foundation in Georgia. Fernandez said it is vitally important for the institution to have the trust of the donors and the community at large. About 95 percent of its assets are in donor-advised funds.
“We can strengthen that value proposition by being an honest broker and by
being able to galvanize action,” Fernandez said. “How do we create more alignment around the donors on the key priorities in the community?”
An excellent example of what Fernandez would like to see more of in the future is the community’s response to creating a fund to help nonprofits during the COVID pandemic. The Community Foundation, working with the United Way of Greater Atlanta and numerous donors and foundations, established the COVID-19 Rescue and Recovery Fund, which raised more than $22 million.
“At the Blank Foundation, we have been a huge investor in the fund. It’s indicative of what is possible, and it’s something we can do more of,” Fernandez said. “We can be a facilitator and collaborator among donors, connecting the dots between the public sector, the private sector and nonprofits.”
Fernandez will begin his new job at the Community Foundation on Aug. 10, and he will spend time getting to know the staff, meeting members of the board as well as donors and reaching out to civic partners.
The Community Foundation is one of the “Big Four” entities in Atlanta that has a regional mandate. The Atlanta Regional Commission, United Way and the Metro Atlanta Chamber are all tasked to address regional issues and look beyond political jurisdictions.
Over the past several years, the top executives of the “Big Four” have been meeting regularly to see how they can work more closely together. That’s an effort Fernandez plans to continue.
“I want the Community Foundation to do more outside the city of Atlanta,” Fernandez said. “Metro Atlanta needs to feel and act more like a region. That’s something we are in a position to do and should do. And bringing it back to equity, we have to think of ways to work through geographic inequities, racial inequities and socio-economic inequities.”
Fernandez said the Atlanta Community Foundation also can learn from other cities on how they have leveraged their community foundations to help develop a strategic plan and agenda for their respective regions. Specifically, he mentioned the Seattle Foundation and the Foundation for the Carolinas as examples of being able to impact their communities.
Fernandez said it was important to acknowledge all the good work that’s been accomplished during Philipp’s tenure. It will serve as the base for the next evolution of the Foundation, which is having to navigate to coronavirus as well as racial unrest in the community.
“The world has changed, and we have to pivot and adjust to the new reality and have as much impact as possible,” Fernandez said. “One of the roles I want to play is in bringing together donors. As I told Arthur, in my new role, I want to continue to work with the Blank Foundation and bring value to their mission. He was very supportive.”
The Community Foundation also had to review its relationship with Achieve Atlanta (on of its spin-offs) because Fernandez’s wife, Tina, is its executive director.
“The board took some action when they asked me to come on board to create some guardrails out of an abundance of caution,” Fernandez said. “To me, I wanted to make sure when I took the role, that there was no conflict of interest and no appearance of a conflict of interest.”
In looking to the future, Fernandez hopes the Community Foundation will facilitate conversations, and more importantly, actions “around the historic inequities that have existed for decades.
A vehicle to move the conversation forward is through the arts and cultural communities.
“The arts are an integral part of our community,” said Fernandez m who added that one of his goals is to “ensure within the arts community equitable access to grants and to really lift up non-mainstream art.”
One example Fernandez mentioned was how the Blank Foundation sponsored different artists during this year’s Super Bowl to tell the story of the civil rights movement in offerings throughout the community.
For Fernandez, it is all part of lifting up Atlanta to live up to its lofty ideals of racial cooperation and unity with equitable opportunities for all.
“Atlanta is well-positioned, because of its history, to really lead on the issue of race and equity,” Fernandez said. “I want to make sure we are doing our best to listen to the different community voices.”