Nonprofits hope Southwest will give like AirTran

By Maria Saporta
Friday, October 1, 2010

For dozens of nonprofit and civic organizations in metro Atlanta, AirTran Airways Inc. has been a godsend.

But there’s great community concern about whether that will continue once AirTran is acquired by Dallas-based Southwest Airlines.

Although AirTran is headquartered in Orlando, Fla., the discount carrier has treated Atlanta as a hometown. Its largest hub is here. Its largest base of employees is here. And five of its key officers call Atlanta home.

“We love AirTran,” said Ann Curry of fundraising firm Coxe, Curry & Associates. “They are such a good community citizen. They treat Atlanta like it’s their hometown.”

As an example, when Tad Hutcheson, AirTran’s vice president of marketing and sales, was introduced as a new member of the Rotary Club of Atlanta, there were two AirTran tickets hidden at each table for a surprise winner.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Curry said.

The same scenario has been repeated time and time again at annual dinners, luncheons and special events. Sometimes the tickets are auctioned off at each table, other times they are given to supporters of nonprofit organizations. Either way, AirTran’s presence has been felt.

Beyond tickets, AirTran also has become a major cash contributor to organizations. For example, it is a $100,000 donor to the annual Woodruff Arts Center campaign.

“They have been wonderful,” said Beauchamp Carr, Woodruff Arts Center’s executive vice president, who oversees the corporate campaign. “Tad has been a great friend to the Arts Center and our components, and we are very grateful. We hope he doesn’t go anywhere.”

While it’s too early to know what kind of corporate citizen Southwest will be in Atlanta, someone who knows the Dallas-based airline said it will not match AirTran’s level of involvement.

“That definitely will not be happening,” he said. “They’re going to get involved in the Ronald McDonald House immediately. The rest will be done in a methodical approach.”

Another person familiar with Southwest’s civic involvement agreed that the Ronald McDonald House will benefit, but “little else.” The view of Southwest’s executives, this person said, is that “we help the community through lower fares, so we don’t need to support local organizations.”

Such an approach, however, could be a big mistake for Southwest in Atlanta, according to Ken Bernhardt, chairman of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau and a marketing professor at Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business.

“I truly believe that Southwest has to transfer all the goodwill that’s associated with AirTran to their brand to be truly successful here,” Bernhardt said. “They need to continue doing a good portion of what AirTran has been doing to support the nonprofit community, at least in the short run. If they don’t, they risk creating enemies at the exact time they need to be making friends.”

Bernhardt said that even if Southwest discards AirTran’s community profile, he expects that “little will happen for the next year, so nonprofits will have time to adjust.”

Jack Harris, president of Junior Achievement of Georgia, said AirTran is one of its top five corporate supporters involved in volunteerism, event sponsorships and on the board.

“We hope to have the chance to continue to build on the partnership and legacy that AirTran has created within the Atlanta community,” Harris said of the Southwest deal.

Pat Upshaw-Monteith, president and CEO of Leadership Atlanta, also called AirTran one of its top supporters, and added that Hutcheson had even served as her chairman. “We are grateful for AirTran’s generosity and Tad’s leadership,” she said. “We hope Southwest Airlines will be as supportive and continue to strengthen our nonprofit community.”

That sentiment was echoed throughout the city.

A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, said it hasn’t just been philanthropic giving, but marketing investments and sponsorships.

Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, agreed. “AirTran has been a great leader in the civic and business community, and I would expect that the executives of Southwest would see the advantages of doing the same thing,” he said.

Hutcheson, who has been AirTran’s face in Atlanta, said Southwest has been “very involved in the communities” that they serve. “I’m sure they’ll understand the need to have a presence in the Atlanta community.”

Others are not so sure. Last year, Southwest did away with having area market managers in all the cities where it flies. “The brain trust will always be in Dallas,” a source close to Southwest said. “Dallas is the center of their world.”

Looking over Southwest’s board, all but one of its directors are from Texas. All are white. And there is one female. Few people expect Southwest to add any of AirTran’s directors to its board after the acquisition. By comparison, AirTran has numerous Atlanta directors — Lewis Jordan, Veronica Biggins, Don Chapman and Jere Drummond.

Interestingly enough, as AirTran has increased its Atlanta profile, hometown-based Delta Air Lines Inc. ended its sponsorship of several local entities, including the Atlanta Falcons, the Atlanta Hawks and the Atlanta Thrashers.

But Delta has remained involved. Its executives serve on the boards of 38 Atlanta community organizations. Company officials have said that the airline hasn’t reduced its charitable spending in Atlanta.

Others see this as an opening for Delta. Someone close to the Atlanta-based airline said: “We can step up to the plate and re-establish ourselves in Atlanta.”
Organizations that AirTran supports in Atlanta include:

Atlanta Business League

Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau

Atlanta Police Foundation

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Atlanta Women’s Foundation

Buckhead Coalition

Central Atlanta Progress

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Hughes Spalding

CHRIS Kids

CURE Childhood Cancer

Dad’s Garage

Georgia Aquarium

Georgia Chamber of Commerce

HOPE ATL

Junior Achievement

Leadership Atlanta Marcus Institute

Metro Atlanta Chamber

National Black College Alumni/National Cares Mentors – Tommy Dortch

Oglethorpe University

UNCF

USO

Woodruff Arts Center

YMCA

YWCA

ZooAtlanta

AirTran also is an official sponsor of:

Centennial Olympic Park

Underground Atlanta

Atlanta Falcons

Georgia State University

Georgia Tech Alumni

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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