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Slow-starting Natural Resources Foundation picking up steam

By Dave Williams and Maria Saporta
Friday, May 4, 2012

A nonprofit foundation, formed to raise money to support the work of Georgia’s cash-strapped natural resources agency, is showing its first results — two years after the General Assembly approved the initiative.

The Georgia Natural Resources Foundation Inc. announced its first grant — nearly $50,000 to help fund the public television program “Georgia Outdoors” — during its first annual spring gala May 1 at the Governor’s Mansion.

The guest list at the dinner was a Who’s Who of top state and business officials, who also enjoyed a stand-up routine from comedian Jeff Foxworthy, a member of the foundation’s board.

The grant to Georgia Public Broadcasting will go toward the $67,000 cost of producing the 20th season of the outdoors show, which spotlights the programs and projects of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), including wildlife, parks and historic sites.

“It has a great PR effect for the [DNR] and was something they felt very strongly about,” said Jim Lynch, the foundation’s executive director. “It was something we felt really needed to have our support.”

“Season 20 is alive and well,” DNR Commissioner Mark Williams said during the May 1 event in thanking contributors for their support.

The foundation’s newfound success is coming after a series of twists and turns that kept it from raising any money until the last few months.

The bill authorizing the foundation cleared the General Assembly overwhelmingly in 2010, the same legislative session that saw lawmakers pass a budget cutting DNR funding about one-third below where it had been just three years earlier.

But the lopsided votes in favor of the measure came only after lawmakers added provisions aimed at preventing conflicts of interest.

The final version of the bill prohibited the foundation from performing any regulatory functions, barred members of the Georgia Board of Natural Resources — the DNR’s policy-making body — from serving as officers or directors of the foundation and stipulated that donations to the foundation could not be used to pay DNR personnel costs.

The safeguards were inserted after environmental advocates complained that businesses could make donations to the foundation that then could go to portions of the agency with power to grant or deny development permits.

“It was ill-conceived,” said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club. “The whole concept looks like bribery.”

Despite those concerns, the initiative appeared to get off to a quick start when the DNR hired a marketing consultant in July 2010 to help develop corporate sponsorship packages through the foundation. Among the more ambitious ideas was convincing high-profile Georgia companies to put their names on a state park or wildlife protection program.

But after a year went by with nothing to show for the effort, the DNR opted not to renew the consultant’s contract.

DNR spokeswoman Lauren Curry, then serving as the foundation’s executive director, said the state didn’t lose any taxpayer dollars because the contract was contingent upon results.

“We knew this was experimental,” she said. “No one had done this, so we didn’t risk any money.”

At the same time the DNR was working on the corporate sponsorships drive, the foundation was seeking nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service.

It soon became clear that the concept in the 2010 legislation of a state-operated nonprofit foundation wasn’t going to work.

“What was required was that the foundation move apart from the Department of Natural Resources,” said Lynch, who joined the foundation last December after a career as an executive with The Coca-Cola Co. and United Parcel Service Inc. and a two-year stint as chief operating officer for Salvation Army Atlanta.

Curry said Lynch’s hiring was part of the DNR’s effort to separate the state agency from the foundation.

“We are a fundraising and grant-making organization,” Lynch said. “We don’t have any programming activities of our own. … We do not receive any funding or staff time from the state.”

Still, it took until last September for the IRS to approve the foundation’s 501(c)(3) application.

Since then, the foundation has been busy raising money among its board members and friends.

“Our mission is to preserve and protect Georgia’s wonderful natural resources,” said foundation Chairman David Allen, a retired oral surgeon and past chairman of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. “We are adamant that we are not there to replace state funding. We are there to augment what they need.”

Allen said the foundation’s goal is to raise at least $250,000 in 2012 with the intent of “giving grants to entities that help promote the conservation of our natural resources.”

The largest donor so far is Bill Jones III of Sea Island fame. Jones was listed in the dinner program as having donated at least $50,000. Asked about his gift, Jones said: “This is really important to me. It’s something I believe in.“

Other major donors — in the $25,000-plus range — were Allen, Emory Healthcare, the Georgia Power Foundation, James Cox Kennedy and Rollins Inc.

One of the most poignant moments of the May 1 gala was when Foxworthy turned serious after delivering his “You might be a redneck if …” comedy routine.

“In the long list of things I’m thankful for, I’m thankful for this state,” Foxworthy said, adding that he’s visited all 50 states. “I will take this one. I love this one.”

He went on to talk about the Georgia mountains, the coast and Callaway Gardens — “God was showing off when he made that place.”

He then mentioned how he and his daughter had found a 5,000-year-old bowl — a reminder that the land in Georgia had been here long before any of us.

“We don’t own it,” Foxworthy said. “We are just taking care of it for a little while.”

Georgia Natural Resources Foundation board

Here are some of the prominent Georgians serving on it:

David Allen, retired oral surgeon and former chairman, Georgia Chamber of Commerce
Mike Clanton, vice president for land, Georgia Power Co.
Jeff Foxworthy, comedian
Bill Jones III, chairman emeritus, Sea Island Co.
Ross King, executive director, Association County Commissioners of Georgia
Steve Levetan, senior vice president, Pull-A-Part LLC
Mark Williams, commissioner, Georgia Department of Natural Resources

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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