Walking inside the shared foundation offices in the 191 Peachtree Tower, the first large space one sees is a large conference room that doubles as a board room.
This is the new home of the following three foundations:
- The Tull Charitable Foundation, founded in 1952 with a current endowment of about $85 million, giving away about $3.5 million a year
- The R. Howard Dobbs Jr. Foundation, founded in 1959 with a current endowment of $60 million, giving away about $2.5 million a year
- The Sartain Lanier Family Foundation, founded in 1963 with a current endowment of $110 million, giving away about $5 million a year
The executives of the three foundations — Gabby Sheely, executive director of the Tull Foundation; David Weitnauer, president of the Dobbs Foundation; and Pat Lummus, executive director of the Lanier Foundation — proudly show off their shared 3,000-square-foot office space.
“Think about it — in the past, each of us would have a kitchen, a conference room, a copier, a board room, all of which we each were paying for,” Weitnauer said.
The three foundations moved in together in August, and they are still working on the finishing touches, including signage and office décor.
How did they decide which executive got which office — all exactly the same size with the same furniture?
“We picked straws,” Sheely said.
She quickly clarified: “The three foundations are not merging,” she said.
Instead, the three foundations have found ways to share expenses, best practices and information by working together in the same space — while maintaining their separate identities.
It started out during the pandemic. Lummus said the Lanier Foundation’s lease at Puritan Mills was expiring in 2022. She asked Sheely if she could sublease space from the Tull Foundation, which already was in 191 but on a different floor from the current office.
“We had a trial run at sharing office space,” Lummus said.
Then, the Dobbs Foundation got in on the act.
“Atlanta foundations have always been part of a collaborative community,” Weitnauer said. “When the pandemic hit, it made for immediate partnerships around shared interests. Our lease at the Georgia-Pacific building was going to expire this year. So, we started talking about it.”
Each of the foundations has two staff members with an occasional intern — the seasoned executive with a younger associate.
“I’ve been in a two-person office for my whole career. It can be lonely,” said Weitnauer, who loves being in an office with at least six people. “When you are across the hall from someone, you are more likely to collaborate. It also benefits the younger associates. Plus, they offer a fresh perspective that we just couldn’t have. It’s good for everybody.”
That’s just the beginning. The three foundations share the same grant-making software, and they collaborated on redesigning their applications for grants.
“The feedback we got from our grantees was how onerous it was to have different applications asking different questions,” Sheely said. “We wanted to use this opportunity to promote best practices.”
Nonprofits applying for grants from the three foundations will find a streamlined process where they can cut and paste much of the information.
That’s not all. In addition to equally splitting their office costs, the three foundations are using the same accountants and auditing firms.
But one won’t find a receptionist at the shared office. “We prioritize seeing our grantees at their place of business,” Sheely said.
Often when the executives return from a site visit, they are able to share insights about the nonprofit with their peers. And the collaborative approach is spreading to the board level.
“We are going to have a fellowship dinner in late October with the boards of the three foundations,” Sheely said.
Beverly Tatum, retired president of Spelman College who chairs the Tull Foundation, said the communal arrangement is working.
“I want to commend the three foundation leaders for their cooperative spirit,” Tatum said in a text. “Not only does this move increase efficiencies for each foundation, it also encourages creative synergies as each seeks to increase its impact while still allowing each foundation to maintain its autonomy in funding decisions.”
Karen Beavor, president and CEO of the Georgia Center for Nonprofits, applauded the move, saying that a majority of foundations are thinly staffed in their own echo chamber.
“All of this makes perfect sense. We preach efficiency, efficiency, efficiency all the time,” Beavor said. “Foundations want nonprofits to maximize their efficiencies, so it’s good when foundations can do the same. When you get a group of foundations, you are sharing connections to resources. And you can build upon each other’s ideas.”
This approach has long been practiced by Atlanta’s largest cluster of foundations — the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, which shares space and staff with the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation. Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation and the Lettie Pate Whitehead Foundation in the 191 building.
“Hats off to the Tull, Lanier and Dobbs Foundations for forging a cost-effective partnership,” said Russ Hardin, president and CEO of the Woodruff family of foundations. “The arrangement is sure to minimize their operating costs and make more resources available for grant making.”
Hardin said the common administrative arrangement of the Woodruff family of foundations dates back more than 50 years.
“Ours arose naturally due to common trustees of the Woodruff, Whitehead, and Evans Foundations, and also to our common history in the Coca-Cola business,” Hardin said. “The arrangement has saved millions of dollars in overhead and makes us by far the most cost-effective foundation of our size in the country. It is sometimes difficult to measure the impact of our grants, but we are convinced that dollars spent on grants are more impactful than the dollars that foundations spend internally.”
For Weitnauer, it is especially meaningful — recreating the spirit he enjoyed when his offices were at the Hurt building when it served as the headquarters for Atlanta’s philanthropic community. That’s where he met Lummus and Bobbi Cleveland, the now-retired executive director of the Tull Foundation.
“On the first day of my job at the Hurt building, Bobbi was there,” Weitnauer said. “Bobbi has been a mentor to all of us.”
In fact, she is now a trustee of the Dobbs Foundation.
“This had to be an arrangement that would outlast us as individuals,” Weitnauer continued. “I’m stepping down next year.”
Sheely then chimed in.
“The three of us love working together,” she said. “It also benefits our grantees. There are opportunities for us to collaborate.”