Penny McPhee: Atlanta changed my life.

Atlanta changed my life.

The city first won me over in 1985, during a whirlwind trip to interview Dr. King’s still living lieutenants – Andy Young, Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Julian Bond and Hosea Williams – for a book I was writing. I was, at the time, approaching the age of Dr. King when he was murdered in Memphis. The immersion with this old friends at that moment in my personal journey, in a city that was the cradle of the movement, led to my book, King Remembered, and renewed my belief that an inspired collection of local leaders can find common cause to change the world.

Flash forward nearly two decades. I found myself back in Atlanta in 2004, this time in the media room of one of Atlanta’s new generational leaders, Arthur M. Blank. This time, I was the one being interviewed. Instead of a book, I got a job – the job of a lifetime.

I didn’t know Arthur Blank.  I did know that when my home in Miami was devastated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, The Home Depot stepped up like no other corporation – refusing to raise prices, diverting recovery necessities from stores in other communities, and launching a committed corps of volunteers.  I knew those values came from the company’s leaders. I knew something about Arthur Blank.

Still, I wasn’t convinced – until I sat down with Arthur in his Buckhead home and heard his vision for the future, his ideas about the role of philanthropy, his values. His questions were thought-provoking. “Why can’t nonprofits get programs to scale?” asked the founder of The Home Depot.  Some of his expectations were surprising and unconventional. For example, the Foundation would lead the philanthropy of his two businesses – the Atlanta Falcons and Mountain Sky Guest Ranch in Montana, and as Foundation president, I would be charged with guiding the Falcons players with their personal foundations and philanthropy.

In this moment, my personal journey and the life cycle of the Foundation seemed intertwined. My passions and values aligned with the family foundation’s newly defined goals. The organizational values adapted from Home Depot – put people first, listen and respond, include everyone, give back to others, innovate continuously and lead by example – resonated. I told my family and friends, “Atlanta seems like a city where I can get things done.” I was confident I could lead the implementation of the new strategic plan, which focused on providing opportunity to those most in need. And, while I had a lot to learn about football, I loved the opportunity to work with these young men who wanted to give back in Atlanta and in their hometowns.

I could not imagine then that by the time I retired from the Foundation, Arthur would own not only the Falcons and Mountain Sky, but the largest golf retail business in the world – PGA TOUR Superstores, a championship soccer team, a professional sports stadium and three ranches in Montana. This doesn’t even count the now-defunct arena football team and Pop Stand. The Foundation would support the philanthropy of this entire growing enterprise – the Blank Family of Businesses.

Before I arrived, Arthur had already put in place a giving program at Mountain Sky Guest Ranch that would eventually become the model for the philanthropy of the Blank Family of Businesses. The ranch associates, from wranglers to pastry chef to housekeepers, were all involved in the decisions about local grants in Park and Gallatin Counties.  The Foundation in Atlanta provided the back-office support, but the ranch team brought their personal insights about community needs to the decision-making. They made site visits; they asked hard questions of the nonprofit grant seekers; and they followed up to evaluate progress. The model, which I experienced first-hand in the summer of 2004, was so unusual and compelling that we urged the Chronicle of Philanthropy to write about it in 2006.

When I got to Atlanta in April 2004, the Foundation was nearly 10 years old. I began, coincidentally, on the day the new Blank Family Office opened.  I still had no real understanding of the platform I was stepping onto. Nor did I understand yet that no matter how big I might think, Arthur would be thinking bigger. The Foundation was poised to double its giving to $50 million dollars a year. The family’s focus on education, early childhood, arts and the environment paralleled my own passions and addressed enormous social needs and disparities in Atlanta.  I was starting just in time to influence the strategies and tactics the Foundation would use to address the neediest, most underserved young people and families through its giving, its commitment and its leadership.

It’s a well-known aphorism in philanthropy that “if you know one family foundation, you know one family foundation.” Each is the unique result of the personality of the founder, the source of the wealth, the relationships of the family members, their family histories, religious affiliation, politics and education.  Add to those attributes such characteristics as risk tolerance, respect for collaborative process, sense of humor – and all the other aspects of family life. When you join a family foundation as an executive or staff associate, you join a family. Sharing the values, aspirations and passions of the family; learning each family member’s preferences and styles; and enjoying the give and take of creative, independent thinkers are keys to success for a family foundation president.

When the Foundation was launched in 1996, Arthur made two decisions that were both unorthodox and definitional. He appointed his three children, then in their late teens through mid-twenties, as trustees of the Foundation, and he hired two young Jewish women, both with experience in the nonprofit sector and a passion for making a difference in the community, to share the management of the day-to-day operations of the Foundation.

Elise Eplan and Deva Hirsch were modest, smart and motivated. In their early thirties, they were both raising young children and neither wanted full-time employment. With vastly different — and complementary — skill sets and styles, they imbibed the family’s values and set about giving them form and content. They saw themselves as stewards and respected donor intent. They hired the most diverse staff of any philanthropy in Georgia; they supported the family’s leadership around critical issues, such as expanding parks and green space while Atlanta was losing 50 acres a day to development; they encouraged collaboration among nonprofits with real incentives; they understood and exploited the family’s willingness to think big and take risks.  And after five or six years, having created – side by side with Arthur’s family — the DNA that would forever define the Foundation, they recognized that the Foundation had grown to the point where full-time leadership was needed.

The first president selected by the family in 2002 was not a good fit, so it was with some trepidation that I accepted the position in early 2004.  I had long telephone conversations with Arthur’s children, each of us exploring whether I had the disposition to work with them to take the Foundation to a new level. I viewed my role as that of steward, facilitator, operative, change agent.  I was confident in my communication skills, my knowledge of philanthropy, my commitment to hard work. I welcomed the external role of building relationships in the community.  I understood my responsibility was to turn the family’s vision into an on-the-ground reality. My imagination and creativity would be directed toward helping the family agree on the “what” and leading the Foundation staff in implementing the “how.” This felt like a good fit for me.  It played to my strengths.  I liked the staff Deva and Elise had assembled, and the family had empowered me to hire new associates with backgrounds in our new giving areas.

Arthur’s adult children, now in their late 20s and early 30s, had their own interests and passions.  The oldest, Kenny, a graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU and at that time a TV director, was a champion for arts and culture in Atlanta.  With a master’s degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Dena, soon to take on leadership roles with Teach for America, was focused on public education, and Danielle, a graduate of Oberlin College, was a passionate advocate for environmental causes.  Arthur’s then-spouse, Stephanie, was committed to early childhood education.

Arthur was, and continues to be, personally passionate about giving young people opportunities to succeed. But when I asked him at our first interview what success would look like in five years, he said 50 percent would be making real change in the community and 50 percent would be keeping his family excited and engaged by the work of the Foundation.  He knew that the needs in Atlanta and beyond exceeded the resources of any foundation.  There was no limit to the areas where we could have an impact.  So, as the family created its roadmap for the future, he knew that focusing on the issues they cared about most would go a long way toward keeping them involved.

Big ideas were already on the table. The Foundation had just supported the feasibility study that demonstrated that Georgia Tech grad student Ryan Gravel’s thesis proposing the BeltLine could, in fact, become a reality. Now we were ready for a vigorous conversation about how to invest in the proposed development of this ring of paths and parks that tied together 44 Atlanta neighborhoods and would change the face of the city of Atlanta. By early 2007, the Foundation had invested nearly $10 million in planning and launching the implementation of the BeltLine.

With broad-based support from the business community, Atlanta Public Schools had recruited Dr. Beverly Hall as superintendent in 1999. Dr. Hall had an ambitious plan for transforming Atlanta’s poorly performing public schools.  Following the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and APS’s gradual integration beginning in the 60s, Atlanta’s white families with means had moved their children to private schools.  The district had become mostly poor and mostly black. Dr. Hall was embarking on a student-focused, small-school approach based largely on the education reform models being espoused by the Gates Foundation and others. The Foundation put financial resources and influence behind Dr. Hall’s efforts, investing more than $8 million over the next four years.

What began in 2004 as a three-year initiative by the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation to address the growing epidemic of childhood obesity has endured for 16 years, ultimately helping to reduce the trendline for childhood obesity in Georgia. It’s uncommon and powerful for a foundation to stick with a focus area for more than a decade and a half.  With leadership from Sr. Vice President John Bare, the effort has survived three gubernatorial administrations and reached every county in Georgia.

A museum celebrating Atlanta’s role in the Civil Rights Movement was initially conceived by Evelyn Lowery, the wife of Joseph Lowery, and Juanita Abernathy, the widow of Ralph David Abernathy, along with former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young and longtime Congressman John Lewis, all of whom were part of the Movement in the 1960s. In 2005, then-Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin signed onto the project.  Shortly afterwards, the family of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put his private papers on auction at Sotheby’s. Valued at a minimum of $15 million, the 7,000 items included drafts of famous speeches and sermons, such as “I Have a Dream” and “The Drum Major Instinct.” There are papers showing the final revisions to King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Mayor Franklin and Ambassador Young were adamant that the papers should stay in Atlanta and sought to raise $23 million to negotiate a deal with the King family. Delta Air Lines and other local corporations and philanthropists, including Blank Foundation, contributed $1 million each.

A 2005 board retreat at Arthur’s home in Hilton Head was an important inflection point for the Foundation. To address Arthur’s question about why nonprofits have so much difficulty getting to scale, we invited Gary Walker, then president of Public/Private Ventures, as a guest speaker. Gary could speak to real life examples of how funders balanced the tension between wanting to take effective practices to scale and wanting to invest in innovative experiments.  The Blank family wanted to do some of both. What grabbed Arthur in the free-flowing conversation was a specific comment Gary made about the need to focus on customers – and how hard it is for foundations to recognize that its customers are not the nonprofits to which they give grants. The foundation’s customers are the individuals served by the grantees.  As the founder of a retail behemoth, there was nothing new here for Arthur.  He grabbed the moment to reinforce it for everyone in the room, and this has become a bedrock principle of the Foundation.


The Great Recession affected every business and foundation in Atlanta and across the country. The Home Depot stock, the primary source of the Foundation’s resources, hit lows in the teens. The most painful professional challenge I have ever faced was letting go half of the Foundation staff in late 2008.  (Fortunately, these talented, resilient individuals landed in leadership positions throughout the City’s nonprofit and philanthropic sector and continue to be our partners on so many initiatives.) The very small remaining team, including John Bare, JoAnn Ellis, Lea Bond and Tawnya Rupe, who continue to contribute prodigiously to the Foundation today, leaned in and never dropped a ball.

The second most difficult responsibility was informing a number of grantees, all of whom were struggling financially in the recession, that the Foundation would have to delay paying many of our grants. Fortunately, within 18 months, the Foundation was able to pay almost all of the outstanding commitments.

The BeltLine fundraising stalled.  The National Center for Civil and Human Rights was forced to downsize its campaign and its footprint. (Our recent $17 million grant to The Center will revive some of the features that had to be eliminated at that time.) The effort to raise funds to acquire the King papers, though ultimately successful, required a complicated mix of loans and gifts.  The Foundation focused its efforts on social service needs, abandoning for the time being both our robust parks and greenspace program (Inspiring Spaces) and our long-time support of the arts (Art of Change).

One positive outcome of the recession was that the Foundation began to use new muscles. With reduced financial resources, we upped our influence game, making the Blank Foundation speaker series, begun in 2007, a “hot ticket” and implementing a film series. We recognized then that the Foundation has an uncommon array of platforms for a family foundation, and both of these initiatives capitalize on using our convening power and influence to activate change.

By 2011, with the recession mostly behind us, Arthur’s focus had turned to building a new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons.  For most Foundation executives, that would have been an irrelevant business project, completely separate from the work of the Foundation.  To Arthur Blank, who views all of his businesses and the Foundation as one cohesive enterprise, the role of the Foundation would be instrumental.

Committed to building the new stadium in downtown Atlanta, Arthur knew that the project could be an economic driver – but only if we were intentional in our efforts.  The potential stadium sites that rose to the top of the Falcons’ consideration were adjacent to several of the poorest, most underinvested neighborhoods in Atlanta.  Vine City and English Avenue boasted a proud history.  Martin Luther King, Jr., and his young family, as well as other civil rights leaders, lived in Vine City in the 1960s, when it was a robust middle-class black community.  By 2011, the population had diminished to fewer than 11,000 residents.

From the beginning, Arthur was adamant that he would not build an iconic sports stadium on one side of Northside Drive and leave impoverished, blighted neighborhoods on the other side. The Foundation would undertake the challenge of transforming these neighborhoods, while the businesses designed and built the stadium.

From the Foundation’s earliest days, its culture was one of listening and responding to grantees and the people we served in the community. That’s the approach we took when Arthur asked me to partner with Falcons president Rich McKay to begin laying the political groundwork for the stadium and assessing the needs in the community.  Representing Arthur on the Atlanta Committee for Progress since 2004, I had developed relationships with Atlanta’s corporate CEOs and two Mayors – Shirley Franklin and Kasim Reed. Through the Foundation’s statewide work on childhood obesity, we had also built relationships with many Georgia legislators.

I quickly lost count of the number of community gatherings Rich and I attended at churches, NPU meetings and civic associations. Arthur says hundreds, and it may well have been. Our goal, based in our foundation and corporate values, was to listen.  We wanted our investments to address the needs identified by residents.  We heard the same response again and again – jobs, jobs, jobs. A meeting with Rev. Cameron Alexander of Antioch Baptist Church inspired much of our thinking going forward. Ingrid Saunders Jones, the long-time head of the Coca Cola Foundation, arranged a meeting with Rev. Alexander, his son Kenny, Arthur, Rich and me. Pastor of one of the largest Black churches in Atlanta, Rev. Alexander, who died in 2019, was a legend in the Black community. His message to us was unequivocal, powerful and resonated with the Foundation’s strengths: Focus on human capital, he said, not buildings.

That became our mantra. Even before we hired Frank Fernandez as Vice President for Community Development in 2014, we began exploring how best to connect Westside residents to training for work on construction of the stadium. With Frank’s arrival, our highest priority became creating Westside Works. Since then, more than 1,200 individuals have been trained in construction skills, culinary arts, IT, early childcare and nursing assistance, and more than 840 have been placed in living wage jobs, earning a cumulative total nearly $22 million.  Ensuring that Westside Works endures will be one of the challenges going forward and important to the Foundation’s legacy on the Westside.

Most foundations change their focus every three to five years.  We had stayed committed for nearly 10 years to the goals of the 2004 strategic plan. 2013 brought another period of reflection. My conversations with the family made it clear that they were still passionate about our existing giving areas. Based on those conversations, as well as discussions with local and national experts, we agreed to update and strengthen our program directions over the next five years in light of what we had accomplished, what we had learned and what we saw as new opportunities ahead. We also committed to creating lasting change in the Westside neighborhoods; using our influence to take the best ideas to scale; and deploying the assets of the Blank Family of Businesses to create value.

Arthur always said that once construction began on the stadium, it would be completed in three years (which it was), but the work on the Westside would take a generation. We also knew we could not undertake a transformational project of this magnitude alone.  Working closely with Mayor Kasim Reed and the Atlanta Committee for Progress, we helped create the Westside Future Fund, and I joined its board. Though it got off to a slow and troubled start, it has become Atlanta’s best example of a funders’ collaborative, raising millions of dollars from Atlanta’s Fortune 500 companies and driving change particularly in the areas of housing, blight reduction and development.

The Foundation undertook a national search and hired Frank Fernandez, who led our Westside Neighborhood Prosperity Fund for the next five years with enormous success.

We began rebuilding our program staff, hiring two new program officers (Suganthi Simon and Ayana Gabriel) and a director of communications (Alison Sawyer).

When Arthur bought a new ranch (the Castle Smith property) adjacent to Mountain Sky Guest Ranch, he asked staff to examine potential uses for it. We all agreed it would be an ideal site to use as a base camp for a summer youth program.  We looked at three options for how to implement the program: invite local Montana youth-serving groups to bring their own programs to the site; partner with a group like Outward Bound to provide a wilderness experience; or create our own wilderness program. Though by far the most complicated, we chose the third option and hired an experienced director of expeditionary programs for youth to create and run what became American Explorers. We learned after one season that the very successful program was also very expensive to operate.  That led to creating the current model for American Explorers in partnership with North Carolina Outward Bound, now directed by Kaamel Nuri.

The acquisition of the Castle Smith property, along with Danielle’s passion for Montana’s land and wildlife, launched the Foundation and business expansion in Montana.  We hired our first Director of Land and Wildlife Conservation. We had a dual goal: leading the conservation efforts in Paradise Valley and making Mountain Sky Guest Ranch best in class in conservation and sustainability. Arthur was also on the lookout to purchase additional ranch properties in Paradise Valley, particularly those adjacent to MSGR, and put them under conservation easements to protect them in perpetuity.

With the acquisition of West Creek Ranch, already under an easement and not available for commercial purposes, Arthur challenged the Foundation team to figure out the highest best purpose.  With creative leadership from John Bare, it has become a robust conference center, bringing together national and international thought leaders around issues of significance to the Foundation.  Arthur’s commandment – that attendees devote fifty percent of their time at West Creek to exploring and enjoying the outdoors environment – has led to profound insights and lifelong relationships. The exploration of well-being during the 2019 West Creek season inspired the Foundation’s portfolio of well-being grants now coming to fruition.

As part of the ten-year refresh of the strategic plan, with Kenny Blank as a board champion, we launched the Audience Building Roundtable in early 2016 as our primary investment in the arts. The five-year, $5 million initiative, was once again grounded in our value of “listen and respond.” The Roundtable brought together on a regular basis an average of 50 arts organizations, functioning as an intensive peer network that heightened learning and innovation through formal and informal training and technical assistance.  When the program ended in December 2020, Atlanta’s fractured, competitive arts community had come together as a robust, trusting peer network, learning and sharing across their organizations.  Early pre-COVID assessment showed increases in ticket sales across the network and an increase in organizations showing an annual budget surplus.

COVID has had a devastating impact on arts organizations, and I hope as the Foundation winds down the Art of Change program, it will find ways to help arts groups recover.  Atlanta’s arts community is fragile.  One of my regrets is that in spite of our efforts, along with others, over the last decade, we have not been able to achieve the public support at the state and local levels necessary to create a healthy arts community. It will remain one of my personal passions, post-retirement, as I believe the arts are crucial to our quality of life, the education of our children and progress toward tolerance for other people and different ideas.

In 2016, among other changes in the governance of the Foundation, Arthur added the first non-family directors to the board. The four associate directors Arthur appointed –Elise Eplan, Suzanne Apple, Roz Brewer and Bill Bolling – were all “insiders” in different ways. Arthur knew each of them personally and recognized that they shared the family’s values and would provide wise counsel.  It was definitely the right move at the right time in the Foundation’s life cycle.  The board deliberations are more robust because of their engagement; their networks broaden our capacity; and they are generous spirits, giving unstintingly of their service.  The challenge ahead will be how to engage them most effectively as the family rolls out a new strategic plan and Arthur makes sizeable legacy investments.

Why does anyone leave a position like the one I have been honored to hold for nearly 17 years?  It seems counterintuitive to retire at a moment when the Foundation is poised to have even more impact and its giving is accelerated.  The areas the family has chosen for their collective grantmaking and the deepened engagement in social justice issues excite my personal passions.

And yet, I know it’s the right time in the Foundation’s life cycle and my own.

I’ve been privileged to lead the Foundation in investing nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars. We’ve changed the face of Atlanta with investments in the BeltLine, on the Westside and in parks across the city.  We’ve improved the health of Georgia’s children; we’ve strengthened its arts organizations; we’ve brought important national organizations like Teach for America, Posse, Jumpstart and YearUp to Atlanta; we’ve helped create important homegrown organizations like GEEARS, RedefinED and the Westside Future Fund; we’ve leaned into emergencies like hurricanes, wildfires and COVID; and we’ve used our grantmaking and influence in Montana to become a respected voice around early childhood, youth development and conservation.  Most importantly, we’ve listened and responded and kept our focus on the people and communities most in need.

I have often told my friends and family that there was little chance I would have remained at any other family foundation for 17 years.  My personality demands new challenges, adventure, change.  I cringe at routine. In truth, I didn’t have one job for 17 years.  I had a new job every day.

I benefited from joining the Foundation just in time to work with the family and lead the staff in implementing a new strategic plan.  As the Foundation embarks now on its next plan, it’s the right time for a new leader to bring bold, fresh ideas and stick with them long enough to see real results.

Arthur’s younger children – Josh, Kylie and Max – are reaching the same age Kenny, Dena and Danielle were when they joined the board of the Foundation.  Shepherding their growth as philanthropists will define the next era for the Foundation.

In Fay Twersky, the board has found a compassionate, thoughtful leader.  She will find an organization eager to take on new challenges.  I’ll be her biggest fan and stand ready to introduce her to Atlanta.

I’ll continue to focus my personal passions and energy on many of the issues that brought me to the Foundation – social justice, arts, journalism – preserving time for travel, family and friends.  I am forever indebted to Arthur and the Blank family for giving me the opportunity to lead their extraordinary foundation, and to the associates – past and present – who have been the wind beneath my wings.

With gratitude for 17 years,