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16 Jul. 2019 | Comments (0)

Education, poverty reduction, and workforce development—these are three examples of countless issues that many companies and communities are working to address through their philanthropic and/or engagement programs. Several questions about these issues persist. For example, what does it take to move the needle in these areas? What approaches work? And what are the lessons that can be learned from the challenges of this work?

At their spring meeting, members of The Conference Board’s Philanthropy & Engagement Council visited two communities in Atlanta—the City of Refuge in the 30314 zip code and the East Lake community—where the challenges of poverty, homelessness, and access to jobs and education are formidable. The solutions in each community were informed and shaped by the people living there, nonprofits, and corporate partners, yet the approaches and frameworks were different.

One-person catalyst

In 2003, Bruce Deel, Founder and CEO of City of Refuge, was sent to Atlanta to close a church with a dwindling congregation. As he began this process, prostitutes, homeless people, and drug addicts came to the church asking for help with the difficulties in their lives. So, instead of closing the church, Deel saw an opportunity for it to help a community challenged by crime, poverty, and drugs. Deel founded City of Refuge 16 years ago in the middle of one of Atlanta’s most historic and struggling neighborhoods, where nearly 40 percent of the residents live below the Federal Poverty Level.  

Today, City of Refuge, community members, and nonprofit partners help people in crisis with food, housing, emergency healthcare, education, and job and financial literacy training. 

Georgia Power, our host for the meeting, supported City of Refuge’s capital campaign that helped create a workforce innovation hub. Georgia Power Foundation convenes meetings at City of Refuge’s space and recently co-hosted an affordable housing panel discussion with the Southeastern Council of Foundations with catering from City of Refuge’s culinary training program.

Making a collective difference

Formerly known for its high crime and a population locked into a cycle of poverty, the East Lake community, an example of Purpose Built Communities, has utilized a collective impact model over the last 20 years to dramatically change the trajectory of the neighborhood and the residents living there.

The Purpose Built Communities Model combines quality mixed-income housing, a cradle-to-college education pipeline, and enriching community wellness programs, all driven by a committed local lead organization. Purpose Built Communities believes meaningful, lasting change requires a long-term commitment from a coalition of community leaders and residents dedicated to a common goal.

The East Lake Foundation and Purpose Built Communities worked with neighborhood residents and expert public and private partners, to develop a new community on the site of a former public housing project. Since that time, violent crime has dropped in the neighborhood by 97 percent. Residents are engaged in health and wellness programs, and many are becoming homeowners.

The Council members went on a driving tour through the neighborhood and witnessed some of the successes of the model. The group made a stop at the Drew Charter School and were impressed by the facilities of this “cradle-to-college pipeline” and the students’ achievements.

Georgia Power Foundation provides annual programmatic support to East Lake Foundation for workforce development and education and Chris Womack, the company’s EVP and President of External Affairs, is a board member of East Lake Foundation. Additionally, several employees from Georgia Power and Southern Company are members of East Lake Women’s Alliance—a group of professionals who engage in volunteer activities throughout the year (e.g., golfing with kids from youth development organization The First Tee, and helping stock and provide food baskets at Thanksgiving)

Lessons learned and commonalities

  • Long-term commitment Neither City of Refuge nor Purpose Built Communities thought in terms of one- or two-year time frames. They were both committed to solving issues and willing to take a long-term view on finding solutions. While this was challenging, they maintained the course and their efforts have paid off.
  • Community involvement City of Refuge and Purpose Built Communities started by listening to community members, understanding their needs, and working with them to create solutions. Additionally, relationship building was a key factor in their success. Building trust with individuals and groups in the community took time, but because each organization was committed to serving the community for the long term, they were able to build trust and social capital with community members that in turn led to mutual support.
  • Flexibility Both organizations were willing to learn from mistakes, make changes, and find a path to increase impact.

Change in these two neighborhoods is happening one person at a time. Whether it is the women and children finding a path out of homelessness at City of Refuge or the students attending an extra hour of class per day at the Purpose Built Schools in East Lake, new ways of succeeding are being forged in these communities.

The combination of business, nonprofits, and government coming together to create solutions has made a difference. Supporting partners that listen to their communities and create authentic partnerships generates significant outcomes in the long term.

  • About the Author:Tony Tapia

    Tony Tapia

    Tony Tapia is the Program Director for The Conference Board Philanthropy & Engagement Council. Tony has over 25 years of experience working in the nonprofi t, philanthropic and corporate sectors. …

    Full Bio | More from Tony Tapia


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