10 Atlanta funders have formed a collaborative

The group is focusing on the issues of mental health and professional development

When the pandemic hit last spring, Lisa Brill and her daughter-in-law both endured many sleepless nights wondering how COVID-19 would affect Atlanta’s Jewish community, and whether they could harness the disruption for the community’s benefit, Brill said.

They reached out to the Atlanta Jewish Foundation (AJF), which is part of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, and shared their desire to use the pandemic as an opportunity to work with other donors.

“We’ve been in Atlanta since 1979,” said Brill, whose husband Ron Brill co-founded Home Depot with Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank. “This is a dynamic city. We’ve seen the highs and the lows, and we know that things can always get better.”

AJF, in turn, connected with Jewish Funders Network (JFN), of which they are members, said Jori Mendel, AJF’s deputy director. JFN is an education and support organization for family foundations, federations and individuals, and it has developed training and resources to help funders carry out scenario planning that would survey their community’s needs and begin figuring out ways to address them.  

The result was a funder collaborative of 10 funders that started in an unusual way, Brill said — there was “no ask.” In addition to the Brills, who initiated the collaborative, participants include the Marcus and Zalik families and donors who range in age from their late 30s to the mid-70s. David Zalik is co-founder and CEO of Atlanta-based fintech company GreenSky.

They were asked to invest only their time, until the collaborative process had generated decisions about what to fund, and at what level. Its full name is the “Atlanta Jewish Foundation Funder Collaborative Powered by the Jewish Funders Network.”

“This collaborative funding model is something that hasn’t been done for a very long time,” Mendel said. “Donors have been working on their own instead of pooling their funds.”

The effort came at a time when the pandemic had spurred JFN to think less about its membership as a large group that would occasionally gather in-person, but as a cluster of smaller groups of various sizes and located in different places, whose collaboration JFN could help facilitate.

For the past seven years, JFN has supported JFN West, a regional chapter with two part-time staffers; it had its first conference this past fall, said Ari Rudolph, JFN’s vice president of philanthropic engagement. Now, he is creating a similar group for the Midwest, and depending on what that initiative yields, might do something similar in other parts of the country, including the South.

He puts the scenario planning JFN did with Atlanta in that category of regional services, although Atlanta approached them, Rudolph said.

Atlanta’s Jewish community is a mix of established families — Jews have lived there since the founding of the city — and newer arrivals drawn by the city’s tech sector and such employers as Delta Airlines, Home Depot, Emory University and UPS. The funding collaborative reflects that diversity, Brill said.

The metropolitan area has a Jewish population of about 120,000, according to the 2020 edition of the American Jewish Year Book.

In the collaborative’s first stage, the Ron and Lisa Brill Charitable Trust paid for JFN’s services and any other expenses, which Brill described as “minimal.” Two meetings produced a report, the “Building Better Community Task Force,” and a decision to focus on two issues: mental health and professional development.

AJF then committed to facilitating four online seminars about those topics.

“I’m not the expert on these subjects,” Mendel said. “I’m playing the convener role here. The families are driving this, and I am providing the education.”

The fourth seminar is scheduled for this month and will feature Gali Cooks, the CEO of the Jewish community’s professional development organization, Leading Edge.

In the fall, the families will gather again — probably in person — and start making practical decisions, Brill said.

“As I’m on the waning side of life, I love getting to see that baton pass. It was a different way of working. It was really respectful, and really thoughtful,” she added.