01-24-2020 · African-American Partnership

United Way of Greater Atlanta’s African-American Partnership has about 1,000 members that bring in more than $2.6 million annually to the nonprofit.

But how did this affinity group grow to this size and get to this point?

Three of the group’s founding members met Nov. 15, 2019 to discuss AAP’s humble beginnings at a special breakfast for current and past AAP Cabinet members. The event was a part of AAP’s yearlong celebration of 20 years — AAP will celebrate its 20th anniversary on Feb. 20, 2020 at its fifth-annual Leadership Luncheon.

On Nov. 15, Nan Thomas, AAP’s first director, Former Major Gifts Director Wes Wicker and former United Way intern Rev. Aaron McLeod met for a panel discussion about AAP’s formation.

“From my perspective, the story of AAP is a story of diversity and inclusion,” McLeod said. “I had the opportunity to work with Wes to bring this idea to fruition.
“We were trying to identify and make a business case for why we should endeavor to build this program, particularly to ensure our major gift giving was reflective of our demographics in Atlanta.”

Wicker says he came to Atlanta from another United Way in Indianapolis where he had collaborated previously with Charles Stephens and other fundraising professionals. Fast forward six years, and Wicker says he and Charles Stephens were each back in Atlanta.

Wicker says Stephens wanted to launch an African-American Initiative similar to one he had been a part of in Indianapolis. The two knew Atlanta had a real opportunity to be successful in this venture.

“We all knew that Atlanta is the mecca and hub of entrepreneurism and business in the African-American community, and perhaps the U.S.,” Wicker says. “If Indianapolis can do it, then certainly Atlanta can do it.”

The partnership launched June 2000 originally under the African American Initiative moniker by Conchita Robinson and Charles Stephens with the purpose of increasing financial participation and volunteers from our community — there was also this real desire to make United Way’s donor base more reflective of the demographics in Atlanta where they serve.

AAP committed itself to addressing achievement gaps and improving outcomes for African-American boys and young men in the Greater Atlanta region by offering resources and mentorship.

AAP is open to donors with shared affinities for philanthropy, leadership and service, and members of AAP donate $1,000 a year or more to United Way of Greater Atlanta.

Thomas was named AAP’s first director — she says she started the same night as a fundraising party, and she joked that was the night the party ended.

Thomas says while staff was “slim,” everybody was willing to help one another. She was thankful for volunteers and interns like McLeod and then leadership like Wicker.

She said AAP had to engage in a lot of discussion throughout the African-American community — unfortunately, the discussion wasn’t always “positive.”

“United Way didn’t always enjoy a positive reputation,” Thomas says. “There were people who remembered when United Way wasn’t African-American friendly. They would say things like, ‘I remember when it was two different fundraising events and black folks raised money over here, white folks raised money over there.’”

But Thomas believed in the potential of this partnership, and that’s what drove her.

“If you know what you’re selling is good, you’ll convince a lot of people a lot of things,” Thomas says. “That’s what we did.”

McLeod says the group identified peers and their corporations and affinity groups and asked them to “join their endeavor.”

“We overcame some hard questions, but we were from the tribe of ‘figure it out,’” he says. “The efficiency of scale got better over the years. I can’t believe how it has grown and been sustainable over the years.”

Thomas says that “everybody had a place” in the formation of AAP. She thanked Aaron for being a champion for AAP and engaging in discussions with local community leaders and business owners.

Wicker agreed with Thomas.

“When Aaron first came into my department as an intern, he was a young, 20-year-old, incredibly shy guy,” Wicker says. “It’s somewhat humorous today that he’s a preacher in Chicago.”

McLeod talks about that first gift AAP received.

“I’ll never forget the first person to sign up — his name was Ken Samuels,” McLeod says. “He came in with a silver briefcase. [Former United Way CEO] Mark O’Connell was very interested in understanding why [Samuels] was making his gift. He asked him, ‘Why are you giving?’ and he said, ‘Because it’s my responsibility to show up and make sure [the African-American community is] doing [its] part.’”

Thomas said it was humbling to see the growth spanning two decades. She said it has been a “great ride,” and she thanked all of those people in attendance.

McLeod said he was gracious for the opportunity to serve United Way and thankful for the opportunity to grow and develop at United Way as a young intern. He was thankful, again, to be included in this story of diversity and culture change at United Way.

“You never know the impact of being able to see somebody who looks like you,” McLeod says. “I can’t say again how proud I am to see the diversity of the room, and not only of the Atlanta business community, but United Way as well — it means a lot to me that we’ve got a black man as CEO of this organization.
“I ask that you continue to give and be a presence, and show up and watch our community continue to grow and be safe.”