The Rev. Aaron J. McLeod enters through the lobby of Lowdermilk Conference Center at 40 Courtland St. NE. at the new offices of United Way of Greater Atlanta.

McLeod hasn’t been in the new facility, and he hasn’t been to United Way in years. He works now as a reverend and attorney in Chicago, Illinois. But, long before that, while he was still a business student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, McLeod worked as an intern and one of the founders of the African-American Partnership Affinity Group at United Way.

McLeod makes his way up the stairs to a meeting room where he’s supposed to find present and past AAP members in an anniversary breakfast for the group’s 20th year. He turns the corner at the top of the stairs and one of the major gift officers points McLeod to an adjacent room. Once he enters the room, he sees former director of Major Gifts Wes Wicker and the first-ever director of AAP Nan Thomas.

Wicker stands up in his chair, and McLeod embraces his friend and then Thomas, the three of them exclaim how great it is to see one another again.

United Way of Greater Atlanta’s African-American Partnership was established 20 years ago to engage an underrepresented population of United Way giving societies.

APP celebrates its 20th anniversary this year with its fifth-annual Leadership Luncheon on Feb. 29, 2020.

The partnership launched June 2000 under an 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. Currently, AAP has more than 1,000 members and raises more than $2 million annually.

It’s by chance that McLeod was able to make this appearance, he says.

“By chance, I picked up the phone call from [AAP Director] Bryan Vinson telling me about these yearlong planned events to celebrate the 20 years of AAP, and he just made my morning,” McLeod says.

He was proud to see how the group’s initial work had come “full circle.”

“To see the quality of work that has transpired over the years — the community vision that I was fortunate to be a part of — is still in fruition today is humbling,” McLeod says.

McLeod says when the group first launched AAP, some of the biggest challenges were getting a buy-in from the staff and community. At the time, he saw how the organization’s Women’s Initiative had been flourishing, and similarly, the African-American community wanted to be a part of the “movers and shakers in the business community” and run a similarly reputable program.

McLeod started as an intern at United Way as an underclassman at Morehouse, and he said United Way was “the opportunity that [he] had” at the time.

“We had brothers going to Wall Street, we had brothers going downtown Peachtree Street to the banking world,” McLeod says. “Normally as an underclassman, you wouldn’t receive an internship, and I was fortunate enough instead of charting pathways or trails within the for-profit sector, I cut my teeth in the nonprofit sector.”

McLeod interned for four summers at the “leading nonprofit in the Atlanta business community.”

When working to build AAP, McLeod said he worked to remove any previous misconceptions about the old United Way.

“United Way was historically very white, very powerful and very successful,” he says. “As we were trying to champion diversity, we were, at that time, starting to make some headway. It was all about providing access to business leadership.”

McLeod says there was initial skepticism about AAP from white and black employees at United Way, but this opened up discussions and allowed more people to have input on the tone of printed materials and messaging for the group.

He said he and Wicker and Thomas met regularly with the likes of Robinson, Stephens and Dr. Johnnetta Cole to ensure the group was pushing to “reach African-Americans within this space.”

“We had very pointed conversations about having targets that were achievable and those that were unachievable that went past our comfortability when looking for people to give at the leadership level, minimally,” he says. “What it showed was our team cared, and they wanted to be engaged, and they wanted AAP to be successful. We were just working diligently. Nobody was trying to thwart anything.”

There was a lot of ingenuity and “bootstrapping” to ensure the program was done right, McLeod says. He said he and other fundraisers went into the African-American community to find people to champion the initiative.

McLeod encourages others to join AAP. Members benefit directly from networking and, most importantly, they get a seat at the table where you can volunteer and have an impact on different investments in your community, he says.

So, fast-forward 20 years later, McLeod is proud of how far AAP has come. He sees a level of leadership and strength that he thinks will only continue to grow.

“When you work with quality people, have a top-notch vision that is rooted in selflessness and this whole notion of pooling our resources together— if you do something for someone along the way, your living won’t be in vain,” he says. “The life of AAP is flourishing, and it will continue to flourish for years because it is rooted in something that is very, very good.”