Blank Foundation Poised for Big Grant Increases, Aiming for a Ripple Effect in the South

From her position as the new president of the Arthur M. Blank Foundation, Fay Twersky is poised to direct more than tens of millions of dollars in annual grants to nonprofits. Much of the money will go to nonprofits in Georgia, where Blank, the co-founder of Home Depot, made his fortune. The goal is to produce a ripple effect as Twersky, a prominent grant maker with a national network of contacts, works to attract other grant makers to the South, which has long failed to draw the kind of charitable dollars other regions obtain

Last year the Blank foundation, which also manages the giving programs of Blank’s businesses, including the Atlanta Falcons football and Atlanta United and soccer teams, the PGA Tour Superstore, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and several Montana ranches, made more than $277 million in grants.

The 78-year-old Blank has signed the Giving Pledge, promising to give at least half his wealth away. He has a significant task ahead since Forbes pegged his net worth at $7.2 billion.

Since Twersky took over as president of the foundation in February, she has brought some of the evaluation, grantee support, and communication approaches she developed as the longtime leader of the Hewlett Foundation’s Effective Philanthropy program.

While many foundations and nonprofits say they get “feedback” about the grants they provide, Twersky says much of it is episodic and informal, and grant makers often fail to incorporate what they’ve learned into their future giving.

At Hewlett, Twersky led an effort to regularly collect information, incorporate any needed changes, and spread the word about lessons from the experience. (Disclosure: The Chronicle receives support from this program at Hewlett.) She has also overseen the creation at Blank of three broad grant-making areas that focus on the environment, democracy, and youth development.

The philanthropy’s current support to aid veterans, the arts, and education as well as health and fitness and community development, will continue but will be largely absorbed into the three new programs.

“We’re going to continue to give to those areas in an enduring way,” she says. “These three new program areas are an add-on.”

“Center of the Universe’

Twersky says her move from the San Francisco Bay Area to Atlanta was like moving to the “center of the universe.”

Over the past year, she says, Georgia has been “ground zero” in the struggle for voting rights, the decline of civility in public debate, and the calls for racial justice that intensified following the murder of George Floyd.

“This state is now center stage in terms of how our national democracy functions,” she says.

The foundation is still making final its plans for how its new grant making will work. But recent activity offers a glimpse at how Blank intends to use both the popular brands of its sports teams and Twersky’s ability to attract other philanthropy leaders to a cause to get things done.

Atlanta Falcons

Under Fay Twersky (center), the new president of the Arthur M. Blank Foundation, much of the organization’s grant making will focus on Georgia nonprofits, where Arthur Blank (left), the founder of Home Depot, made his fortune.

In August AMB Sports and Entertainment, the parent company of Blank’s sports holdings, joined with Atlanta Public Schools, the New Georgia Project, a group that works to get young people of color involved in the political process, and Rock the Vote to provide civics classes to city students ahead of municipal elections in November. As part of the program, athletes will encourage high-school students to learn about the voting process, with a goal of reaching 2,000 students by September 28, when Blank will host a voter registration “celebratory event” at his Atlanta stadium.

Meanwhile, Twersky will host a group of foundation and nonprofit leaders for a meeting of the New Pluralists, a pooled fund that aims to bring people of different backgrounds and ideological perspectives together to recognize their shared values. Blank has not made a commitment to the group, which would like to raise $100 million, but Twersky, who was instrumental in getting the Hewlett Foundation to participate with a $1.2 million grant, is clearly a fan.

“We have an opportunity to reach across our differences to address the crisis of connection that is really plaguing the whole nation, including here in Georgia, to see if we can’t find some shared past … some sense of connection, of common cause and shared purpose and shared humanity,” she says.

Sending Grants to the South

Inviting the New Pluralists, whose members include the Charles Koch and Fetzer institutes, the Einhorn Collaborative, and the Klarman and Lubetzky family foundations, to Georgia is part Twersky’s broader mission: to attract more grant dollars to the South.

Despite the overwhelming need for philanthropic support in the South, an area with a disproportionate share of residents facing homelessness, poverty, and poor health, foundations have not made the area a priority, according to Janine Lee, president of the Southeastern Council of Foundations. The 11 state region covered by the membership organization is home to 22 percent of the country’s population, but nonprofits in the region collect only about 11 percent of support from U.S. foundations’ domestic grant making, according to statistics compiled by the council.

At Hewlett, Twersky was the lead architect of the Fund for Shared Insight, a pooled fund with a lot of philanthropic heavyweights including the Gates, Ford, Hilton, JPB, and Packard foundations. Since 2014, the fund has made a total of $30 million in grants to help foundations and their grantees develop “feedback loops” both to learn more about the needs of the populations they serve and to share grant-making lessons with other foundations.

Lee says that experience will prove valuable in Twersky’s new role in Atlanta.

“Philanthropy continues to be very relational,” says Lee, who previously led education grant making at the Blank foundation.“The fact that Fay has had this national presence, that she has interacted with and has developed relationships with foundation leaders all across the country, is the first entrée into encouraging and influencing them to consider the South.”

Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation, agrees. Getting large grant makers to work on a common project isn’t as simple as making a few phone calls. Twersky, he says, understands the conditions needed to get foundations to join together better than most people involved in philanthropy, he says.

“You’re not going to get people to shift their funding by telling them that they should. You’re going to have to persuade them that they can accomplish something worth accomplishing,” Kramer says. “You’ve got to line up a lot of pieces inside any foundation before you can get them to change anything they’re doing.”

A Push for Effectiveness

Unlike many foundation presidents who came to the job from public service or academe, or who rose to the top spot after serving as a program officer dedicated to a specific topic, like the environment or the arts, Twersky specializes in philanthropy itself and how to make grant making more effective.

At Blank, she has created an effective philanthropy group modeled after her program at Hewlett that will involve staff across all of the foundation’s program areas to discover ways to help grantees become more effective. As part of the effort, she will establish a “Listen for Good” effort at Blank that incorporates the system for capturing and acting upon grantee feedback that she helped develop at the Fund for Shared Insight.

Listen for Good is a program that designs surveys to give nonprofits and foundations “feedback loops” to better understand the successes and challenges faced by the people they support. The process is meant to help nonprofits better respond to the needs of people and include the people they serve in the decision-making process that determines how grant money is spent.

“There are different ways of sharing power,” Twersky says. “Listening is a key, central way.”