Sunday Interview with Betsy Covington: We're here to foster raging philanthropists in our community

Betsy Covington grew up in Columbus, left for eight years and came home.

Today, she leads the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley, a non-profit organization that helps people spread their fortunes to worthy causes and ventures.

Recently, she sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams to discuss her job, her community and her experiences in Columbus.

Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.

How has Columbus changed in your lifetime?

First understand, I came here when I was 8. I think that qualifies me as being from here, but I run into people regularly who will say, "Oh, I thought you were from here." And you think, "Well, if 8 doesn't qualify me, what does exactly?"

I think the easy answer to that is there are a lot more cultural opportunities than there were then. The truth is, I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where my parents took us to a lot of things that were available culturally, so I was always going to the symphony, I was going to things at the Springer as a kid. And I loved that part of this town.

I left here as an 18-year-old vowing never to return, as 18 year olds do, right?

What year was that?

I graduated from high school in 1979.


Yeah. Graduated from Brookstone, went to Clubview and then Richards, and was terribly shy. The thought of being at Hardaway was overwhelming to me. So, I went to a smaller pond, which was great. That was the right call for me. I got a lot out of Brookstone.

I graduated in 1979 and went to Vanderbilt, fell in love with Middle Tennessee, fell in love with a guy from Middle Tennessee, thought that I had done everything right to let me live there the rest of my life. And Total Systems (TSYS) offered him a job. I was in my dream job. I was working for a PR agency doing work that I loved.

In Nashville?

In Nashville. He came down here and talked with the Total Systems people. He had been with IBM. We were kind of at that stage of his career where he was either going to stay with IBM and move around a lot, or probably leave IBM and look at other opportunities in Nashville. The Total Systems idea came along and I let him come down here and told him it would give him something to compare. He came back and said, "Man, I really liked what I heard. This is a company that's doing exciting stuff, that's cutting edge, that's innovation, and I may really want to pursue this opportunity." I gave a good smile and was a good spouse and came back to Columbus. We arrived in the fall of 1987.

You were more surprised than anybody that you came back?

I was, absolutely. It's been great. I always tell people very quickly it's been wonderful. This is a fantastic community. I certainly couldn't do what I do if I didn't believe in the strength of the community and for people to collectively problem-solve. So, I guess to circle back to your question, when I came back, Columbus had changed. And, oh yeah, I was a little different than I had been when I was 18.

First, you were married, right?

I was married. I'm hoping I was a little bit better educated, but I don't know. I've learned how to do some things. I had lived in a bigger city. I had seen a level of racial integration that at that time didn't exist in Columbus.

I had seen all the things that you see in a larger community. Coming back here, we bought a house near Lakebottom Park because to us that was the only real integrated place that we saw in this community, where people socialized with people from different social economic backgrounds, different racial backgrounds, and we thought that's the kind of an energy we want to be part of...

But also, I think you've seen this big shift in Columbus, and it's not just during the time that I was gone. It had been going on earlier -- I just hadn't realized it. People talk about it all the time, the shift from a mill economy to an information economy in our community.

And part of that has to do with how decisions were made. Is it top-down decision-making process or is it a bottom-up decision-making process. The former takes less time, but arguably is less successful in the long run. And I love what I see happening now where people ask what I refer to as the "Columbus question." I'm in meetings all the time about how we can make something better in this community. And always, before the meeting will break up, somebody will ask the Columbus question: "Who else needs to be at the table?"

That's just fantastic! That's not something that you hear being talked about in other places around the country. I'm just convinced that Columbus has a mindset now that people are welcomed to bring their ideas and their creativity when you think about how we solve problems, and how we design solutions to opportunities. Maybe it's not always a problem.

What is the difference in an opportunity and a problem?

Some of it is how you look at it, certainly, but some of is fixing something that's broken and some of it is taking advantage of a changed environment or different level of interest to bring something that maybe we haven't seen before.

Give me an example of that. Whitewater?

Yeah, Whitewater is probably a great example of something that I didn't see coming. I had a hard time imagining what that was going to be like. And, oh my goodness, I think it's going to be tranformative for this place.

You grew up here and were looking to get out, I guess that's what you said.

I guess. It wasn't that I hated Columbus. I just wanted to see what else was out there.

Now you're a mom. Do you see that with your children? Has it changed to the point that they want to be here?

My kids want to be here -- I think. We're still sort of deciding. I've got Becca who is 25 and she is working at CB&T, loving it, loves being a part of this town, loves being able to go downtown on Friday nights and hear great music.

My son is a rising senior at LaGrange College majoring in music and business, and I don't really know what's ahead for him. He's still in that stage where he's still trying to figure out. Let's say they are really, really proud of this community, and they love to tell people that they are from here. It was not that I was ashamed of it, I just wanted to go somewhere else and do something different. And I was able to do it by coming back here.

Where is your husband from?

Rick is from Murfreesboro, Tenn., 30 miles south of Nashville.

Did he go to Vanderbilt, too?

He did. His family has always lived in that community, so I got blamed for a lot of that. Thanks, Total Systems!

When you look at Columbus success stories, Total Systems has to be near the top of the list.

It's amazing. He does mergers and acquisitions for Total Systems -- he travels all over the world as sort of this envoy for a company that is in a town that a lot of the people from the companies he's meeting with don't know where it is. But they know Total Systems, and it is amazing. It makes you wonder what's in that water we're drinking every day when you look at Aflac and TSYS and Synovus and Carmike and Coca-Cola, these home-grown companies -- Tom's Foods -- that came up here and have really done great stuff.

Coca-Cola? Calling it a homegrown company is a bit of a stretch.

No. Not when you look at the difference that the Coca-Cola Company has made in our community. That's amazing.

When you talk about that, you're talking about the Woodruffs, the Bradleys, the Turners, the business reach, but also the fact of the philanthropic reach as well, right?

The asset base that early investment in Coca-Cola has provided for this community, and absolutely the philanthropy that has come out of that has been transformative.

I know there is a dictionary definition for philanthropy. What is your definition?

At the Community Foundation we talk a lot about the fact that we're here to foster raging philanthropists in our community. And what we mean is people who are so on fire about loving this community and loving each other, and loving the difference that they are able to make, that they are excited about the opportunity to use their assets to make a difference.

When I talk about assets, the traditional view of that is money, and certainly to an extent that will bring about a lot of change, but assets can also be time and dedication and passion and a level of eloquence. So, a raging philanthropist is just somebody who is using the gifts that they have been given to change the lives of others.

Time, treasure and talent? Is that the broad scope of it?


Talk about the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley -- what is the Community Foundation and what do you do?

We are an organization that helps people facilitate positive change in their community in whatever way is meaningful to them. And we do it during their lifetimes or after their lifetimes have ended.

I tell people all of the time to think of us as an umbrella organization -- 501(c)3 -- that's made up of different funds. And those funds can be set up by families, businesses, other charities, people who have just come together with a great idea for a charitable cause.

People are able to make donations to those funds and get an immediate tax deduction because they are contributing to the Community Foundation. We pool the assets and invest them for long-term benefit of the community, and the people make grants out of those funds to do whatever it is that they want to get done.

I've just left a meeting where we've been talking about the local Columbus Food Fund. And some really fantastic creative young thinkers who were talking about how we access food in our community and how can we bring about some support for that movement and bring people together to talk about how our community might look at food distribution.

Many people don't realize that this foundation grew out of the demise of the Chattahoochee Valley Fair.

The fair was going out of business, but operated at South Commons for a long time. ...

Going out of business with money in the bank, right?

It ran out of business with nearly a million dollars of assets, which is kind of an amazing thing. And at that time, there was a lot of conversation about the need for a community foundation as a tool to help people get things done.

The fair board said, "We think this is a great use of our assets; we're willing to give the assets of our organization to get a community foundation off the ground, with no strings attached, except one, and that's that we want you to serve the Chattahoochee Valley. We don't want you to be the Columbus Community Foundation; we want you to serve the whole Chattahoochee Valley."

They did not define what that was, but they had served this area as a fair for all those years, the Chattahoochee Valley Fair. So, that was perfect. They said, "Use these assets, spend them, give them away, do whatever you need to do." And we did do a combination of that for a while. We did some grant-making in the early days with money we received from the fair.

But very, very early on, really before anybody was hired, the board did the thing that I think has made all the difference in this organization and that's raising an endowment to support our organization. We have an Endowment Society Fund that pays the bulk of our salaries, pays our overhead. It lets us serve the donors in our community, serve the non-profits in our community, and then serve the community at large.

We're not competing with other nonprofits. We meet with other non-profits all the time and are able to say to them, "Tell us what your dreams are, what are your barriers for success? If you had $10,000 tomorrow, what would you do with it? What would that look like for you?" And they're not worried that we are going to ask them for their donor list as they leave and go hit up those people to help sponsor the Community Foundation.

You don't compete against them, but there is only a limited amount of money to go to the non-profits. You end up getting some of that but you end up funneling it back to them, right?

Two things. One, we funnel it back to them, but also we help generate more, and to me that's the beauty of community foundations. I met with a donor last year and ran some numbers for them on their particular fund, and it's a pretty good example of how people use us. This fund a family started to help them with their local giving -- they started it in 2002, with a gift of $250,000.

A fund housed in this organization?

Exactly. They named it the Blank Blank Family Fund, right, so it's here and had $250,000 in it. Since 2002, it has made 182 grants that total $327,000. And they still have $60,000 in the fund. For this particular family, they were not interested in building up an endowment for future generations. A lot of our families are.

They're not sticking to a spendable amount of 4.5 percent every year; they're giving away more than that. They said in the beginning that was their objective. But because we are able to invest a large pool of money, it gets better returns, lower fees.

More philanthropic money is being generated for the community, and that's at the core of what we do. So they didn't just give us $250,000 and then give away $250,000. They actually made more money.

It's going to be well over $400,000 by the time it's done.


How much do y'all manage in total assets?

Total assets? The total assets of the Columbus Community Foundation is somewhere around $106 million.

How many grants will you give in a year?

Around $10 million a year in grants go out. And between $10 and $12 million a year comes in gifts. Let me illustrate that a little bit better. Since we started -- so 15 years ago -- we've had gifts of $155 million come into the Community Foundation. We've made grants out of $76 million. But instead of the $79 million left you'd expect, we have $106 million because of our smart investing. And we've paid a staff and run the business responsibly for 15 years! So, Community Foundation math is that you start to actually generate charitable money for a community by doing business here.

I've been doing these interviews now for three months. One of the threads that has run through many of them is the philanthropic nature of this community. How generous is Columbus?

I'm going to say enormously generous. Now realize, I've never done this kind of work in other communities.

But you talk to them.

I talk to these people all the time, usually because they are calling me, going: "What in the world is going on down there?" When you look at a community that was able to successfully implement the Columbus Challenge and raise over $100 million for arts and culture, do projects like CSU's expansion and Whitewater, and grow a community foundation to $100 million in 15 years, the demographics here would't have supported that as a realistic prediction. But never underestimate Columbus' generosity and willingness to work together.

Former Ledger-Enquirer Publisher John Greenman was instrumental in this organization, wasn't he?

He was. I would say John Greenman, (former MeadWestvaco Coated Board President) Jack Goldfrank, both had lived in other communities that had thriving community foundations. In fact, both of them were coming from the Ohio community foundations. Community foundations are 100 years old this year, and the first one was in Cleveland. So you're talking about old, large community foundations that do great things for their communities and people are very familiar with.

But by definition every community has one, so when you're new you have to redefine yourself every time. So, they both moved here and said, "Why doesn't Columbus have this? You really get the idea of working together to accomplish a goal, and it seems like it would be a logical step."

Also you had people like (attorneys) Alan Rothschild -- both Senior and Junior at that time -- working with their clients who had either philanthropic interest or tax needs that could be helped with a community foundation. And they knew from their work with colleagues around the country how valuable these things can be.

And they're saying. "Boy, we wish we had this tool for our clients here in our community." So, I think the fair board was kind of the catalyzing gift, but quickly this group did some real smart things: raising that endowment, making an early commitment to operate this at an above-best-practices level, finding out what national standards are for community foundations and saying we're going to meet and succeed those.

We are among more than 700 Community Foundations around the country, and were among the first 150 to be certified as meeting national standards for community foundations. That's everything from policies, how you handle money, how you decide who gets to receive assets. We wanted to do it right from the very beginning.

Where does your passion for this work come from?

I have a soapbox personality, according to my mother. From a very early age, I loved to embrace a cause. I get excited when I see people being empowered to do things they didn't know they could do. Never did I know what a community foundation was until this thing was here. I had never heard of it. But, I had been doing philanthropic work at the Columbus Museum for 11 years before I came here.

The idea that there can be an organization that lets people who love their community affect it for generations to come -- in a way that it's easy for them to do it, effective, and we're going to help them walk through all of the legalities of how you do grant-making, we're going to let them involve their kids, their grandkids, we're going to take care of it after their grandkids are gone -- that's really exciting to me. When you've got a town that's this generous, and a population that really gets the idea that we can do something larger if we work together, it's really no surprise that this organization has grown as quickly as it has.

How are you different from the United Way?

I get asked that question all the time. ... We have a great relationship with the United Way. I'm so thankful for that. In some communities, United Ways and Community Foundations don't play together. To our community, that's a lot of wasted energy and effort. Think about United Way as a checking account for your community's social service needs -- you raise money every year, you trust United Way to allocate that money back out into the community in ways that make a difference.

They do a fantastic job. We have a very well-run United Way. Great volunteers -- couldn't operate without them. They do great stuff.

We actually do about $200,000 a year worth of grant-making to United Way.

Think of the Community Foundation as your checking account for everything. So, we do grant-making for social services, but we may also do the arts, we may also do food opportunities, we may do how people want to come together and improve education, we may send World War II veterans to Washington. Whatever it is that people have an interest in doing in this community, as long as it's charitable, we can be involved in it.

And we're probably looking at it from a more long-term perspective than a United Way campaign because they are looking at that year's needs.

This organization was heavily involved in Honor Flight a few years back. Was that rewarding work?

That was about as much fun as anything I've done in a very long time. You're able to take people who did more for this nation than we'll ever be able to enunciate. You're able to take them to a place where they can be honored when most of them thought they'd never get to see it because of the timing of when that memorial was open.

And to be able to give them -- sure, it was only one day -- but one really full day where they left Columbus, Ga., at dark-30 and were able to go to Washington, see the World War II Memorial, see the other memorials there on the Mall, tell their stories -- a lot of them for the first time -- to colleagues and to people who were really focused on them, and then come back to an airport that was jammed with thousands.

For people who may read this and not have seen the Columbus Airport, you start putting thousands of people into that airport, plus a high school band, it was a notable evening. That was a lifetime memory for those people, so it was great to be able to give them that gift and help them understand how much we owe them.

You were talking about your mom. Both of your parents -- Terry and Cecil Whitaker -- are still here. Has that been a blessing now that they are getting older to be able to be in the same place?

Oh, it's been a blessing always. My parents are great people. I am so grateful that they are who they are. You asked earlier what made me passionate -- I think they really fostered my idea growing up that your job that you do all day every day should be more than your job. It should be your passion.

You should look for something that is larger than just 9 to 5. So, I grew up in a household where my father was an OB/GYN. He had known from a very young age that that was what he wanted to do. He loved his patients. He brought home a lot of the things that he heard from his patients. And as kids we were kind of privy to a lot of his decision-making. He wouldn't tell us anything about his patients that would have invaded privacy, but he would share kind of the blessings and the burdens he saw every day through their lives. And he loved them. There was never any question about it. That's just who he is.

When you talk about change in the community, that can mean any number of things. What does change mean to you?

"Strengthen" maybe is a better word. You're right, change is sort of a revolutionary word and that's not always what we mean, although sometimes in regard to some of our community issues, we need change.

But sometimes it can be strengthening. Sometimes change looks like -- you know we were talking about the river a minute ago? How do you take a dammed-up river and change it into something that's not that any longer, and that really becomes this community asset?

OK, so that's change. I would say that 20 years from now we're going to say it was one of the more positive changes that we've done in recent years. But I also think that as people look back -- as in the late '90s -- and say what happened in this community that was notable around the time of the turn of the century, I honestly think the establishment of the Community Foundation is going to be right up there with it, because by that time our organization will have grown and we will have enabled people to do things at, I think, an amazing level. So, it's not always change -- sometimes it's strengthening.

If you could wave a magic wand and change something, what would you change?

If we're talking magic wands, I want all children to have access to an education that enables them to perform as adults at whatever level they choose. I think there are some real opportunities to partner with our public education systems as they go through really difficult times right now, and strengthen what they are able to provide for the children in our community.

You've worked with the leaderships of these organizations through MEEF and others. What do you think of the vision of David Lewis as superintendent?

I think David Lewis is amazing. I think we have in so many positions right now the right person for the job, and I'm not talking about just at the school district -- I'm talking about around our community. David Lewis is another piece of that puzzle. He has an incredible amount of passion. He's got the knowledge base that we need. He's got the energy level that we absolutely need.

He's making very, very difficult decisions in very difficult times, but he has the vision to move us forward and I'm excited about where he's taking us. Through my work with the Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation -- and you're right, I'm their board chair right now -- I really see the possibility to affect excellence in teaching. That organization has a pretty narrow mission of recognizing and rewarding excellence in teaching, so it's not about "fixing" the school situation.

Who are some of your mentors and what have they taught you?

Well, I'm somebody who has been really lucky in my life to have had amazing people at lots of different places that have made an impact on me.

I remember going to see (former district attorney) Bill Smith try cases when I was in high school because I was so excited about the good work he was doing as DA, and was later able to work on his campaign for Superior Court judge. I grew up in Bill Turner's Sunday School class, which was transformational for me as a person, and in terms of defining who I am and how I look at the world, the things that I learned in that class are as important as things that I learned from my parents, which were many.

Since I've come to the Community Foundation, I've learned from people like John Greenman, who has had such an amazing impact on this town. He was the publisher at the Ledger, but he was also one of the people who got the Community Foundation started, and we spent a lot of time together. People like Gardner Garrard on this board have really taught me a lot about entrepreneurialism. It's not something that comes naturally to me. But one of the overarching things I've taken away from it is that a lot of times what you look for is what you see.

In this job we see a lot of tough things -- we see the community's problems, we see the things that do need to be changed. But I also see really, really good people who are motivated to use the gifts that they've been given to improve not only the surroundings they enjoyed during their lifetimes, but the world their kids, their grandkids and their great-grandchildren are going to grow up in.

And to me when you see good people, if you can help provide them with the structure that lets them come together and use those passions and those talents to improve the world, that is worth a life, as I heard a guy once define it. And to the extent that I and the Community Foundation can be used to improve the world, gosh, what better thing can there be than that? You get to wake up every morning and go to work to do that? It's a blessing beyond anything I can tell you.

How do you look at things differently now than that 18-year-old kid that got out of here and wasn't coming back?

Well, I hope I'm a little more mature in my approach, but some days I'm not. I'm still somebody who still loves a good soapbox. I'm still somebody who gets excited about bringing people together to do things.

I know a little bit more about how to empower those people than I used to, and I hope that I'm a little more discerning in some of my causes. This is an amazing opportunity and I want to do it right, and I'm completely devoted to it.


Betsy Covington

Age: 53

Job: President, CEO Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley.

Education: Brookstone, 1979; Vanderbilt University, degree in communications, 1983.

Family: Husband, Rick; Children, Becca, 25, and Richard, 22.