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Inside Philanthropy Article

A Conversation with Michelle Prater, President and CEO of the North Georgia Community Foundation

Mike Scutari | June 14, 2024

Originally hailing from Ohio, North Georgia Community Foundation President and CEO Michelle Prater spent over a decade in the banking industry before a life-altering experience made her rethink what she wanted to do with her life.

“I went on a medical mission trip to Uganda with my church,” Prater said in a June conversation. “I called it the worst and best trip I’ve ever been on. The worst, because the need was so incredibly great, but on the flip side, the folks we were serving were filled with joy and I recognized that we had made an impact on their lives.”

Prater returned to the states and decided to transition to the nonprofit world. She landed a role as the U.S. finance manager for Leadership Development International, a business development service provider headquartered in Newnan, Georgia. She also served as a senior director at the United Way of Greater Atlanta, overseeing its volunteer division.

About nine years ago, Prater was reading the news before going to bed — “which I realize isn’t a very smart thing to do,” she said — and came across a job opening at the North Georgia Community Foundation (NGCF). “I read the description, and it was as if someone had written it for me. It had everything I loved about finance, while also making an impact in the community.”

Prater took the helm of the Gainesville-based NGCF in 2015. On her watch, the foundation’s charitable assets increased from $42 million in 2015 to $126 million in 2024, and the amount of discretionary (non-DAF) dollars awarded jumped from $28,591 in 2016 to a combined $2.3 million from 2019 to 2023. NGCF was the largest COVID relief funder in north Georgia from 2020 to 2021, and last year, it distributed $13.4 million in grants from fundholders, discretionary grants and scholarships.

I recently caught up with Prater to discuss her most influential mentor, some of the foundation’s grant offerings and what it was like to sit on the evaluation panel for MacKenzie Scott’s Yield Giving Open Call. Here are some excerpts from that discussion, which have been edited for clarity.

What surprised you about the transition from banking to philanthropy?

One of the biggest surprises at the time was the lack of professional development opportunities in the nonprofit world. There was an incredible amount of professional development in banking. But I quickly learned that nonprofits didn’t have the budget for those things, and for someone who thrives on professional growth, it was a big adjustment.

That’s why the foundation runs G.R.O.W. (Growing Roots of Wisdom), a professional development curriculum for nonprofit leaders that I created with a team member with banking experience. And this year, we started the Exec Club, which is a learning cohort for nonprofit CEOs and executive directors.

The lack of training opportunities seems to speak to just a general underinvestment in nonprofit workers writ large.

It does. Another thing that I saw that was surprising — and I didn’t see it everywhere, especially not where I currently work — is the perception or expectation that doing all of this incredible work at low pay is just part of the job. I think that’s a problem, because you’re seeing a lot of people leave the field to make a better living in the for-profit world.

Board chairs will often call me and ask for my opinions, and whenever I have the opportunity, I try to stress the importance of valuing their people. If you want to have an impact, you need quality people who will stay, and therefore, they need to be paid well for what they do.

What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

From a professional standpoint, it would be to find what you love and do it. When you’re 20, you’re focused on money or other things that seem important, but may not matter as much in the future. I wished I had known enough to have discovered what I was passionate about. I started doing what I love, but it was only eight and a half years ago.

Who has been your most influential professional mentor?

That’s a tough one, because if you asked me that about my time in banking, that answer would be different. I was very blessed to have some incredible mentors during that time. In this role, it would be our former board chair, Rob Fowler. Rob is the CEO of an insurance company called Turner Wood and Smith, and was my board chair during COVID and was an invaluable resource as the foundation continued to grow. One minute, you’re a small community foundation, and suddenly, you’re big, and I felt very supported throughout that process. He lets me know he has my back, which allows me to lower my guard and be a better leader.

Can you talk about the NGCF Community Fund?

The Community Fund is our endowment that funds the NGCF’s three grant programs for perpetuity — the NGCF Community Grant, NGCF Opportunity Grant and NGCF Discretionary Grant. Our board and staff support the fund, and people can give to it on our website. We’re at the point where we’ll grant about $600,000 this year, and I would love to continue to grow the fund so we can support all qualified nonprofit applications.

When did the foundation launch the Opportunity Grant?

That was in 2019. The program provides seed money to fund programs that have critical impact. One of the first grants we made was to the Gainesville Police Department to fund a mental health specialist. The grant covered the first year’s salary and the Northeast Georgia Medical Center Foundation committed to funding year two. Now, the department has three mental health specialists and the program is included in their operating budget.

And how did the NGCF Discretionary Grant come about?

We received hundreds of funding requests during COVID, and one really struck me because it brought me to an important realization. This request was a simple one: $1,500 to purchase 75 box fans for seniors identified as not having air conditioning in their homes during recent Meals on Wheels deliveries. We were able to fund it with a COVID relief grant, but it made me realize that in a typical year, we could not fund these kinds of requests outside of our NGCF Community Grant, which only took place one time per year. That had to change — the NGCF needed to set aside a pool of money to create a grant program to fund nonprofits who have an unexpected emergency. In 2022, we did just that and created the NGCF Discretionary Grants.

You were on the Yield Giving Open Call review panel. Can you tell me more about that experience?

I originally received an email that explained the process and how they were selecting panelists, which was followed by a phone call. They were very thorough, which I appreciated, even down to saying how much time it would take to participate in the panel.

Initially, I reviewed 15 to 20 applications on my own. When I was done, they asked if I could review a few more, which I did. I was very fortunate in that I reviewed applications spanning different issues. It was amazing to see all the good work being done by so many small teams, and I loved how Scott supported organizations that may be a little under the radar. I’m not sure how they got my name, but I feel incredibly honored to have been a part of that process.

Any parting thoughts?

Many folks have heard of community foundations but don’t necessarily know what that means or what they do. My hope is that people consider taking the time to meet with someone at their community foundation and get involved. And speaking for me personally, on my very worst day, we still help someone, we still provide folks in this community with something that they need, we still make a difference — and that’s a very special thing.

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