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Bolling honored for community work

April 22,2015

via Atlanta Business Chronicle

By H.M. Cauley

There’s a touch of bittersweet irony accompanying the Dan Sweat Award this year. The honor, presented by Central Atlanta Progress in memory of its late president and avid downtown booster, always goes to an effective local leader who has gone beyond the call of his or her position. For 2015, that leader is a man the late Dan Sweat rarely agreed with.

When it came to creating a vibrant center city, Sweat and Bill Bolling found themselves on opposing sides. It certainly wasn’t because Bolling, founder of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, wasn’t a downtown booster himself. But his approach to what makes a liveable community differed distinctly from Sweat’s.

“He represented businesses and the hospitality community; I represented homeless people. It was a collision course,” said Bolling. “What we came to over the years was that Dan and I both dearly loved Atlanta, and we wanted the best thing to happen for the city and its citizens. Even though my focus was on a very different constituency, we were interdependent.”

Bolling came onto the local scene in 1975 when he took a job as the director of community ministries for St. Luke’s Episcopal Church downtown. Three years later, he launched the food bank that operated on such a shoe string that he had to stay at the church another three years until he could afford to concentrate just on the nonprofit. Through that work, he encountered Sweat, and the two sparred over issues of homelessness, mental health, disenfranchised citizens and food.

“Dan was a great center of gravity and facilitator to get things done; I didn’t even know how decisions were made in Atlanta, but I was committed and passionate, and rather idealistic,” said Bolling. “I saw food as a transformative tool to build relationships, but to Dan, I represented a threat. To me, he represented a roadblock. But we were respectful of each other’s roles. I learned from Dan and other mentors an approach to my work: to be respectful to everybody, whether it was a homeless person or a CEO, and to work collaboratively across distinctions and differences.”

While keeping the interests of downtown close to his heart, Bolling also expanded the efforts of the food bank beyond the city limits. He started with the close-in counties then grew to a seven-bank network that now snakes across the state. He also established additional outreaches, such as the Task Force for the Homeless.

“We were regional before regional was cool,” he said with a laugh. “And though you wouldn’t think of a food bank doing thinks like starting a task force, it came from the idea of creating a safe place where people could talk to and not at each other.”

The food bank today is the equivalent of a $100 million company, employing 150 staffers and feeding more than 80,000 people a week through donations distributed through partner organizations. Over the course of a year, 60 million pounds of food are given away. The funding comes solely from community support, in-kind gifts, partnerships and the labor of about 1,500 volunteers each year.

“We’ve built business practices like you’d have in any business,” said Bolling. “You can’t handle that much product in a casual way. There are contracts, monitoring and auditing that have to be done. But I’ve been fortunate to surround myself with great people and to be involved in great community relationships. I always remember that I work in the context of community. That’s any leader’s secret to success.”

Another secret is having the knack for recruiting strong people to the cause. Attorney General Sam Olens was a target for that knack shortly after taking office.

“He called me and said, ‘Do I have a job for you!’” recalled Olens, who has volunteered with his family at the food bank. “Bill has a very soft-spoken way of getting people to help. He had heard about a program in Virginia, and he thought it would be a great way to get lawyers involved in the seven food banks. So we started Georgia Legal Food Frenzy that’s held two weeks before Law Day at the end of April. I go around the state urging lawyers to contribute, which takes a lot of time, but it’s worth it. The first three we’ve done collected $2.5 million worth of food and dollars.”

Russ Hardin, president of the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, said Bolling has another knack, this one for connecting with everyone, no matter what his social strata.

“If you go to lunch with him, he’ll look the server in the eye, ask how she’s doing and really want to know the answer,” he said. “He treats everybody with an awful lot of respect and kindness. Everything he does emanates from his very strong faith that he really lives.”

Alicia Philipp, president of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta and a member of the CAP board, also knew Sweat personally and watched the interaction between him and Bolling for years.

“They had a funny kind of relationship, but Bill exemplified so much of Dan,” she said. “They highly respected each other, but at the same time, they were a thorn in each other’s side. Bill was Dan’s conscience in many ways; he spoke up on issues that needled Dan. But they met in the middle.”

Philipp also echoes the sentiments of most people who have worked with Bolling: He walks the talk. “He is tenacious and compassionate, and he won’t hesitate to say, ‘This is not right.’ And it doesn’t matter who’s saying it or what it might mean to his organization. And we need that conscience in the community."