Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
- Rodney Bullard manages Chick-fil-A’s charitable giving as the executive director of the Chick-fil-A Foundation.
- Bullard joined Chick-fil-A in 2011 after serving as a White House fellow under President Barack Obama and as an assistant US attorney in Atlanta, Georgia, under Sally Yates.
- The Chick-fil-A Foundation focuses on low-income youth and underserved communities, but it has been criticized for donating to Christian organizations with a history of opposition to same-sex marriage.
- "There’s a calling to help people, and I think at times that has been confused with a calling, somehow, to exclude," Bullard told Business Insider in a recent interview.
- Bullard says that Chick-fil-A has so far felt that the positives of its donations outweigh backlash, saying the foundation has a "higher calling than any political or cultural war."
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
ATLANTA, Georgia — As Chick-fil-A faces another wave of protests over its charitable donations this year, one man is at the center of the storm.
Rodney Bullard joined Chick-fil-A in 2011 to help kickstart the chain’s philanthropic efforts. Bullard had a full career prior to Chick-fil-A. He attended the Air Force Academy, served as a White House fellow under President Barack Obama, and worked as an assistant US attorney in Atlanta, Georgia, under Sally Yates.
Today, Bullard is the vice president of corporate social responsibility at Chick-fil-A as well as the executive director of the Chick-fil-A Foundation. Last week, he sat down with Business Insider for an interview at Chick-fil-A’s Atlanta, Georgia, headquarters.
Bullard says that the 2013 creation of the Chick-fil-A Foundation is tightly linked to the Christian faith of Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy and of the rest of the Cathy family. According to Bullard, this faith demands corporate responsibility.
"There’s a calling to help people, and I think at times that has been confused with a calling, somehow, to exclude," Bullard said. "And that’s not the case. The focus, the phrase ‘every child’ — we’re very intentional about that. We do have programs and we look for programs that are inclusive, as well, to help every child."
However, others have taken issue with organizations that the Chick-fil-A Foundation has donated to under Bullard’s leadership. Specifically, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Salvation Army have been criticized for their historical opposition to same-sex marriage and for reportedly excluding LGBT individuals from leadership positions.
"At the end of the day, the calling for us is to ensure that we are relevant and impactful in the community, and that we’re helping children and that we’re helping them to be everything that they can be," Bullard said. "For us, that’s a much higher calling than any political or cultural war that’s being waged."
Read on for more from the conversation between Bullard and Business Insider’s Kate Taylor.
The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
Bullard’s path to Chick-fil-A
Rodney Bullard: I think it’s important to note that the Chick-fil-A Foundation started in 2013. Prior to 2013, Chick-fil-A, I think the family in particular, was well-intentioned. But there wasn’t a strategy, there wasn’t mission.
The Chick-fil-A Foundation has been the inflection point for a strategy and mission, and our mission really does come out of what we see. Our goal is to solve real, authentic problems.
I grew up here in Atlanta — or outside of Atlanta, South DeKalb — in an area that now has its challenges. When I was growing up there, we had our challenges as well. I got a chance to see firsthand, really, what it looked like when kids got an education, when kids got opportunities, and the difference when they didn’t. I can go back to the neighborhood now and really see those who didn’t get those opportunities, did not get a great education. And so, that really informs me, personally, and informs to some degree the work as well.
Kate Taylor: I want to hear more about how you ended up at Chick-fil-A. You’ve had a fascinating career prior to coming here.
Bullard: I got to Chick-fil-A in a roundabout way. I went into the Air Force, was in the military, did a stint in DC as a White House fellow, then as legislative counsel for the secretary of the Air Force — some work there and some work in NASA. When I was a fellow, I got a chance to see how corporations can assist. Hurricane Katrina hit shortly after me getting there, and I saw how corporations could give back and benefit.
Fast forward — we made our way back to Atlanta, and I worked in the US attorney’s office. I worked with Sally Yates.
Prior to me getting to the US attorney’s office, there was a lady by the name of Ms. Kathryn Johnston, who was murdered in Vine City, in English Avenue on Neil Street. Police officers had burst in on her. She was 92 years old, and they shot her numerous times and they killed her. Then they planted drugs on her to make it seem like she was a part of the drug trade.
That neighborhood was the largest open-air heroin market in the Southeast, and the ensuing trial … Really when I got back to Atlanta, that was part of what was going on. But Ms. Kathryn Johnston’s death really gave people notice as to what was going on in those communities and that this community by Vine City, English Avenue, the West Side — all those communities had been falling behind the rest of the city of Atlanta.
The US attorney’s office started a community affairs program. We went out and we worked with churches and worked with other groups there in the community. We saw all of these issues. We saw literacy was a huge issue. We saw recidivism. It was a big issue that people were coming out of jail, but they’re going back into the same problems, and then they were going back to jail.
At that time I met [Chick-fil-A CEO] Dan Cathy. Dan, also, was getting to know that neighborhood. He was getting to know the neighborhood because of Morris Brown College, which had fallen on hard times. Dan and I realized that we had a genuine and sincere passion for people, but also for the community. We both really wanted to help people, particularly in our hometown of Atlanta.
The conversation then led to me coming to Chick-fil-A, with the strategy and intention of helping ensure that every child grows up to be everything that they can be. That is now the mission of the Chick-fil-A Foundation: to ensure every child grows up to be everything that they can be.
Creating the Chick-fil-A Foundation
Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images
Taylor: What was it that made you see Chick-fil-A as a place that could help solve those problems?
Bullard: I saw Chick-fil-A’s sincerity and authentic heart. I had obviously known of Chick-fil-A, growing up in Atlanta as a customer, and I felt that hospitality in the store. But also, when I came to visit here, I felt that hospitality here.
I felt it from the employees, I felt it from Dan, I felt it in a way that Chick-fil-A had this corporate heft and had dollars and also had a heart. That confluence was something special and that could make a difference in communities. That’s the reason why, at the end of the day, I left the practice of law and came to Chick-fil-A.
One of the things that stands out for me is early on at Chick-fil-A, I got a chance to meet [Chick-fil-A founder] Truett Cathy.
When I met Truett, I remember going in and he said, "Rodney, I’ve been waiting to see you" and I said, "okay" and he said, "There’s two things I want to tell you. One, Dan Cathy, my son, he hired you, but you work for me." And he said, "But secondly, I want you to understand that Chick-fil-A is really more than just a restaurant. That it really is about people. It’s about community. It’s about refreshing people, helping people, uplifting people." And, I found that to be very important. And, I found that to be the case.
Taylor: What was the process of creating the Chick-fil-A Foundation?
Bullard: Coming in and starting a corporate foundation was something that was new to Chick-fil-A, and it was something that we had to fully get our heads around. It took a little while to activate and stand up. By 2013 we had done so.
We started with the Esther Cathy Foundation and we started with work in English Avenue and Vine City. Our first effort, even before there really was a Chick-fil-A Foundation, was a camp on the campus of Clark Atlanta University and Wiley College. Wiley College was where Dr. King went to school and many others. What we noticed was there were so many kids who were in the neighborhood, but a stone’s throw away from a Morehouse College, from a Spelman, from a Clark Atlanta University — but they had no expectation of going to those schools.
They had no thought of how they would go from here to there, even though here to there was right next door. And so, we hosted a camp. Fellowship of Christian Athletes was the operator of the camp. That was because there was a relationship that the family had with Fellowship Christian Athletes. We hosted this camp for kids to come learn non-traditional sports. Now, we were very clear: no basketball, no football. I love football. I played football at Air Force.
But those kids have been exposed to football and basketball and even track. We want to expose them to archery and tennis and golf and yoga.
Chick-fil-A staff and employees are, in many ways, volunteering and teaching and providing the tennis rackets. It was a great way for us to connect with the kids.
When I think of those camps, I think of two young ladies who came up to me and they said, "Hey, we’re having a great time at this camp." And I said, "You are? So, what’s your favorite activity?" And they said, "Tennis. We love tennis." I said, "Have you played tennis before?" They said, "No, we never played tennis before" and they said, "Well, we have a question." I said, "What’s your question?" And they said, "Well, can you make money playing tennis?" I said, "Have you heard of the Williams sisters?" And they said, "Oh, yeah, they make money playing tennis."
That a-ha moment, that change in expectation, that exposure, that’s really what the camps are about. It has nothing to do with anything but that. These kids are important to us. We develop relationships with them over the years to where there is a crisis, they actually come to people, in part, to people in our staff. So, that’s important.
What Chick-fil-A looks for in a charitable partner
Taylor: As you’ve figured out what organizations you want to partner with, what you want to give to, what are the things you look for?
Bullard: We look for impact. Can you actually make an impact? We’re trying to make an impact in several different areas: education, access and opportunity, and workforce development. We look for competency, the ability to actually do the work. We look for reputation, and that is important.
Taylor: Do you think that that’s evolved since the foundation was started?
Bullard: I think we’ve evolved in many ways since the foundation was started. I think our focus on economic mobility is even crisper since the foundation has started. We understood that these things were helping move us in a direction, but now we’ve called it out specifically.
If you’re a child born in Atlanta, you have a 4% chance of getting from one state of poverty to self-sufficient wealth on the other end of the spectrum. It’s the lowest in the country. We share that distinction with a number of other southern cities like Charlotte and Raleigh. That’s something that we were trying to address. The organizations that we give to should help us, really, in that fight and should help us solve that real, authentic problem their communities throughout this nation have.
‘A much higher calling than any political or cultural war’
Taylor: There have been numerous reports over the last couple of months centered on the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Salvation Army, objecting to the groups’ LGBT policies. Why do you continue to partner with organizations that you know might get coverage like this?
Bullard: In the case of Fellowship Christian Athletes, it really is about the kids and it’s about the effort. I think the reporting hasn’t talked about what it actually is. In that case it’s very important to not forget the mission of what we’re doing.
Carrie Kurlander, Chick-fil-A’s vice president of external communications: With FCA, the ThinkProgress stories come out every year. We actually had a conversation about FCA when the intent of the giving was being called into question. The purity pledge in and of itself makes it fair game to write the story that’s been written, and we do understand that.
The questions, the debates that Rodney and I have had have been "all right, the nugget of the controversies is the purity pledge, are the kids having to sign the pledge?" No.
The intent is not to try to have kids conduct their lives according to the FCA code. The intent is to expose them to all of the gateway to college exposure in sports as role models, all of that. So, we actually had a conversation two years ago about this very thing and said, "All right, we’re probably going to get dinged. But the impact is real and authentic." And so, there was a judgment call.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Bullard: The case of Salvation Army, so there’s two partnerships we have with Salvation Army. One, the kids that I just talked about from the camp, they come from The Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club or Bellwood Club. That’s part of the partnership and has nothing to do with anything but bringing kids over and helping to expose them.
Secondly, we have an Angel Tree Program, a Toys for Tots Program, where at Christmas time, kids get toys. That has been important to us because 11,000 children throughout the city of Atlanta have gotten toys through this program at Christmas time. We can’t take it lightly — the impact of the programs — but we are always in a mode of thinking about who our partners are, who are the best partners.
At the end of the day, the calling for us is to ensure that we are relevant and impactful in the community, and that we’re helping children and that we’re helping them to be everything that they can be. For us, that’s a much higher calling than any political or cultural war that’s being waged. This is really about an authentic problem that is on the ground, that is present and ever present in the lives of many children who can’t help themselves.
Responding to backlash
Taylor: When you see negative coverage, how does that feel for you personally?
Bullard: At the end of the day, I feel like we just have to do more of telling the story of our need, and we have to do more of doing the work. Because, at the end of the day, this is about the work. It can’t be about me personally and it can’t be about anything other than doing the work for these kids. That’s why I’m here. That’s why we’re all here, and I love that about Chick-fil-A. There really is a sincerity in our employee base, sincerity that comes from the top down, that it really is about the mission.
Taylor: Especially in the case of Salvation Army, Fellowship of Christian Athletes — do you consider making new partnerships that would be less controversial?
Bullard: We have over 300 partnerships, and we consider those partnerships continuously to include other partnerships that you mentioned. So, we can continuously look at who are our best partners to actually get work done. Who are our best partners to achieve our goals? We continually do that.
Taylor: I know the most recent reporting was on 2017 tax returns. If we were talking about this last year, are there changes there that maybe people should be aware of and that you want to represent?
Bullard: You will always see changes in our 990s because as I said, we’re continuing and looking to reassess and to find new partners.
In Toledo recently, there’s a great program from ProMedica Hospital where they are looking at the same economic determinants as us, but they have determined that those economic determinants also impact health. They don’t just look at your physical health, they look at your economic health. They found that if we impact those, they can actually improve your physical health. That could potentially be a new partner.
To answer your question, our 990s will continually change.
‘We don’t want our intent and our work to be encumbered by someone else’s politics or cultural war’
Taylor: How do you weigh intent versus perception?
Bullard: At the end of the day, the impact — that’s really what’s important for us. We don’t want our intent and our work to be encumbered by someone else’s politics or cultural war. If something gets in the way of our mission, that is something that we are mindful of and cognizant of. But it’s important for us to note that, at no point has our giving been around anything other than to ensure every child grows up to be everything that they could be.
I think it’s important to note that, as was said, no child was thinking anything about a purity clause or anything about other than sports exposure in college. That’s what we have been about. That clarification I do think is an important clarification.
I think the "why" behind our work is an important distinction as well. We think our work isn’t charity or philanthropy. We think it’s leadership, and we think that there is a leadership obligation that Chick-fil-A has as a corporate actor, as a corporate citizen to help solve real problems. It’s not hard to go see that they are real problems in our community and there are children who are suffering because of those real problems and there are communities that are suffering because of those real problems. We want to help those children and those communities.
A ‘faith of inclusion’
Taylor: You brought up Truett and the Cathy family. How do you think that they have shaped the vision of what the Chick-fil-A Foundation should be?
Bullard: The faith of the family … and the family has not, particularly Truett, did not shy away from his faith. And his faith was a faith of opportunity and a faith of inclusion, actually. There’s so many stories of people who received a scholarship, people who received ownership opportunities as an operator, people who were hired as a team member because of Truett’s faith. There are people within this company who are now elder statesmen who were mentored by Truett, and really Truett’s faith informed that.
It still undergirds what we do because there’s this sense of a calling to help people that is required by faith. But there is a distinction. There’s a calling to help people, and I think at times that has been confused with a calling, somehow, to exclude. And that’s not the case. The focus, the phrase "every child" — we’re very intentional about that. We do have programs and we look for programs that are inclusive as well to help every child.
Taylor: How would you balance this with people, especially those who are not in the Christian community, feeling they would be excluded due to the Chick-fil-A Foundation’s faith-based mission?
Bullard: There’s no balance for us. It’s every child regardless of any type of religion, ethnicity, geography, anything. It’s every child. So, there’s no balance on that part. It’s not something that we ever have to think about.
‘Find your West Side’
Taylor: I know the Atlanta community is a big part of that mission. How do you think about what communities you want to get involved with?
Bullard: We have this phrase that we call "find your West Side," based on Atlanta’s West Side. Every community has a West Side, a proverbial West Side. It might be East Side, it might be North Side, etc. But we think that solving this problem that is a universal problem: economic mobility of people being left behind, children in particular not getting ample opportunity. Or just taking a child who does have opportunity, take them to the next step. We think that’s a universal problem in every city.
We partner with operators to help scale True Inspiration Awards.
Twenty-something honorees from around the country are being honored for their work as leaders in various communities. They’re nominated by local operators. Local operators and the honorees or the winners get the chance to come here, and we have a black-tie event for them. We have Phillip Phillips as our entertainment. Last year we had Martina McBride. We have Maria Taylor from ESPN. We’ve had Anthony Anderson be a host in the past.
The award is actually made by the same people who make the Emmy. And so, it’s a beautiful award. Then they get lots of media attention and social media attention, in particular in their local communities. That’s one of the ways in which we help people and help communities find their West Side.
Some of the speakers are being coached on how we grow their organization into a bigger, more impactful, skilled organizations, and that’s part of what we do. In fact, next year we’ll announce that Carol Waddy, [director of Chick-fil-A’s community affairs], is leading an effort for an accelerator program that takes nonprofit organizations and accelerates their impact, their leadership, their growth. Some of them are small, but some of them are big. They learn from one another.
The question of authenticity
Mark Lennihan/Associated Press
Taylor: When you’re thinking about your partnerships, would you partner with an LGBT youth organization? Would that be something you’d consider?
Bullard: I think we would consider any partnership that was impactful and that was authentic. Would it be authentic for us to partner with that organization? For them to partner with us? And for us to get work done? I think those are the things that we would definitely consider and be mindful of.
Would we do it just for reasons that weren’t authentic? No, we wouldn’t do that.
Taylor: Looking back since the foundation started, what are some of the things that are developments that you’re most proud of, that you think have made the largest difference in different communities?
Bullard: "I work on the West Side" we’re very proud of. The Junior Achievement Chick-fil-A Foundation, I personally have a lot of appreciation for and pride in because it represented a host of things. One of my initial projects was for 35,000 children to go through that facility and learn about financial literacy and entrepreneurship. And it represented, really, this notion of leadership in which Chick-fil-A was able to help bring together the other brands. It was a nonprofit community, the corporate community, and the civic community working together, school systems working together.
Right now in the vein of bringing people together, I’m most proud of our Beloved Benefit, which we had about two months ago on March 21st. The notion was to bring all of Atlanta together. It was Dan’s brainchild, that he had seen Robin Hood and the Robin Hood Foundation dinner in New York City.
The notion of Wall Street coming together to help solve this authentic problem of poverty in New York was the purpose behind the dinner. And that dinner has been extraordinary. It’s raised significant dollars. It has given those dollars to organizations throughout New York City and has been beneficial in its impact.
The idea of doing something here in Atlanta — similar, but with a little bit of a twist to bring people together. If I think about the West Side, many people haven’t been there. Many people aren’t aware of it. That is symptomatic of that we do live in our own silos. The opportunity to bring people together across the city is the mission of the Beloved Benefit. The host committee was diverse in every way, every manner of diversity that you could think of — we look for and saw it and recruited.
Having a dinner where it wasn’t just about the rich and the well-heeled, but it also was about the community and the people that you were trying to help. We didn’t come in black tie. We came in as we were, and 20% of those who attended were from the community. I’m very proud of that because I think that really speaks to what the Chick-fil-A Foundation really is about.
How Chick-fil-A does things differently
Taylor: Do you think that there are any ways that you can speak to that Chick-fil-A approaches charity and leadership in a different way from a lot of other companies?
Bullard: This is not to speak ill of any corporate group, because everybody does it differently. There are a number of corporations that will write a check, and then use it for PR, for other reasons. But this really is to try and solve problems and to be good neighbors and to live up to our reasonable service.
We’ve been collaborative, and we haven’t just written a check. We actually are there, and we actually spend time and our staff spends time. Dan, in particular, spends time as well.
You may have heard about a morning meeting that occurs every other Friday. We started this effort to bring people together. Communication and collaboration was very important. It’s one of the most diverse meetings that you’re going to have in the city of Atlanta. It’s 7:00 in the morning on the first and third Friday of every month. We think that that’s leadership.
You asked how do we do it differently? Those are some of the things that we think we’re doing right. And if that’s different, then we’ll take that.
We can always sit and listen more. We can always do more. We can always address different things, and we are always on posture of trying to do that. But we address it in the best way we can with the competencies and the spirit that we have.
Spreading a mission across America
Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Taylor: I’ve heard a lot about operators who are bringing this similar vision to the company. How do you foster that?
Bullard: We do work with operators. We work with operators from a larger CSR [corporate social responsibility] perspective, but we’re talking about foundation now. From a foundation perspective, operators nominate those organizations to get True Inspiration Awards. There’s one operator, Keith Singletary in the Washington, DC area. Keith has nominated a organization called Mentoring to Manhood. They’re going to be our True Inspiration honoree this year.
Now, Truett fostered this sense of being the mayor of your community, that if you were an operator, you are the mayor of your five-, 10-mile radius and that really does live on in operators. Being able to partner with operators and being able to travel their impact, but also being able to look through their eyes. They know their community better than we do.
Taylor: Are there any times in the last six years where you have been forced to adjust your angle or approach?
Bullard: Absolutely, without question. And we’ll continue to do that. As I say, we will always reserve the right to get better, to be more impactful, and to get smarter.
Taylor: What were some examples of where you did make some improvements?
Bullard: We worked with some partners on the West Side. We early on thought that we could coalesce different people in it. That just didn’t work out as well. I won’t go into specifics as to who those folks were, but that just didn’t work out as well.
Sometimes we find partners just … we outgrow them operationally. That at some point, it was a good partnership. They were great people. They were well-intentioned, but we outgrew them operationally. I think you will continue to see that from us.
Taylor: Speaking of those aspirations and goals for the future, what do you want to achieve?
Bullard: Our goal is to continue to help solve problems throughout throughout the country wherever Chick-fil-A has a footprint, for us to be impactful and involved in those communities. We’ve done a lot here in Atlanta. We have a bias for Atlanta because it’s our hometown and that makes sense, but it’s not the only place where we think we can do good work. We have scaled programs such as Junior Achievement into 22 other markets. We scale programs such as Leader Academy. We’ll continue to find ways to scale programs.
Taylor: What do you believe are misconceptions about Chick-fil-A that need to be corrected?
Bullard: Really, what we do is about leadership. It’s not about philanthropy, it’s not about charity. We are trying to solve hard problems. These hard problems really are problems of systemic, economic mobility. These hard problems — economic — are problems that our children are being left behind in many corridors.
We really do believe that that’s a higher calling in any political or cultural war that might be out there. And we really do believe that this is a shared problem. So, regardless of where you may find yourself on any particular issue, this is our collective problem and we all can be a part of the solution. And, we all should join together and be a part of the solution.
If you’ve worked at Chick-fil-A or have a story to share about the chain, we would love to hear your perspective. Email this reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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