Region recognizes Arts Clayton for ‘excellence’

Arts Clayton Executive Director Linda Summerlin shows off the "Managing for Excellence" award the organization recently received from the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta.

Arts Clayton Executive Director Linda Summerlin shows off the "Managing for Excellence" award the organization recently received from the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta.

— Arts Clayton’s gregarious executive director, Linda Summerlin, said she had a rare moment of being nervous last fall when an 11-member review team came to Jonesboro to evaluate the arts group.

The review team was made up of Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta board members who were doing a site visit to decide whether Arts Clayton was a model of how a nonprofit group should be managed. Summerlin and Arts Clayton Board President Krystal Pate showed their guests around the Arts Clayton Gallery and answered their questions.

Arts Clayton’s executive director didn’t have to wait long to find out how her organization fared, however. In October, she got news that she had to sit on for a few more months: Arts Clayton won the Community Foundation’s “Managing for Excellence” award.

“When you are told that 11 strangers are coming to your house — we’ve never had more than two or three — you get quite nervous,” Summerlin said.

Although the award was presented in November, Arts Clayton officials waited until Thursday night to formally announce their achievement to the county. The arts group won the management award for nonprofit groups whose budgets are less than $2 million.

The award comes with $25,000 that Arts Clayton can spend however it wants. Once an organization wins the award, it is not allowed to apply for it again. The Arts Clayton Board of Directors has not yet decided how it will spend the money.

Summerlin was bubbling with excitement shortly before a ceremony in which she was set to make the formal announcement about the award to a gathering of community leaders. County commissioners, representatives of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, officials from the Community Foundation and mayors and city council members from several Clayton County cities showed up for the announcement.

“Can you imagine the validation that an organization like Community Foundation of Atlanta brings to an organization like ours?” Summerlin said. “It just brings tears to my eyes because it’s not an easy application process and they scrutinize you very closely.

“You have to have everything in order: Your strategic plan. Your policies and procedures. Your bylaws. Your succession plan. Your finances. It’s a very scrutinized process.”

The application process took a year to complete, beginning with the submission of an application with copies of the group’s strategic plan and polices, and audits and budgets going back several years.

Pate said the award was the payoff for years of work that Arts Clayton leaders and volunteers have put into making the group a highly successful organization. She said Arts Clayton has proven itself to be a “stable” organization capable of weathering the economic instability of recent years.

“We’ve worked hard to get to where we are,” Pate said. “We had to go through lots of different processes and get things in place to even apply for grants. So in doing all of that, it just made us a stronger foundation. It made us a stronger gallery.”

One of the attributes of Arts Clayton that stood out for Community Foundation representatives was its close ties to the Clayton County Board of Commissioners. The organization’s leaders have long crowed about the support county commissioners have given them.

Community Foundation Board of Directors member Donata Russell Major said she believes Summerlin is part of the reason why Arts Clayton has continued to enjoy government support for a quarter of a century despite regular turnover on the commission over the years.

“We were impressed by the collaboration between Arts Clayton and the county and the community in general,” Major said. “Linda is very clearly an asset for this organization. She knows her way around very well and is able to get some unbelievable things done when you consider that this is an organization that, number one, is arts-based and, number two, relies on governmental funding.”

Major was a member of the review team that visited Summerlin and Pate at the gallery last fall.

Major also said another key attribute of Arts Clayton in the eyes of the review team was the fact that it “had a strategic plan in place that they were managing to.” She said decisions made by the organization’s leaders were based on that plan and the goals outlined in it.

The Community Foundation board member said those are reasons why Arts Clayton has been able to survive and thrive through adversities that might cripple some organizations.

“It’s grown and survived, in spite of what many people would look at as major obstacles for a nonprofit organization,” Major said.