Two moments changed Steve Wadley. Taken together, they convinced him to spend part of his retirement devoting his time, talents and experience to raising money for local organizations that support education in Atlanta’s inner-city schools.
The first moment came when Wadley was a boy. He played football then on a team based in Buckhead. His team played in a citywide league and when he and his teammates played away games in poorer Atlanta neighborhoods, he saw that those players had nowhere near the level of support — the new equipment, the uniforms, the practices — that benefited him and his teammates.
“We would kill ’em,” the 61-year-old said. “It’d be 56-to-nothing. It just wasn’t a fair fight. It just wasn’t fair. It stuck with me.”
His second insight arrived decades later, when, as a father, he was grieving the death of his son. By then, Wadley had founded and operated a few restaurants, including Café 290 in Sandy Springs, and moved on to create an internet marketing firm. In 2012, Wadley’s son, Nick, suddenly died from respiratory failure two weeks shy of his 25th birthday.
“He died on a Friday. We buried him on a Tuesday,” Wadley recalled one recent afternoon. “On Wednesday morning, we were sitting at the breakfast table saying, ‘What the hell are we going to do now?’”
He decided he should remember his son by helping others.
Nick loved to play guitar, so Wadley looked into music-based charities. He found the Atlanta Music Project, which provides free music education to underserved Atlanta youth. Wadley joined the organization’s board and helped raise money for it, setting up events such as a golf tournament named for his son.
Wadley’s fundraising work has made a significant difference for the group and made him one of the largest individual donors for the Atlanta Music Project, Co-founder and Executive Director Dantes Rameau said. “He works hard on behalf of our organization. He does it because of his love for the kids we serve,” Rameau said. “He’s one of our most dynamic board members.”
Through the music project, Wadley learned of another group working to improve education in Atlanta public schools, The Kindezi Schools, which operates charter schools. Kindezi says it takes its name from a Bantu word describing “the act by which a community educates, loves, and values every child.”
Wadley began raising funds for Kindezi, too. He said working with the two organizations has convinced him there could be a better way to raise money for them and similar organizations. He’s now starting a new organization he believes will create a simpler way to raise money for local charities. He thinks his new group, called Think Local Atlanta, will broaden, and stabilize, fundraising for such small, local groups.
His idea sounds a bit like a small-scale United Way: Instead of going to a few rich folks to give large chunks of cash through traditional fundraisers such as a charity golf game or auction, Wadley wants to convince large numbers of donors to pledge relatively small amounts of money so that, together, the effect will be large. Think Local Atlanta asks donors for a dime a day — about $3-plus a month or $36.50 a year — to be distributed to the charities it supports.
“Every charity does the same thing. They try to raise a lot of money from a small number of people,” he said. “It kind of reminds me of a 6-year-old girls’ basketball team: they all were after the ball. Raising money like this means it comes in fits and starts. … [We] try to get small amounts of money from large groups of people … 12,500 people giving 10 cents a day each is [nearly] $500,000 a year.”
As of now, Think Local Atlanta is set up to contribute to the Atlanta Music Project and The Kindezi Schools. But Wadley thinks the fundraising could expand to support additional charities.
Why shouldn’t potential donors give directly to the charities, rather than to Think Local Atlanta? Wadley argues that many people don’t give because they don’t know enough about which charities are effective and deserve support. The volunteers operating the fundraising group, he said, will do the legwork and get the word out.
“I think if people are aware of what’s going on,” Wadley said, “they’ll have the ability to support it.”