Personal Space: Christopher Nanni

A one-on-one conversation with Christopher Nanni, President and CEO, Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham.

Christopher Nanni has been the president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham since 2014. Founded in 1959 by and for the community, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham is a permanent charitable endowment to drive positive change.

B-Metro: What surprised you the most about Birmingham when you took the foundation job?

Nanni: Having lived in various parts of the county, I had always heard the term, “Southern hospitality.” I had thought, however, that it was merely a cliché. Having made Birmingham my home now for over five years, I have come to understand better the uniqueness and value of Southern hospitality. An initial surprise was the important role that relationships play in everyday life. People are more prone to support something because they know and trust you as opposed to investing solely in an idea. Trust is built through relationships.

There is also an incredible sense of generosity and commitment to giving which sets us apart not only from the rest of the country but even within the State of Alabama. There is a civic pride and desire to make our community better. This is evident in the many civic structures we have, including the largest Rotary, Kiwanis and Rotaract clubs. We have a number of homegrown businesses that have made their money here and feel a strong commitment to give back to the community that supported them.

Underneath all of this is a sincere desire to help our neighbor. I have never lived in a community that is more caring in times of crisis. There is truly a belief that we all are our brother’s keeper. For this reason, we are consistently ranked as one of the country’s most philanthropic cities. Of all the places I have lived, I feel most at home in Birmingham both personally and professionally.

B-Metro: Discuss what you consider the city’s greatest strengths?

Nanni: Our city and region have many strengths. We are a post-secondary hub with outstanding colleges and universities. We are a premier healthcare destination for the Southeast with unparalleled hospitals. We have a burgeoning tech scene stimulated by Innovation Depot.

However, if I had to select our greatest strength, it would have to be the emerging, next-generation leaders that I have been inspired by. Whether in city government, the nonprofit sector or our business community, a younger generation of leaders has emerged who are hungry for change.

At the Community Foundation, we have formed a Catalyst Fellows program that has brought ten such leaders together to identify challenges and opportunities from their perspective. I have been impressed with their passion, insight and creativity. There is an optimism with these leaders that won’t settle for the status quo. They are unencumbered by past failures and are driven to have our region maximize its untapped potential. They are our greatest strength and hold the keys to our future. It is incumbent on institutions such as ours to cultivate and include these next-generation leaders so that we engage and retain them. They are our greatest asset that will help determine the future of our region.

B-Metro: What are our most difficult challenges?

Nanni: Underlying many of our challenges remains our fragmentation as a region. Our nation is encountering an economic paradigm shift which will be based less on manufacturing and more on information technology. This new economy is more regional in nature and crosses municipal lines, unlike the previous paradigms. Therefore, those regions that are more cohesive, we are seeing, are positioned best for the future.

Our legacy of 35 cities in Jefferson County alone (which makes us one of the most fragmented regions in the Southeast) may have worked for us in the past, but it actually works against us moving forward. Therefore, in many ways, we are starting behind the starting line in comparison to peer regions. Because of this, we need to be more strategic and unified just to compete. We have tried in the past to be more unified, but have failed each time.

The two things that have traditionally held us back are a lack of trust among municipalities that has fostered competition over cooperation as well as a lack of understanding that our fates are shared, no matter where you live in the region. The Community Foundation’s work over the past few years on this issue has yielded some positive results. In April of this year, the majority of mayors in Jefferson County signed a Good Neighbor’s Pledge, agreeing not to poach businesses from one another. While this is a monumental step forward, we see this as just a beginning to our region working more closely together. We need to build on such efforts so that we can ensure a prosperous future.

B-Metro: What program (s) of the Community Foundation are you most excited about?

Nanni: Along Throughout 2018, we undertook a yearlong comprehensive community engagement process which has led to five key priorities that our region would like the Community Foundation to focus on over the next decade. As a learning institution, we have spent 2019 researching these areas, reaching out to national experts, and inviting the community to learn alongside us. In 2020, we will begin implementation of this new framework. I am very excited with the five priorities that the community has galvanized around. They include:  building thriving communities, overcoming persistent poverty, equity and inclusion, economic opportunity for all, and regional cooperation. These are all underlying issues that, if we can make significant progress on them, our community will be prosperous for everyone.

If I had to pick an existing initiative I am most excited about, it is a microtransit pilot we are partnering on with the City of Birmingham and Via Transportation. This innovative pilot will launch on December 3rd and provide point-to-point, on-demand transportation for residents. The pilot will include most of the western side of Birmingham and all of downtown at a low rate of $1.50. This pilot has the potential of revolutionizing access and utilization of public transportation

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