Steve Jobs once famously asked Pepsi executive John Sculley, "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?"
While you could certainly argue over the world-changing effects of selling sugar water (for better or worse), some of the fortunes made while doing so are certainly making an impact. In the case of the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation — founded by longtime Coca-Cola CEO — it's at least changing Georgia. (See Robert W. Woodruff Foundation: Grants for Conservation.)
The Atlanta-based Woodruff Foundation's environment program has focused mainly on protecting Georgia's wilderness, providing huge chunks of funding to buy up swaths of land or support parks and outdoor education centers. For the foundation, this focus is a natural extension of the Coke CEO's proto-environmentalism, which dates back to the 1920s when he established a 29,000-acre quail-hunting reserve.
Woodruff gives out only a handful of environment grants each year — just six in 2011 — but when the board picks something it considers important, it's a windfall, typically in the multimillion-dollar range. Of the 19 conservation grants given from 2008 to 2011, more than half were in the seven- or eight-figure range, and totaled more than $70 million. (Read Woodruff President P. Russell Hardin's IP profile.)
A big part of Woodruff's giving is to fund the straight-up purchase of land, such as the Silver Lake Tract, a stretch of land that represents many of the South's pine forest habitats with species including the red-cockaded woodpecker, the Florida pine snake, and wild turkey. Or a $4.7 million gift to the Nature Conservancy in 2010 to buy up 14,000 acres of the Altamaha River Corridor, which supports many rare species in Georgia and feeds the estuary at the Coast.
The foundation also gives millions of dollars, often matching the efforts of local fundraisers, to support parks in Georgia. Woodruff has given several million dollars to botanical gardens, parks, and nature centers in Atlanta and beyond.
But the Woodruff Foundation's biggest project to date has been one that the founder himself started back in the '20s. Ichauway, the sprawling piece of land once protected for quail hunting, is now an outdoor laboratory that houses the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center. The reserve was established as a research center after its founder’s death and named after a fellow Coca-Cola executive.
Not a bad legacy for a couple of guys selling sugar water.