Faces of the Atlanta Fed: Donna Whitfield, Corporate Relations

June 25, 2018


Donna Whitfield has the sort of infectious laugh you hear from around a corner. The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's assistant corporate secretary, Whitfield combines an innate social ease with a work ethic she inherited from her late father.

William "Earl" Gilreath worked six days a week maintaining equipment and machinery at an Atlanta brick factory. He also grew a large family garden and was a hobbyist herdsman, nurturing cows, sheep, goats, and chickens on 10 acres in Austell, Georgia, about 20 miles northwest of Atlanta.

photo portrait of Donna Whitfield
The Atlanta Fed's Donna Whitfield. Photo by David Fine

"There's always something to do, and I take pride in what I do. I know I get that from him. And nagging people I get from my mother," Whitfield said with a laugh.

An indispensable eye for detail

Her sense of humor is only part of the package. Whitfield also possesses a meticulous grasp of detail that is essential in dealing with everyone from the executives on the Atlanta Fed's boards of directors to event organizers to support staff. Whitfield is part of the Atlanta Reserve Bank's corporate relations team, which manages the selection process of directors and the year-round slate of in-person meetings, conference calls, and related events.

"Donna is super sharp. She has to be, because there is a lot of detail in our work," said Amanda Nicewander, who has worked closely with Whitfield for two years as director of corporate relations.

The detail begins with recruiting potential directors. Whitfield and her colleagues manage rigorous background checks to ensure that each candidate fulfills the specific requirements. For example, certain board positions are set aside for bankers, to represent financial institutions, while others are designated for representatives of the broader public. The idea is to assemble boards that represent the diverse economic sectors of the Sixth District, which encompasses all of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, and portions of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

Whitfield and her team also maintain a running calendar of meeting agenda items. There may be particular economic topics to be discussed. Or there may be an aspect of the Reserve Bank's activities to explore. The directors of the Atlanta Fed headquarters office oversee the Reserve Bank's general operations in a role similar to that of a corporate board.

Directors who are bankers are prohibited from involvement with any matters involving financial supervision and regulation, or with the selection of a Reserve Bank president.

In addition to the main board of directors affiliated with the Atlanta office, the five Atlanta Fed branches each have a board. Unlike the Atlanta board, those groups do not play a governance role in the bank's operations. Rather, they primarily contribute to discussions of economic conditions in their industries and geographic areas. For all six boards, Whitfield's team handles the logistics of meeting preparation and presentation.

"We are the central point of getting everything where it needs to be and making the meetings happen," Whitfield explained.

The work is serious, to be sure. But a healthy sense of humor keeps it manageable. For Whitfield, the key to keeping hard-charging executives organized is cultivating relationships with their assistants. Administrative assistants keep the executives on schedule and handle their correspondence. Whitfield and the rest of the four-person corporate relations team begin developing those bonds as soon as a person joins the Bank board.

"Donna considers all the components of a situation," said Nancy Varella, director of event and meeting planning at the Atlanta Fed. "She's a really careful thinker and has loads of common sense."

An oasis among the trees

Whitfield visits with her sister often. They live on the same half-mile dirt road 47 miles from the Atlanta Fed's Midtown Atlanta headquarters. While Whitfield is not wild about the commute, she loves the exurban solitude.

"When I'm home, I stay home," Whitfield said. "I like green space, the trees and the grass. We have a pool, and that's my oasis."

It has been for years. Whitfield began work at the Atlanta Fed in 1987 after three years at the Federal Home Loan Bank. She started at the Reserve Bank as an administrative assistant in the Research Department before moving to the internal auditing unit and then to corporate relations.

She values the opportunity to experience various aspects of the Atlanta Fed's operations. Whitfield's current role is especially satisfying. "I love it because you get to work with so many areas and see the big picture of the bank," she said. "It's never dull."

photo of Charles Davidson
Charles Davidson

Staff writer for Economy Matters

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