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Bank giving evolves, grows

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By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Already gearing for change, the Bank of America Foundation now expects to increase its giving by one-third, to $100 million, as a result of the acquisition of FleetBoston Financial by Bank of America.

Even before the $48 billion merger was announced Oct. 27, the Bank of America Foundation had been working under its new president to fine-tune its mission, gauge its impact and integrate its national and local resources to help strengthen neighborhoods.

The foundation, which aims to unveil a new giving strategy soon, now will work to integrate itself with the FleetBoston Financial Foundation, which contributes roughly $25 million a year.

The Bank of America Foundation, which expects to contribute $75 million this year, has focused in the past on community development and education, and also supported health and human services, and arts and culture.

Now, it is pulling together and reorganizing the bank’s efforts to support communities, and giving executives in its regional markets more flexibility to address local needs by tapping all of its philanthropic resources, says Andrew Plepler, a lawyer who in July joined the foundation as president.

The Bank of America Foundation now will oversee and coordinate all of those resources, which include funding, volunteers and bank programs such as America Works, which provides job training, and America Banks, which provides financial education.

“We’re a national bank that has a local presence across the country,” says Plepler, former senior vice president of housing and community initiatives at the Fannie Mae Foundation in Washington, D.C. “It’s very hard to make all those grant decisions from Charlotte about what those priorities and needs are in other communities.”

Later this year, Plepler expects to announce a “broad definition” of the foundation’s focus on neighborhoods that will create a “national identity” for the bank’s philanthropy while letting regional managers tailor their giving to issues in their markets.

That broad focus on neighborhoods is in sync with the focus at the FleetBoston Financial Foundation on economic opportunity, young people and arts and culture, Plepler says.

“Their existing strategy is not really inconsistent with ours, and it should be a merger that is fairly seamless,” he says.

While it expects to launch its new strategy on Jan. 1, 2004, he says, the Bank of America Foundation will not be able to incorporate FleetBoston’s charitable giving program until the merger is approved, probably in the second quarter of 2004.

The Bank of America Foundation also is making changes in the way it works.

Grant applications now must be submitted online, and at least some grant recipients next year will be asked to provide data showing the impact of grants they receive.

Plepler, who at Fannie Mae oversaw a $30 million grants program and a staff of 30 people, also wants to better integrate the foundation’s grantmaking with the bank’s corporate giving and with employee volunteerism.

The company’s corporate giving, which is separate from giving by its foundation, totals more than $6 million a year.

The foundation also matches, dollar for dollar, employee gifts to charities, and last year gave more $10 million in matching funds.

In 2002, 100,000 employees and retirees in 2002 volunteered 650,000 hours at charities, and employees contributed $21 million to local United Ways, which received another $12 million from the foundation.

Plepler also wants to align the bank’s philahthropy with its “higher standards” corporate brand.

“One indicator of ‘higher standards’ is that the company be recognized as a good and supportive corporate citizen, supportive of the communities in which it does business,” says Plepler, who also oversees a $140 million loan fund that invests in community groups that typically make loans for initiatives such as affordable housing and economic development.

Corporate philanthropy and volunteerism represent “one of the great opportunities to do well for the business and to really make an impact in communities at the same time,” he says. “In this era of corporate scrutiny, it’s more important than ever that a company exhibit the type of authentic leadership in communities that is expected of them.”

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