Winston-Salem, NC is one of 18 cities where truist foundation is supporting Purpose Built Communities’ work. Sharkshock/shutterstock
Winston-Salem, NC is one of 18 cities where truist foundation is supporting Purpose Built Communities’ work. Sharkshock/shutterstock

In its first year of funding, the Truist Foundation was met out of the gate by a global pandemic and a rising racial justice movement, both of which have largely guided its opening moves.

The foundation is the philanthropic arm of Truist Financial, which was created last spring following the merger of two Southern regional banks, Winston-Salem-based BB&T and Atlanta-based SunTrust. Once fully integrated, the company expects to operate more than 2,000 branches, mostly in the Southeast.

Truist joined many corporations and philanthropies in responding to the challenges of COVID-19, but also acknowledged that its historic ties to slavery perhaps heighten its responsibility to advance racial equity within its own operations and communities of impact.

Recently, the foundation announced a three-year, $7 million partnership with Purpose Built Communities, a nonprofit consulting group that works with local leaders across the U.S. on housing, education, and wellness interventions. Here’s how that decision fits within the foundation’s giving objectives, and how the investment seeks to improve health outcomes, lift economic and educational mobility, and build racial equity within Truist’s footprint.

Mission and priorities

After engaging stakeholders to develop a strategy, the new foundation adopted a mission to “inspire and build better lives and communities,” and organized its work around four pillars: leadership development, economic mobility, “thriving communities” and educational equity.

Truist’s leadership development efforts focus on empowering nonprofit and community-based leaders. Economic mobility funding backs efforts to identify innovative ways of breaking the cycle of poverty and removing economic barriers. The “thriving communities” pillar funds affordable housing and workforce development. And educational equity grants focus on supporting secondary and post-secondary students in underserved communities. These priorities are closely aligned with Purpose Built’s work, making the new grant a logical extension of its funding.

The foundation’s geographical reach extends across 18 states, mirroring its business presence. That includes both urban centers like Baltimore, Maryland. and Charlotte, North Carolina—where the foundation’s based—and rural communities like Macon, Georgia.

Timely responses

Launched last spring just as COVID-19 hit, the company quickly made a $25 million commitment to combating the virus: supporting basic needs, providing medical supplies and working to relieve financial hardship across the country. Partners included the CDC Foundation and Johns Hopkins Medicine, with foundation support for local United Way branches and matching gifts for employees.

Shortly after the pandemic took hold, a surging racial equity movement emerged. In the aftermath of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other Black Americans, Truist acknowledged a direct sense of obligation to advance racial equity.

Beginning in 2000, local ordinances in places like Chicago, Richmond and Philadelphia required companies doing business there to disclose financial ties with slavery. Like several other financial institutions tracing their histories, Truist’s earlier iterations had close ties to industries that profited from slavery. In July, Kelly King, Truist’s chairman and CEO, publicly acknowledged the “shameful aspects” of the company’s history while committing to right the company’s past wrongs.

The institution engaged employees at all levels in “authentic, raw” conversations that resulted in a plan for its response. A new working group was formed, including members of the executive leadership team and African American Business Resource Group. Over the years, the bank has adjusted some of its business practices, such as raising its minimum wage and diversifying its supplier base. Truist gave $20 million to African American organizations in 2019 and 2020, along with a $10 million commitment in 2020 to provide underserved communities with access to capital through Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs).

Last week, it announced the $7 million grant over three years to Purpose Built Communities, which it has backed in the past. Funding will specifically support the nonprofit’s network of local groups doing the heavy lifting on the ground, and a Racial Equity Ambassadors program that helps leaders integrate equity practices in all aspects of their work.

A unique model of revitalization

Purpose Built Communities was launched 11 years ago, following the economic revitalization of the East Lake Neighborhood in Atlanta, an area that once had crime rates 18 times the national average and high school graduation rates of less than 30%.

When the City of Atlanta announced it would tear down the neighborhood’s 650-unit public housing complex, local real estate developer Tom Cousins founded the East Lake Foundation to guide the demolition and create high-quality, mixed-income housing in its place. The initiative has drawn some criticism—only about a quarter of the housing project’s residents returned to the neighborhood. But the area’s striking resurgence has become a model for other cities. Cousins, along with billionaire philanthropists Warren Buffett and Julian Robertson, funded the creation of Purpose Built Communities as a way to replicate the East Lake Foundation’s approach in other locations.

While creating mixed-income housing is core to that model, Purpose Built cites a holistic approach to countering disinvestment. The organization places local nonprofits at the center of priority neighborhoods to act as “community quarterbacks” who take the lead in advancing education, wellness and housing interventions. In the last decade, the organization’s network has grown to 28 members in 24 cities throughout the country.

Truist’s funding will support 18 network members in areas where it has a business presence, including East Lake, Grove Park, Historic South Atlanta, Rome and Columbus in Georgia; Tallahassee, Orlando and West Palm Beach in Florida; Raleigh, Winston-Salem and Charlotte in North Carolina; Dallas, Ft. Forth and Houston in Texas; Cleveland and Columbus in Ohio; Spartanburg, South Carolina; and Birmingham, Alabama.

A focus on racial equity

Purpose Built’s Racial Equity Ambassadors program bubbled up from a desire among network members to integrate racial equity work into local operations and community outreach. Launched just two years ago, it addresses training and knowledge building, and helps leaders develop strong internal and external relationships.

Michelle Matthews, the senior vice president who leads the program, says the goal is to share the principles and knowledge they learn with their teams and integrate capacities within day-to-day work, rather than seeing it as “something separate and apart.”

The initial volunteer cohort of seven community executive directors has already doubled. Matthews says the network hopes ultimately to have 100% participation, spur additional training, and institute policies and practices that put a racial lens on areas like hiring, procurement and board membership.

She sees the program and partnership as a template for how corporations and nonprofits can create conditions where they can learn from each other.

That mindset makes it a natural partner for a company that’s listening and learning to create a new legacy. Lynette Bell, president of the Truist Foundation, stressed the ongoing commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion that’s behind emerging work. She said, “The Truist Foundation is determining how we can continue to partner with nonprofit organizations to address racial equity because we believe all people and communities should have an equal opportunity to thrive.”