How the pandemic redefined Truist's philanthropic priorities

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Ahead of the merger of BB&T and SunTrust Banks, executives spent months fine-tuning the scope and details of an endowed foundation that would blend the two banks’ charitable missions.

But nine days after the March 2 launch of the Truist Foundation — one of the many outcomes of the December megamerger that created Truist Financial in Charlotte, N.C. — the World Health Organization declared the fast-spreading novel coronavirus a pandemic. It quickly became clear that the new foundation, with $600 million in assets, would need to shift gears to help the company respond to the health crisis.

Lynette Bell, president of the Truist Foundation
"One of the things I think that’s unique to us at Truist Foundation is that, unlike some of the other large [financial] institutions, we’re in both rural and urban markets and that means there are going to be diverse needs to be met," says Lynette Bell, the foundation's president.

The result was Truist Cares — a collaborative effort of the company, its foundation and the donor-advised Truist Charitable Fund. Its purpose is to help meet the immediate and long-term needs of customers, employees and communities affected by COVID-19. The initial $25 million pandemic-related pledge announced by Truist Financial in March was doubled to $50 million in May.

“When we decided to add that additional $25 million, what we realized was, ‘Wow, this pandemic will have a longer tail in the United States,’ ” said Lynette Bell, the former enterprise community reinvestment officer at SunTrust who is now president of Truist Foundation.

To date, $48 million of the total pledge has been deployed, Bell said. The disbursements include:

  • $7 million to local United Way organizations
  • $5 million to the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC)
  • $1.5 million went to the Community Education Alliance
  • $1 million each to the CDC Foundation and Johns Hopkins Foundation

The money has been used to purchase food and medical supplies, provide financial relief for individuals and small businesses and enhance technology services in communities where Internet connectivity is low.

Aside from Truist Cares, Bell and her team of six continue to handle general requests for grants through the foundation, which has four pillars: leadership development, educational equity, economic mobility and thriving communities.

The Truist Foundation has not yet announced which large nonprofit organizations it plans to partner with, but the goal is to disburse grants through groups whose missions correspond with the foundation’s four pillars. Bell declined to say how many funding applications have been received so far, but she did say the foundation has received more applications than the SunTrust Foundation received over the same time period in prior years.

Bell spoke to American Banker twice — once in early March, before the pandemic was declared by the WHO, and again this month — about the foundation’s launch and subsequent response to COVID-19. The questions and answers below have been edited and condensed for clarity.

A lot changed after the first time we spoke. How did the foundation change course to respond to the pandemic and what were the primary areas that you focused on?

LYNETTE BELL: We stood up the Truist Foundation in late February and by March the pandemic had come upon the U.S. shores in a major way. We wanted to provide for basic needs and rebuild communities, so we came up with the Truist Cares initiative. We rolled that out in partnership with the CDC Foundation, which had been tracing the pandemic globally, and Johns Hopkins Foundation, which was also dealing with the pandemic on a global level. The other national partner we linked with in the early phase was United Way Global, which was experiencing spikes in call centers related to food, financial and utilities securities. They provided us with great data sources on the spikes and the needs across the country, and we thought, "What a great way to use data to help support our communities in this time of need."

Truist Cares is all about, "How do we identify basic needs and help rebuild communities?" There are five focus areas in the first round: small businesses, youth, seniors, the workforce and technology services. It was about providing access to food and supporting vulnerable populations that experienced a disruption in work because of the pandemic. For the second round, we realized that small businesses were being impacted, so we carved out $10 million to support them and support community development financial institutions by providing access to capital. LISC is a national organization that we aligned with to provide grant funding to micro and small businesses in urban and rural markets. On top of that, we provided funding to Black businesses to support minority-owned businesses that are having the same struggle. Another part is around [internet] connectivity. In the first round, we noticed models shifting, so we put additional dollars toward building the connectivity platform. More broadband will help students in underserved communities get education and stay connected.

In addition to health disparities, the pandemic highlighted the extreme racial inequities in this country. What is the foundation doing to address systemic racism?

The bank has had large-scale discussions around systemic racism, and clearly the foundation has some connectivity to building synergies around the area of racial equity. How we embed that into our strategic focus will be very important. We believe we’ve actually started that process a little bit in the way that we’ve supported CDFIs and LISC during the pandemic.

What are the opportunities in bringing two charitable initiatives like this together?

One of the things I think that’s unique to us at Truist Foundation is that, unlike some of the other large [financial] institutions, we’re in both rural and urban markets and that means there are going to be diverse needs to be met. I think that’s going to be something that’s unique to the foundation, that we’ll be able to address and give insight to those needs in both places.

How did BB&T and SunTrust handle concerns from nonprofits and community leaders about the possibility of losing funding after the merger was complete?

What company leaders Kelly King [chairman and CEO of Truist, formerly chairman and CEO of BB&T] and Bill Rogers [president and chief operating officer of Truist, formerly chairman and CEO of SunTrust] said is that we would not be vacating those cities. We would have the same level of investment and commitment, and I know that to be fact and the truth. We are not leaving those markets. We are providing the same level of commitments and assets to those markets.

What are you learning as the foundation makes its way through its first year?

What I have learned is that I have to have a playbook to deal with emerging crises. We handled the pandemic really well, but we need a clear playbook for me and my team. We’re working on it now. Because we’re an endowed foundation, we have a board of directors, and that board will have to approve our emerging crisis strategy. The bank has a way to deal with crisis management, so now we also must have the right strategic alignment and ability to deal with anything, whether it’s a pandemic or a natural disaster with flooding and storms, all of that.

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