Since taking over as chairman and chief executive of the KeyBank Foundation in 2001, Margot James Copeland has put in place a lofty mandate: All grants from the bank should be "transformational."

The foundation has funded grants to the Cleveland Clinic medical school, to provide full-ride scholarships to students of color who plan to address health disparities in underserved communities. It has also given money to the Cleveland public schools, to promote science education in inner-city schools.

"We have great emphasis and focus on education," Copeland said in a recent interview. "'Transformational' means that [students] will have everything that they need to graduate."

In total, the KeyBank Foundation in 2013 awarded $11 million in grants, primarily to educational and workforce development programs. But Copeland says philanthropy isn't about writing checks.

"It's a partnership," she said, discussing the foundation's relationship with its grantees. "We articulate that very quickly."

Copeland is this year's recipient of the Community Impact Award, which was presented Thursday evening at the American Banker's Most Powerful Women in Banking gala in New York. The award honors women who have made a significant impact on others through their work.

To understand Copeland's approach to community grant-making, consider the foundation's most recent initiative with the Cleveland Municipal School District — one of the most underperforming systems in the country.

The KeyBank Foundation last year gave $1.25 million to start a program that gives high school students an opportunity to take classes at Cleveland State University.

Copeland got the idea for the "KeyBank Classrooms for STEM Education" during a visit to an inner city school that focuses on STEM courses — science, technology, engineering and math. The foundation had previously provided funding for scholarships and science curriculum.

During the visit, she spoke to a student who had received a prestigious scholarship to attend a top-ranked school, but was nervous about attending college. He had only traveled outside of Cleveland a few times, and had never left the state of Ohio.

"We had a kid who had just received a full scholarship to a university out of state, and he was afraid to go," she said.

So Copeland developed a program to move high school science and math classes to the campus of Cleveland State. The "KeyBank Classrooms" program, which launched last year, is designed to help students gain confidence in a college setting and visualize the experience of obtaining a college degree.

"It's not enough to invest in a scholarship," Copeland said, adding that the program gives inner-city students the confidence to compete with kids from wealthier suburbs.

Copeland, who has also previously served as KeyBank's chief diversity officer, has gained national prominence for her work on issues facing African-American communities.

For the last four years, she has served as president of the Links, a nonprofit civic organization for African-American women. The role has given Copeland an opportunity to network with women "in a position of access and influence," she says, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Obama.

During her tenure, the Links has provided multimillion-dollar gifts to a range of organizations, including the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the United Negro College Fund, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

The group, which receives money from individual donors, has also advocated against "Stand-Your-Ground" laws, she says, following the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin in Stanford, Fla.

Copeland says her involvement in the Links has been facilitated by KeyBank, where senior executives are expected to serve on at least one community board.

"The bottom line is it makes sense that our leadership must have firsthand knowledge about the communities where you live and work," she said.

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