PNC's Sally McCrady is helping children 'grow up great'

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The brainstorming session was getting animated, and wacky ideas were flying.

A group of participants had just presented a far-out concept involving an Amazon Alexa-like program to identify potential health issues by listening to and logging the dialogue of parents as they changed their babies’ diapers.

The event was a hackathon hosted by the HeadStarter Network, a nonprofit spinoff of the National Head Start Association that focuses on innovation in early childhood development and education.

In the middle of it all was Sally McCrady, the head of community affairs and corporate social responsibility at PNC Financial Services Group.

While the subject of the presentation might have elicited chuckles, its substance — applying artificial intelligence to help young families better care for their children — is vital to the development of early childhood programs, said Yasmina Vinci, the executive director of the National Head Start Association.

Innovation can be hard to come by in this arena, she said, because persuading funders to invest in unproven ideas is difficult.

PNC is one of the program's backers, and McCrady was there to offer encouragement and ideas. That hands-on involvement is unique in the world of corporate philanthropy, said Vinci, and it illustrates why American Banker is honoring McCrady with a Community Impact award Thursday in New York, as part of the gala celebration for the Most Powerful Women in Banking and Finance.

PNC is widely seen as an industry leader in funding early childhood development and education programs, and McCrady has for years been the driving force behind the effort. The lion’s share of the giving is done through an initiative called Grow Up Great. The initiative funds educational, arts and cultural programs to improve early childhood development.

To celebrate Grow Up Great’s 15th anniversary in April, PNC announced it would contribute an additional $150 million to the program, bringing its total investment to $500 million.

The Pittsburgh-based company says 5 million children have benefited from Grow Up Great since its inception in 2004.

But that’s just one aspect of its philanthropy. In 2018, McCrady and her team managed $77.6 million in charitable giving from PNC, including $51.3 million in grants from the PNC Foundation and $26.3 million in charitable sponsorships from PNC Bank.

In addition, McCrady and her team oversaw $65.2 million in grants through PNC Charitable Trusts, made up of funds managed by PNC for the charitable interests of clients.

McCrady has been the chair and president of the PNC Foundation and the director of community affairs for the parent company since 2015. She was further tasked to head up corporate social responsibility in 2018.

Her interest in community development was sparked during college and graduate school, where she was intrigued with learning what makes cities thrive or deteriorate.

“My goal when I came out of graduate school 22 years ago was to really work in community development,” said McCrady, who holds a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Pennsylvania. “And I was lucky enough to get an opportunity at PNC working in the marketing research group in support of our community development organization.”

She’s been working at PNC ever since.

Local decision-making

While McCrady oversees the company's nationwide charitable giving, she gives local leaders plenty of autonomy to make decisions about which organizations to partner with and how. “While we are supporting early education in every one of our markets, our programs look different because they’re making the decisions about the nonprofits that can be most impactful,” she said.

McCrady and her team also strive to connect community organizations and encourage them to work together to deliver maximum impact. In Cleveland, for example, PNC worked with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Playhouse Square, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Museum of Art to enhance arts education in the public school system’s prekindergarten program.

In Pittsburgh, arts and science partners have joined forces with the parks conservancy to create family engagement activities in several neighborhoods.

McCrady said that philanthropy is most effective when backers understand "what the community wants, what they’re trying to accomplish [and] not coming in with a set of ideas of what should happen."

Vinci of National Head Start said she wishes more funders had this approach. Too often they talk only among themselves to determine how funds should be used.

“Sally and her team, they don’t run in a crowd,” Vinci said. “They’re very close to the practitioners … and they participate with the local programs. Because they’re grounded in reality, they don’t just fund something for a year or two and then leave it for the next shiny idea.”

Sharon Darling, founder and president of the National Center for Families Learning, whose programs benefit young children and their parents or primary caregivers, also appreciates McCrady’s thoughtful approach. Darling said the team at PNC provides the right mix of thought leadership, resources and room to breathe.

“They’ve just had such a laser focus on what they’re supporting” — education — “but within that laser focus they allow their partners to be flexible to innovate in the space,” Darling said.

A case in point is a literacy program called Say and Play with Words that the NCFL piloted in Detroit with PNC’s support and has since expanded to the organization’s hometown of Louisville, Ky. PNC was the only major backer initially, but as the program began to flourish other foundations, including the Skillman Foundation and the Max and Marjorie Fisher Foundation, both local to Detroit, pledged support.

A spirit of volunteerism

In her role, McCrady also oversees volunteer efforts of PNC’s workforce.

The company has 52,000 employees spread across 40 states. Each one gets 40 hours of paid time off each year to volunteer. Across the company, the number of hours employees volunteered increased 12% in 2018, totaling 850,000 volunteer hours.

To keep employees engaged and stoke interest in volunteering, McCrady and her team actively use the employee intranet, email blasts, and executive town hall meetings to communicate the impact their volunteer work is having on children’s lives.

Beyond that, it’s important to recognize that not everyone will want to spend time in a classroom working with children. “We try to think very broadly about all the ways our employees might want to be engaged,” McCrady said. “Some people might just want to donate a book through a book drive. So we’ve done all sorts of different drives that have donated well over a million items back to our early education partners.”

Perhaps the biggest rallying of the troops comes every April, when the company dedicates a day to Grow Up Great.

For the 15th anniversary this year, all employees were given a $25 electronic gift card to be used at DonorsChoose.org, where they could opt to help teachers across the United States fund projects or buy classroom supplies.

The idea for the electronic gift card emerged from feedback McCrady received a couple of years ago after giving Grow Up Great volunteers small mementos thanking them for their service. The pins and tchotchkes were nice, but employees said they would prefer that those resources be reinvested in Grow Up Great.

So in 2017, PNC began giving each Grow Up Great volunteer a $50 gift card to redeem at DonorsChoose. Redemption rates reached 44% in 2017 and 53% in 2018 — the highest rate DonorsChoose has seen for an employee distribution of this size, according to PNC. Given the growing success of the initiative, it was expanded to the entire employee base for 2019.

“That was a great way to generate awareness around Grow Up Great and our partner DonorChoose, but also give all of our employees an opportunity to be a micro-philanthropist,” McCrady said.

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