It’s a big deal when a local foundation unveils $4.6 million in grants all at once, but the Wells Fargo Foundation did it Saturday with an unexpected twist.
Using a place-based approach – “geo-targeting” – the bank’s charitable arm announced it would focus more than a quarter of the money on a slice of the city.
The intent is to spark broad community support for revitalizing the West Boulevard Corridor from Remount Road to the Billy Graham Parkway. The area has a long list of economic, social and educational needs.
Thirteen nonprofits will share $1.4 million for West Boulevard-oriented programs that help children, homeowners, elderly, the unemployed and women who have been abused.
The money represents a concentrated dose of cash intended to be used this year, officials said.
Geo-targeting is becoming a trend around the nation based on the belief that troubled communities won’t rebound based on projects that focus on only one issue, no matter how well funded they are.
“An intervention in health, or housing or education will only go so far,” said Tamara Lucas Copeland of Washington Grantmakers, based in Washington, D.C. “This approach is about realizing they are all connected.”
Wells Fargo Foundation officials say the rest of Saturday’s $4.6 million gift is being spread more traditionally, among nonprofits in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties for community development, education, health and arts programs.
Charity experts and city officials say the bank’s approach along West Boulevard is a first for Charlotte.
The closest the city has come is Project LIFT – a $55 million education enhancement project aimed at West Charlotte High school and the middle and elementary schools that feed into it.
Jobs skills, gardens, housing
The Wells Fargo money goes beyond one cause or a specific type of charity. Money is earmarked for job skills training, community gardens, home repair, transitional housing, battered women and meals for homebound seniors.
The one thing they all have in common is West Boulevard.
“Improving education is just one piece of the solution,” said Mary Nell McPherson of Freedom School Partners, which is getting $85,000.
“Children don’t come in pieces. They’re part of a family and part of a community, so solutions have to include safe housing, transportation, jobs, parks, streets and schools.”
The city of Charlotte also likes Wells Fargo’s approach, and helped the foundation settle on a target area.
Pamela Wideman of the city’s Neighborhood and Business Services Department says it’s the first time a foundation has come to the city seeking advice on a geo-target project. She hopes others will follow.
“What I shared was the city’s perspective on a comprehensive approach to neighborhood revitalization,” said Wideman. “I think the West Boulevard area stuck out because of everything else that is going on there.”
Examples of projects underway in that area include Project LIFT (which is getting $2.5 million from Wells Fargo) and the 41-acre redevelopment of the Boulevard Homes housing project into a mixed-income community.
Kendall Alley, Wells Fargo’s Charlotte-area president, said going to the city for advice prevented the foundation from making the biggest mistake a geo-targeting project can make: Getting it wrong on where to invest.
“We looked at West Boulevard and saw the effort by organizations there to make a difference and we understood what they were trying to accomplish,” said Alley.
“We want to throw gas on that fire and make what they’re doing bigger and faster. I don’t know that we’d be effective if we went into a community without that kind of drive and said: ‘Here’s some dollars, go try this.’ ”
Wells Fargo announced the grants Saturday during the corporation’s annual “Day of Caring,” which included 1,700 employees doing volunteer work for charities.
The foundation gave out $8.1 million in local charity grants last year, and it expects to maintain that level this year.
The geo-targeting approach will be used in the future, the foundation said, but a decision on whether to focus again on West Boulevard won’t be made until after evaluating this year’s level of success. Among the things the bank hopes to see is evidence of other funders investing in the area.
Bank officials hope the West Boulevard money will have the same success as a smaller $500,000 grant in 2009 that some credit with launching a rebound of the West Trade-Beatties Ford Road area. Wells Fargo came back two years later and gave an additional $250,000.
Alley said those two grants were inspired by Johnson C. Smith University President Ronald Carter, who challenged Center City boosters to see the stark contrasts between uptown and neighborhoods to the north and west.
In the case of West Trade Street, the Gateway Center development gives way to vacant lots and boarded up buildings as one moves out Beatties Ford Road, where Johnson C. Smith is located.
“Wells Fargo got what I was saying and embraced it, and they helped this radical transformation begin,” said Carter.
The university used the $500,000 to rehab an old tire sales building into a visual and performing arts facility, which attracted investors for everything from outdoor arts projects to a $26 million housing and retail village.
Nonprofits benefitting from this year’s $1.4 million say the money is helping start new programs, expand existing ones or pay off bills.
Safe Alliance (formerly United Family Services) is getting $250,000 to help its $10 million campaign to build and operate a new battered women’s shelter.
Freedom School Partners is using the $85,000 to open a summer reading program at Reid Park School, with 50 students. And the YMCA’s Y Achievers program is getting $200,000 to help expand a program at West Mecklenburg High from 38 to 128 students.
Glenn Thomas of the YMCA of Greater Charlotte said the impact of the Wells Fargo money is illustrated by the fact that the entire budget this year for Y Achievers is $240,000.
“This is an amazing, generous gift that sends a powerful message to citizens in the West Boulevard area,” said Thomas. “It is saying to them: You are valuable and you are worth investing in.”