Close to Home: A Bank with Local Ties Zeroes in on a Distressed Neighborhood

abandoned buildings on atlanta’s Westside.

abandoned buildings on atlanta’s Westside.

In the modern era of online banking, few of us have to ever step foot into a bank branch to manage our financial lives. But even as their brick-and-mortar outposts become less relevant, banks are evolving in terms of philanthropy and how they support the communities in which they operate. These corporate funders are becoming more sophisticated and focused on impact. And they’re stepping up grantmaking on equity challenges, as well as other tough issues.

We’ve discussed these trends in bank philanthropy often in reporting on big initiatives by JPMorgan Chase and Citi. A smaller-scale example of new energy in this once-sleepy funding space is the Atlanta-based SunTrust Bank, which established the SunTrust Foundation over a decade ago. Just a few years ago, the foundation launched its Lighting the Way awards program to take its philanthropy to the next level. Over the last couple of years, it has been awarding grants in a range of issue areas to organizations in Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. Now, the SunTrust Foundation is stepping up to engage more with a low-income neighborhood close to home—Atlanta’s Westside.

The SunTrust Foundation recently committed $250,000 to 10 nonprofits in the Westside as part of a Community Beacon Award program and to demonstrate its hometown commitment. These new SunTrust grants were part of a much larger event, the inaugural Beloved Benefit at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The foundation attended the event as a “community beacon patron” along with other prominent companies with local connections, including Home Depot, AT&T, UPS and Coca-Cola.

In total, the event raised over $5 million, and all of that money will revitalize Atlanta’s Westside. With musical performances, notable speakers and foods that highlight Atlanta’s vibrancy and diversity, the Beloved Benefit brought together business leaders, nonprofits and community members who will take on future collaborations. And with this inaugural event, it’s just getting started.

Atlanta’s Westside has been left behind in terms of development and prosperity, but it is a historic part of the city. “Atlanta’s Westside community is deeply significant in the history of the city, inspiring everything from the civil rights movement to the rise of hip hop,” wrote Stan Little, president of the SunTrust Foundation. “The neighborhoods of the Westside are in the heart of Atlanta’s rich cultural heritage.” The name of the benefit event, Beloved, was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision that a beloved community was a realistic goal to fight racism, prejudice and poverty, replacing all those societal ills with brotherhood.

Realizing that vision is a tall order in the Westside, where 43 percent of residents live in poverty in a landscape known for its urban blight—even as much of Atlanta has boomed in recent years. A recent study by the Brookings Institution found that the city has the highest level of income inequality of any metro area in the United States. In Atlanta, as in other cities, egregious gaps in prosperity and well-being are drawing more attention from private and corporate funders alike. For example, we’ve reported on collaborative efforts underway to expand opportunity in nearby Charlotte, North Carolina.

Related: With Support From a Major Bank, a City Takes on Inequality

Little wrote that the SunTrust Foundation “wants to be an integral part of the groundswell of community support and development in the Westside.” The new grants fund causes including youth, human trafficking, veterans, health, culture, housing and the environment. New grantees include the Atlanta Music Project, West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, Good Samaritan Health Center, and Quest Community Housing. The foundation is providing additional support for the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, Antioch Urban Ministries Incorporated, Veterans Empowerment Organization, L.E.A.D., Raising Expectations, and BeLoved Atlanta.

"Together, these nonprofits represent the holistic approach to community stewardship that drives sustainable financial well-being,” said Little.

Since 2008, the SunTrust Foundation has provided over $170 million in grants across the U.S. It accepts online grant applications throughout the year with no deadlines. Meanwhile, members of the nonprofit and philanthropy communities in Atlanta should consider signing up for details about the 2020 Beloved Benefit event to get involved with the collaborative efforts for growth and development on the city’s Westside.