Wells Fargo perfects the art of doing well by doing good

It is not a whim. It’s not a knee-jerk impulse. Nor is it a gratuitous activity. And it certainly isn’t an afterthought.

The community initiatives in which Wells Fargo Bank participates are a part of its DNA, says Kevin Burke, the financial institution’s regional vice president for commercial banking.

“It’s our overall philosophy, from corporate down,” Burke says. “Our view is that we can’t be successful unless the communities we operate in are successful.

That means supporting worthwhile initiatives across the spectrum, from business to the arts to education. For example, Wells Fargo has supported a Gateway Community College initiative that allowed high-school students to take college-level courses. They gain not only advanced knowledge, but save money by earning college credits before entering college.

“It’s more economical” for students, Burke points out.

Wells Fargo has contributed grants to the local community that total in the millions of dollars. In 2011 it contributed almost $700,000 in grants and donations to area nonprofits. Among its future-investing projects is a $300,000 contribution to underwrite the total cost of the New Haven Promise: Partnership for its initial year. A program of New Haven Promise, the program helps students, parents and community members increase college enrollment and help students take advantage of a possible free college education.

Funding is important, yes. But “It’s not just providing funding” for various projects that closely knit Wells Fargo into the fabric of the greater New Haven community. The bank has become a part of the organizations they support.

Wells Fargo affiliates have volunteered for hundreds of local projects ranging from financial education to life and social skills to small-business seminars to arts education. The community members served ranged from students to professionals to retired seniors.

“Our team members participate in these organizations,” Burke explains. They match their own interests to those of the community, and are allowed time off from work to lend support. Burke himself is a patron of the arts, for example. He serves as chairman of the board of the Shubert Theater. He’s been involved for the past decade or so.

Being involved means having first-hand knowledge of what is needed and where Wells Fargo can most effectively deploy its resources — both financial and human.

“In talking to community leaders [in the arts], they told us that government is cutting back a lot on arts funding,” Burke says. So the bank was able to target its resources where they could be most helpful.

For example, as part of outreach efforts a dance ensemble went into New Haven schools to help improve conflict-resolution initiatives for at-risk students. Wells Fargo has also supported New Haven Symphony Orchestra performances in area schools.

Wells Fargo employees have in fact taken time off work to wield hammers and saws, helping to build houses for Habitat for Humanity, a frequent partner with the bank. Last year some 30 Wells Fargo employees worked on a house being built on Congress Avenue, in New Haven’s Hill Section.

Such projects, reiterates Burke, “help bring people into the community.”

The bank is constantly seeking out opportunities to be an exemplary corporate citizen and contribute to the community that it serves.

“We’re going to be teaching in New Haven schools with Junior Achievement in April,” says Helene Robbins, a vice president of Wells Fargo Private Bank and a trust and fiduciary specialist. “There are a lot of dedicated people in this office.” Robbins herself serves on the boards of the Community Fund for Women & Girls, the Gateway College Community Foundation and the ACES Education Foundation. She and some of the staff at Well Fargo’s New Haven office are also involved with the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce, Habitat for Humanity and St. Vincent’s Medical Center.

“Community outreach has always been a common theme here,” explains Robbins, who has been with Wells Fargo and its predecessor banks since 1979. “We’ve gone through a number of different mergers and acquisitions before we became Wells Fargo, and I’ve actually come through most of those organizations. So giving back to the community and getting involved has always been a part of our role."

“There are a lot of wonderful organizations in the Greater New Haven area and they are always looking for new people to serve on their boards, to be volunteers and certainly to be donors,” says Robbins, who lives in Cheshire. “My advice [to bank employees] would be to find out what motivates you, what your passions are and go out into the community and do some good work.”

“For our bank’s community outreach, one of the things is philanthropy,” says Kent McClun, area president of Wells Fargo Bank in Connecticut. “We support a lot of the non-profits in the New Haven area and across Connecticut. But more so, we have a very strong focus on volunteerism. That’s really bringing the 1,500 people in Connecticut that work for us to come together to volunteer time and effort toward the non-profits. That’s what we really put a lot of muscle behind. Not just dollars, but commitment in time and effort that help support the community.”

Southington resident McClun, who has been with the bank for 15 years in different parts of the country, notes that Wells Fargo collaborates with other organizations in New Haven to further serve the community.

“We’ve done some things in New Haven with Yale, the Hope Scholarships, and the Wells Fargo Community Room with the United Way so that non-profits could actually have a place to meet,” says McClun, who serves on the board of the Connecticut chapter of the American Red Cross. “I’m also involved with the Waterbury [Regional] Chamber of Commerce. I’ve been with the bank in Connecticut for the last four years.”

“I’m specifically responsible for community development to help meet our Community Reinvestment Act goals, primarily focused on deploying capital and investments in low- and moderate-income communities,” explains Arnoldo Ulloa, Wells Fargo’s vice president of community development. “I will focus on community development organizations and serve on the board of New Haven Neighborhood Housing Services, which is a non-profit affordable housing developer.”

Ulloa says New Haven Neighborhood Housing Services focuses in the Dixwell neighborhood of the city.

“They have recently purchased several of the foreclosed homes in that area and have converted them into affordable homes for people in the community,” says Ulloa, who resides in Bridgeport and covers the state for the bank. “We donated several homes that were foreclosed and provided some funding as well to [enable] the organization to retrofit those buildings and put them on the market for families that need affordable housing. We’ve also been very active with foreclosure mitigation and have a close relationship with their clients in making sure we provide modifications and other forms of solutions for people that are struggling to stay in their homes.”

Ulloa serves on the board of New Haven Neighborhood Housing Services and the Community Economic Development Fund in Meriden, which serves the entire state.

“My role is statewide, so I try to be positioned close to all the locations I serve,” says Ulloa, who has been with Wells Fargo for four years. “But I have to say that New Haven has been the market where we probably have committed the most — not just in financial resources but also in human capital. It’s a place where there are a lot of really innovative solutions being provided to community development. It’s been a very exciting time to be working in this market.”

Ulloa works with other bank staff on the New Haven Promise scholarship initiative and has provided seminars to parents on 529 savings accounts to help them save for their children’s college education.

“We really try to invest all our time, our people and our financial resources in helping to improve educational access for communities, because Connecticut has the largest achievement gap of any state in the country,” says Ulloa. “We identified that as something that’s a priority and we want to use our resources to help address it. We’ve been very active in improving education — not just in New Haven, but throughout the state.”

Felicia Hunter contributed additional reporting to this article.