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March 9, 2020

LEAD FUNDER SERIES: SPOTLIGHTING WELLS FARGO

By Liz Rothaus Bertrand

From the beginning, Read Charlotte has been a collaborative effort. To successfully and dramatically improve literacy among Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s youngest residents, a wide variety of community organizations working together is vital. One key funder helping to lead the way has been Wells Fargo.

“I feel pretty fortunate that we have been involved with Read Charlotte since the idea stage,” says Kristi Thomas, Wells Fargo’s Community Relations Consultant, whose role involves both philanthropy and employee engagement. The company has a long history of supporting educational initiatives and, in particular, reading programs.

Wells Fargo was one of the organizations involved in the earliest conversations assessing whether literacy was an issue the community wanted to engage in and try to tackle. The company had previously collaborated with other funders on the multi-year, public-private educational initiative, ProjectLIFT; this was an exciting opportunity to build another community program from the ground up.

MAKING PHILANTHROPY COUNT

When Wells Fargo considers where to invest its philanthropic dollars, it assesses many different factors. These include everything from the organization’s work in the community and whether it matches the bank’s funding priorities, to its leadership team and the relationships the organization has developed.

“We’re looking for solutions, new ideas, innovation but also are there ways that the organization is measuring what they’re doing, tracking progress? Are they learning and adapting along the way?” says Thomas, who now sits on Read Charlotte’s Governing Board.

These have also been important guiding principles for Read Charlotte since its inception.

EMPOWERING FAMILIES AND ENGAGING EMPLOYEES THROUGH READ CHARLOTTE

Wells Fargo has served as a lead investor, supporting the ongoing work and mission of Read Charlotte; it has also played an important role in funding some of Read Charlotte’s most innovative projects. In particular, the company has sought out ways to empower families, says Thomas.

For example, in 2016 Wells Fargo funded the creation of the Active Reading video, a short and engaging PSA with simple tips for parents and caretakers to transform reading time with young children to help build literacy skills and make it a special time for bonding. The video was developed in partnership with Discovery Education who also shared through their vast network of educators. To date, the video, which includes both an English and Spanish version, has been viewed nearly 340,000 times. 

In 2018, Wells Fargo also made an additional investment to help launch HomeReadingHelper.org. The website, developed by Read Charlotte, fills a knowledge and access gap by providing hundreds of easy-to-use resources and literacy strategies, including short videos, games, and printables. Organized by grade level and specific skills, it gives parents the tools they need to help their budding readers. The website even has a built-in function to easily translate it into more than 100 languages, making it a resource that can be used by families across Charlotte-Mecklenburg and beyond, to boost literacy no matter what language is spoken at home.

“We’ve also been really engaged in tapping into our employee base,” says Thomas. That’s involved both educational initiatives, like Active Reading Workshops presented by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library, to help bank employees integrate the techniques at home or in the community, as well as overseeing hands-on volunteering opportunities in local schools.

ONE EMPLOYEE’S PERSPECTIVE

For years, Larry Conyers, a senior leader within Wells Fargo, has been involved in volunteer literacy activities through the bank. Before getting involved as a HELPS Fluency Tutor, a key component of Read Charlotte’s community-wide literacy efforts, he would regularly visit local elementary school classrooms as a guest reader through the bank’s Reading First program. (That initiative actually started back when the bank was still known as First Union.) Now he goes weekly to tutor students at Reedy Creek Elementary School.

“I know the impact reading has on schooling and long term career,” says Conyers, whose special affinity for working with school children comes partly from his daughter, a teacher in his native Nebraska, and his mom, who retired after a 35-year career in the classroom.

HELPS is different from his previous volunteer experiences, he says, because he works with students one-on-one, helping them to improve their speed, comprehension and become more expressive readers. “[Y]ou have direct impact on individual students and you get to see their progress,” says Conyers. “…I see glimmers that they enjoy reading—they want to read, not that they have to read. That makes all the difference. When they like to read they hopefully will become lifelong learners.”

Conyers says he is proud to work for a company that invests in local efforts and also encourages employees to take time to support the community. “[It’s] exciting to see they give to the community to programs that will have long term impact. Not all companies do that.”

A TRUE PARTNERSHIP

Back on the funding side, Thomas says through its support of Read Charlotte, Wells Fargo’s ability to make a difference in the community has also been enhanced. By collaborating with other funders, the bank can do more than it could working in isolation. It can also be more effective in making funding decisions.

Three times a year, Read Charlotte convenes area funders interested in early literacy to provide data, updates on research and progress. This information helps Thomas to better assess other organizations pursuing work in the literacy field and to ask deeper questions about their efforts when she meets with them. “The Read Charlotte team is really good at finding what works,” says Thomas.

So the power of this partnership is felt even beyond the Read Charlotte collaboration.

“Learning, data, research—all the great things that Read Charlotte brings to the table,”  says Thomas. “I think these are things that we continue to be excited about.”

Want to get involved? Click here to find out how you can help Read Charlotte transform literacy in our community.