In April, JPMorgan Chase named Janis Bowdler the new president of its charitable foundation—her ascension after five years with the firm is a testament to its own investment in developing female and minority leadership. (Bowdler is Latina.) It also coincided with a 40% increase in corporate giving at the firm over the next five years to $1.75 billion; Bowdler will oversee about $350 million of giving annually.
JPMorgan groups its impact investments into four broad categories: community development, small business, financial health, and workforce/job skills. The creation of these categories emerged from a massive effort the firm made five years ago to align its philanthropic efforts with its brand and talent. “The foundation used to do a lot of educational giving, but it doesn’t have a lot of institutional knowledge in that sector,” says Bowdler, who was recruited to JPMorgan as part of that strategic overhaul. “Now we focus on areas where we can contribute not just dollars but also data, technology, and the time and talent of our employees.”
Since being named president, Bowdler and her team have embarked on a refresh of the foundation’s strategic approach to giving based on lessons they’ve learned over the last five years. Called AdvancingCities, the bank is committing $500 million over a five-year period, and expects to raise an additional $1 billion in outside capital, to invest in cities “where conditions exist to help those who have not benefited from economic growth.” Much of the new initiative is rooted in lessons learned from the foundation’s work in Detroit, where it has invested roughly $150 million toward revitalization efforts in recent years. She points to the collaboration between business, government, and civic leadership on the ground in Detroit as “setting the table for success,” for instance, and says that impact investments can’t be “siloed efforts.”
“What are the conditions on the ground for inclusive economic growth and mobility? Are all the opportunity systems coming together to move the needle?” says Bowdler. “Just funding programs won’t generate the scale to meet the magnitude of the challenges we face.”
In the case of Detroit, Bowdler says city leaders first identified what problems needed solving and a strategic plan for it. A key pillar of their analysis was fixing its housing crisis, and JPMorgan was able to provide major financial support in the form of low-cost loans for real estate projects, revitalization and demolition efforts, small- business loans, and workforce training. In fact, one of JPMorgan’s major contributions was to the Detroit Land Bank Authority. The foundation backstopped a five-year funding commitment to the agency, giving it the long-term sustainable financing it needed to build its operations. As Bowdler says, “we started working with DLBA when it was literally two people on laptops and cellphones.”
JPMorgan also provided support to the DLBA via its “internal service corps,” a small team of high-performing mid-level executives that it embeds with impact firms in which it invests, for three weeks at a time. At the DLBA, the team did an analysis that became part of the agency’s growth plan that it then linked with the necessary funding to hire the talent needed to support the expansion.
Enter Saskia Thompson. Though she wasn’t one of the original two people, she is now the leader of an agency that, backed with funding from Quicken, JPMorgan, and others, has grown to employ around 125 people. As a child, Thompson saw the affect disinvestment had on the city and people of Detroit during the ’80s and ’90s, and she says it gave her a purpose that has propelled her professional career.
Her job at the DLBA is quite literally to invest in Detroit’s future. The mission of the agency, which holds roughly 95,000 abandoned houses, vacant lots, and other structures that came under city control due to residents fleeing the city or because of foreclosure, is to return these properties to “productive use” via sale, rental, or financing for individuals or investors. Other activities include demolition, refurbishment, and community revitalization partnerships. These investments are not about turning a profit for the DLBA, but instead to increase value for Detroit’s residents. Housing value in the Crary/St. Mary’s neighborhood increased 134% between 2013 and 2017—the increase was 120% in Springwells and 103% in the Warren Avenue Community since the DLBA’s involvement, for instance. (The dollar amounts are, of course, still lower than housing value in many places in the country.) “Instead of displacing people who stuck it out through the bad years, our purpose is to take care of them and make sure they can participate in the good years,” Thompson says. Now that’s impact.
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