Denise Armbrister is the executive director of the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation. She is preparing to step down from her post after leading the organization for 19 years. — Abdul Sulayman/Tribune Chief Photographer

Denise McGregor Armbrister is the driving force behind the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation which is marking 20 years of revitalizing neighborhoods in Eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey.

“We’ve really been focusing all of our resources on the issue of neighborhood revitalization in those communities and what that really entails is providing dollars for comprehensive, resident-driven neighborhood planning,” said Armbrister, who is the foundation’s executive director.

The organization has invested $15.8 million in 20 communities in Philadelphia through its neighborhood grants program.

As an example of its work, Armbrister highlighted how the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation was awarded funding to spend 12 to 18 months on planning for neighborhood revitalization and bringing all the residents and stakeholders to the table to strategically prioritize the issues that they plan to focus on during the next five years.

“It’s really a consensus building process — that all the voices are at the table and really what we have found in that planning approach is the transformation or change or the revitalization is sustained because all of these voices were at the table in the very beginning and it wasn’t a plan that was brought to them, as opposed to them lifting their voices and saying this is what we are prioritizing,” she said.

The private foundation was developed in 1998 after a merger between CoreStates Bank and First Union. Under Armbrister’s leadership, the foundation has transformed its grant-making strategy and developed a nationally recognized model for place-based revitalization which is being replicated in other cities including Baltimore, Seattle and Houston.

After 19 years of leading the foundation, Armbrister is preparing to retire from her post in August and relocate to Charlotte, N.C., where she will be the first lady of Johnson C. Smith University. Her husband, Clay D. Armbrister, was named the university’s 14th president last year.

She regards helping to build the foundation as an outstanding opportunity that she will always treasure.

“I had the opportunity to really help shape how the foundation was going to move forward and how it was going to work to keep its mission of improving the lives of children and families living in low-income communities in this region,” said Armbrister, who came to the organization after serving as vice president and manager of Government Underwriting and Portfolio Management for the Northeast Region of Wells Fargo Bank.

“From the very start I would say that I looked at this — as well as with members of the board — as an investment approach, so that we were certainly wanting to make sure that our investment was resulting in something that we could point to and identify and so that required a little bit different approach than perhaps had been the case with other foundations or other philanthropic efforts. We wanted to have some ability to measure the results.”

Armbrister was moved by the feedback provided by some of the grantees who attended the foundation’s recent 2018 Grantee Conference. Some of this year’s Philadelphia-based nonprofit grantees include Mt. Airy USA, Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporations, Logan CDC, People for People, The Enterprise Center CDC and Universal Homes.

“So many of our grantees came up and said ‘thank you’ to the foundation for changing this whole approach to grant-making that will build their capacity as organizations,” she said.

Armbrister reflected on the inception of the neighborhood grants program in 2003. She said the approach that they took back then was different from what other philanthropic organizations were doing. They instituted a rigorous application process for potential grantees and would review their financial documents.

“We wanted to make sure that we were giving money to those organizations that were in fact financially stable and that they not only were they going to be involved in planning but they could sustain themselves throughout the process,” Armbrister explained.

She acknowledged some of the practices they instituted in the beginning were not well received by their grantees.

“Now many of them say the process was tough but they have come through that,” she added. “They have a better appreciation for why we were so diligent with our review of their organization.” (215) 893-5747

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