Wells Fargo Gets Real About Corporate Responsibility & Repairing Tribal Relations

Native Business Magazine had a candid conversation with Jon Campbell, head of Corporate Responsibility and Community Relations at Wells Fargo, about their corporate culture and establishing guidelines for integrity in regards to Tribal engagement. (Photo Courtesy Wells Fargo)

It’s evident that Wells Fargo is making an effort to repair its brand image with Indian Country:

  • In 2016, the company developed and published an Indigenous Peoples Statement in consultation with Tribal leaders and indigenous stakeholders.
  • In 2016, Wells Fargo donated $540,000 to two Native Community Development Financial Institutions.
  • The bank is fulfilling its three-year, $3 million grant to the American Indian Graduate Center.
  • Most substantially, in 2018, Wells Fargo announced its five-year $50 million financial commitment to help address the economic, social and environmental needs of American Indian and Alaska Native communities.
  • In early 2019, Wells Fargo appointed Dawson Her Many Horses, a veteran banker and an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, to lead Wells Fargo’s services to Tribes and Tribally owned enterprises.
  • The corporation committed $5 million over three years to support solar projects in Tribal communities across the U.S. through GRID Alternative’s new Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund.
  • Wells Fargo also recently updated its environmental policy on arctic drilling, announcing the bank will not directly finance oil and gas projects in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The large financial commitments and gestures have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated. But what does this mean for corporate culture and establishing guidelines for integrity in regards to Tribal engagement?

Native Business Magazine had a candid conversation with Jon Campbell, head of Corporate Responsibility and Community Relations at Wells Fargo, about just that.

How has Wells Fargo evolved its approach to engaging with Tribes in recent years?

I think for Wells Fargo, the biggest evolution has been that we thought about our relationships with Tribes on a one-by-one basis. They were local relationships. Our bank leaders knew the local Tribal leaders. Like lots of other things, the world changes, and as you become a bigger company, you begin to think about the aggregation of things.

For example, in 1992, I moved to Phoenix, and one of my experiences was that I got to know the leadership of the Navajo Nation very well. I built four branches on the reservation. I knew that Tribe; I knew the Pima Tribe; I knew a few other Tribes. But it was like I knew them, and my team knew them, but the rest of Wells Fargo didn’t think about the fact that we had this relationship with 200 Tribes.

Wells Fargo branch in Hialeah near Miami-Dade, Florida (Photo Courtesy Wells Fargo)

Then I think that, at least for Wells Fargo, what happened next was the gaming space in Indian Country took off. We had a few people in the company who began to do more things with an aggregation of Tribes. I think what caused us to think about this more holistically was unfortunately when the DAPL [Dakota Access Pipeline] pipeline erupted and became such a challenge for so many people, and it was such a tragic situation. We said that we can’t think any longer about Tribe by Tribe; we have to think about how Wells Fargo represents itself broadly. Tribes are all different, and they have their own direction, but I think for Wells Fargo to think about this collectively was a big deal.

Out of that came the 50 million-dollar commitment; out of that came hiring people who specialized in this. When you begin to aggregate things, you start to make a difference, and start to think about it more broadly instead of a one-off. [We began] thinking about it more broadly as a large community, and thinking, what can we do collectively across that broader community?

Wells Fargo provided financing for the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, which is opposed by some Tribes. How has Wells Fargo taken action to remedy its relationship with Indian Country, beyond committing $50 million over the next five years to help address the economic, social, and environmental needs of American Indian/Alaska Native communities?

The 50 million bucks was a big deal. That’s a big philanthropic commitment. If you had been in those meetings that I was actively a part of and helped get started, it was exactly about that. It goes back to this aggregation. One of the things that I noted was [our] complete inconsistency. Dealing with sovereign nations is a real challenging situation, but we would have attorneys who would interpret one thing one way in Arizona impacting the Pimas, and another attorney who would interpret something differently that would impact the Rosebud Tribe in a different way in the Dakotas. The same would happen to our credit teams who were approving loans to the Tribe for everything from gaming to other enterprises. One of the things I noticed was that you can’t have inconsistency.

We needed to have a common Wells Fargo approach to legal and credit matters. You could have a credit officer who has no experience with a sovereign nation, and if a transaction comes through and they don’t have the experience, they won’t know what to do. Whereas if you have someone who has worked with sovereign nations and worked with Tribes, you wouldn’t have that fear. It’s a big community, and having people with different levels of awareness, different levels of familiarity, really created this inconsistency in how we treated the Tribes. That’s just wrong. I think that we needed to get our act together and have a more consistent approach to things so that we can deliver more consistently and more effectively to Tribes from Washington state to Florida. That’s not going to happen overnight; that’s going to take a while. That’s the sort of thing that Dawson [Her Many Horses] is helping us do. Patty Juarez is helping us do that. On my team, I have one person who has really become an expert on philanthropy in Indian Country. You start to create content experts that we can spread across the whole enterprise who can provide a consistent, better experience for the Tribes.

Has Wells Fargo established formal best practices or an engagement policy to address how it handles relationships with Tribes? How does this corporate recalibration and employee education look internally?

To be completely candid, we’re still having to build this infrastructure that I described. We needed a coordinator. One thing I’ve learned over my years is you usually get best results when someone is accountable. We had a lot of people who were engaged, but nobody on a daily basis to really help coordinate, convene or collaborate. That’s where I think people like Dawson [Her Many Horses] are really helping us do that, and I think that over time, we’re going to end up with a number of people who have expertise in this space, and through that kind of expertise we’re going to deliver more effectively.

One of the things that we learn in life is that disappointing, sad events do help us get better. One of the outcomes that came out of our activity in DAPL was that we did create and publish, for the first time, an Indigenous Peoples Statement. We worked closely with other Tribal leaders as well as other indigenous stakeholders and their representatives to help us figure out how our decision-making for projects and where our financing might impact Native American or Alaska Natives. That’s requiring a lot of training.

In 2018, Wells Fargo committed $5 million over three years to support solar projects in Tribal communities across the U.S. Pictured: A Tribal job trainee (left) and GRID Alternatives SolarCorps Fellow (right) install solar for the Navajo Nation in Arizona.

For example, in Minnesota there is a pipeline that may be rerouted, and it actually doesn’t cross Tribal lands, but it’s near Tribal lands, so several Tribes in Minnesota care quite a bit about where the pipeline may be rerouted to. One of the things that we learned, and one of the things that we put in the Indigenous Peoples Statement was in cases where we might be a lender and we know that there is Tribal concern, even though we’re not the pipeline company, we’re going to the Tribes to talk about their views. That’s a very big shift; that requires a different style for us. We didn’t do that in the case of DAPL. We were not involved with the Tribes directly before the activity took place. That’s the sort of best practice change that we’re bringing forth. We’ve been meeting with those potentially impacted Tribes without the pipeline company there—to seek their input, get their views, and hear their concerns. Hopefully that would be a best practice where we take a more direct engagement ourselves to help us understand the Tribal concerns. That was a result from our learning from DAPL and our Indigenous Peoples Statement.

It’s just being respectful of one another and understanding each other’s opinion. It’s a fairly basic step but one that I think people appreciate. People appreciate when they can share their points of view, and I think that we learn from it. It impacts how we work with our customers.

In 2016, Wells Fargo was accused of coercing Tribal members to open bank accounts they didn’t need as part of an aggressive sales campaign. How has Wells Fargo shifted its approach to handling accounts with individual Tribal members?

We had sales goals, and they worked as a positive incentive for our sales teams for a little while, but at some point, they became negative and people started feeling pressure. One of the first things we did after the impact had become clear was to take away those sales goals. That was step one. Step two was that many of our managers had learned to manage by using those sales goals as their primary tool for management. Without those sales goals, it changed what our managers needed to be capable of. Frankly, that meant that a number were not right for the way we wanted to do business going forward. We shifted from a sales model to an advice and service model. It takes different skillsets to be highly effective at one or the other. We’re still making the changes. The other change that occurred was changes in products—products that really do favor the consumer as opposed to Wells Fargo shareholders.

One of the other substantial changes would be in one of the other most hated parts of our business and that is in the overdrafts space. People hate the fees that have historically accompanied overdrafts, so we actually made quite a few changes in attempting to try to benefit the consumer. For example, we introduced a new product called Overdraft Rewind and basically if you have a form of direct deposit at Wells Fargo and you overdraw your account but we know that your deposit would come in, then we wouldn’t charge you those fees. That has impacted our revenue line substantially, but it has benefited countless consumers. We do a better job of warning the consumer that their account is nearing a point where they are out of money. People are really taking advantage of that. To recap the two main changes: we’re shifting from a sales model to an advice and service model and reforming our overdraft policies.

“I think for Wells Fargo, the biggest evolution has been that we thought about our relationships with Tribes on a one-by-one basis,” said Jon Campbell, head of Corporate Responsibility and Community Relations at Wells Fargo. (Courtesy Wells Fargo)

We have some other exciting products coming. We have one called Greenhouse, which is a very neat product that will help consumers even more in managing their money and preventing overdrafts. We’re dedicated to developing products that are completely designed to benefit the consumer while giving up some of our own revenue.

How much progress has Wells Fargo made against its philanthropic and funding goals set for Indian Country?

We announced our five-year $50 million financial commitment almost exactly a year ago [Campbell said in late 2019]. We’ve already written checks and done distribution of 6.5 million dollars to 25 nonprofits. That’s a good start. We’ve actually approved almost 13 million dollars so far this year [2019], and those are going to be funded over the next few months. When you start something brand new it takes a little while to get up and going. We knew that it would be a bit of a hockey stick in that, of the 50 million dollars, more of the money would probably go out at a later time. But I’m actually pleased that we’ve approved $13 million of grants this year [2019]. One of our grantees so far was First Nations Oweesta Corporation. We gave them a $500,000 grant to launch a home down payment assistance program to help home ownership for Native Americans. They’re going to do $5,000 to each Tribal member for down payment assistance, and we think that’s a great program. We know that home ownership on the reservation is challenging. That was a fun one.

Another one that we are really excited about is a group called GRID Alternatives, and they are the national leader in solar technology and training to help underserved communities. We’ve had a history with GRID. This year [2019], we announced that we are committing $5 million over the next three years to GRID to support their new program, the GRID Alternatives Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund. When we made the announcement a year ago [2018], we thought that this was a great way to catalyze the growth of solar on Tribal lands and provide workforce development opportunities for Tribe members. We’re really excited about that one. The first Tribe to benefit from the program will be the Los Coyotes Reservation in southern California in December of this year [2019], with the Spokane Tribe in Washington state and the Mountain Ute in Colorado in early 2019. Those are a couple of examples in year one that I feel good about and am pretty darned excited about.

If you could leave Indian Country with one last message, what would it be?

I think it’s a pretty simple message. We continue to learn how to serve parts of our customer base better each year. I would say that we undeserved our Tribal relationships, and we didn’t give it the attention that was necessary. What happened with DAPL has given us a resurgence in seeing the power of what the Tribes are about and given us an incentive to better serve the Tribes. We know that it will take some time to regain the trust of the Tribes, but we are committed to doing that. I think that we have advantages over our peers in that we are based in the West, and there seems to be a larger group of Tribes in the West, so we have a geographic similarity. We have branches on reservations and that makes us relatively unique, and I know that over the years, my relationship with the Navajo Nation was the favorite part of my time in Arizona. I loved to go to the president’s inauguration, and sit on the parade ground waiting for the inauguration, and visiting our branches on the reservation. I think that regaining that excitement about those relationships and putting our efforts into that just seems like the right thing to do.

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