What a Big Bank is Doing to Light Up Poor Countries

The GivePower Foundation was established in 2013 as the charitable arm of SolarCity, a solar energy services provider founded in the mid-2000s by brothers Peter and Lydon Rive. The brothers Rive also got a little help in their clean energy venture from their well-known cousin Elon Musk.

Previously a self-funded organization—relying solely on funding from SolarCity—GivePower would become a public charity just a couple years after it was established. One of the first big donations accepted by the organization came in 2015 from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation.

Bank of America awarded a $500,000 grant to GivePower to bring solar energy services to schools located in remote areas of Mali, Nicaragua, Kenya, Haiti, Uganda, Nigeria, Malawi, Nepal and Ghana. Those funds also support the costs of solar energy training, research, and development in communities without access to energy. The overall goal of that initial funding was to provide light to an additional 1,000 schools in Africa and Central America. Prior to the grant from Bank of America, GivePower had already been donating solar panels, batteries, and lighting to schools in poor countries in an effort to extend classroom hours.

GivePower recently announced the launch of a program involving the development of solar power and battery storage combos, or mini-grids, designed to provide uninterrupted power to small villages around the world.  Once again, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation has hooked up with GivePower to support its global clean energy efforts with another $500,000 grant. The funds will expand its clean energy tech and mini-grid projects across seven key global development sectors including education, water, health, food security, economic development, telecommunications and conservation. A portion of the grant funds is allocated to provide equipment, training, and the labor needed to install clean energy technology around the world.

Access to energy is a crucial component to sustainable global development across nearly all sectors. And we're seeing a number of funders directing grant dollars to this area in poor countries. But here's the thing: Bank of America isn’t necessarily a global development funder.

Let me clarify a bit. In the United States, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation directs its funding "to meet the needs of low-income communities, with a particular focus on revitalizing neighborhoods, educating the workforce for 21st-century jobs and addressing basic needs, such as hunger and homelessness." All of which could be applied toward sustained global development. However, the foundation dedicates its funding in this regard to projects and programs operating in, and to the benefit of, communities in the United States.

From a global standpoint, it’s not much of a jump for Bank of America to support related efforts around the world. And in a way, the foundation is doing just that, but it’s coming in at a different angle—clean energy.

Last year, the foundation devoted over $16 million to environmental causes around the world, focusing on communities in which the company has a larger operational and employee presence.  According to the press release, Bank of America’s latest $500,000 give is in lock-step with its “commitment to partner with leading organizations that are also working toward a sustainable low-carbon future, expanding access to clean and safe water and developing climate resilience solutions.”

And it seems that Bank of America and its foundation is just getting started.  

At last year’s American Business Act on Climate pledge event, which took place at the White House in July, Bank of America announced that it would be increasing its “environmental business initiative,” from an already massive $50 billion to $125 billion. The initiative was originally launched in 2007 and completed in 2013, four years ahead of its scheduled end date. The renewed commitment is expanding on that initial work committed to renewable energies and financing energy efficiency. 

Going forward, Bank of America is focusing on energy efficiency, renewable energy and transportation, while also addressing water conservation and land use. Bank of America plans to make good on its $125 billion commitment through lending, investing, raising capital, advisory services and developing “financing solutions for clients around the world.” So yes, there is something in it from BofA. But let’s consider the positive side, here.

For instance, one of the BofA's initial projects under its original environmental business initiative was partnering with the U.N.'s Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. Clean cooking, of course, is a big deal, given the large number of deaths every year tied to prolonged exposure to cooking smoke.

Bank of America’s partnership with the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, along with other commercial development finance organizations, raised $100 million to provide clean cooking options for millions of people in least-developed countries. Not only are clean burning stoves protecting those using them, but they also protect the environment by reducing carbon emissions.

BofA's funding in these areas is kind of surprising, given where we typically see banks putting their grant dollars, namely in areas more tightly linked to their bottom lines, such as financial inclusion, housing, and urban workforce development. But we should not that BofA is not the only bank that's putting environmental issues on its charitable front burner: Wells Fargo is making an even bigger push in this area, as we've reported. 

RelatedThe Winners So Far in Wells Fargo’s Adventure in Green Giving