Financial Planning

SunTrust Bank is teaming up with a nonprofit in an effort to reach the underbanked.

The Atlanta company plans to put financial counselors in its branches as part of a pilot program with Operation HOPE, a nonprofit that works to provide financial literacy training to low-income families. The financial counselors will provide services including credit-repair counseling, entrepreneurship training, tax advice and help getting out of debt.

The $172 billion-asset SunTrust will begin the pilot program this fall in Atlanta and Memphis, with the goal of expanding to more locations and more branches if it's successful.

Along with providing a range of services to the underbanked, SunTrust hopes the program will help non-customers improve their finances to the point where they can become traditional banking customers. SunTrust has pledged $1 million to fund the project, called HOPE Inside, which will go toward training and paying the counselors and providing them the space to work in the branches, says Dan Mahurin, who oversees SunTrust's philanthropic and volunteer initiatives.

"There are segments of the communities we serve that have difficulties with things like credit repair and services that banks don't usually provide," says Mahurin. "We will be offering our services and the counselors will be offering theirs. We think the services work well together."

A number of banks have tried reaching the estimated 37 million Americans without bank accounts, but SunTrust's approach is more long-term than most. The idea is "to get the struggling borrower to the point where they're bankable," says John Hope Bryant, the founder of Operation HOPE. Bryant thinks the program will allow banks to build goodwill while developing new customers.

"It's a merger between the business agenda and the philanthropic agenda," he says. "The bottom line is that a bank's job is to make money. This program aligns our mission with the bank's mission, and that's why we believe it's sustainable, it's reputable and it's scalable."

SunTrust is the first bank to place financial counselors in its branches through the HOPE Inside program.

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