Molly Porter always planned on being a lawyer. She hails from a family of lawyers, knew early on that she wanted to practice law, and went straight into the field out of college.
It’s funny how things change.
Early in her career, Porter worked for a small government relations firm in Colorado while she completed a master’s degree in public policy at the University of Denver. After moving home to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota Law School, she was hired by Target. She started in their government relations team, but had her sights set on the law department, and ultimately ended up there, holding various legal roles over the next three years.
In 2011, she joined Wells Fargo, where she was initially hired as in-house counsel focusing on legislative analysis for their mortgage business, which, understandably, had undergone changes following the economic collapse and recession of 2008. Her public policy background and experience working with elected officials positioned her well for the legislative work. At the same time, the values of corporate social responsibility (CSR) were spreading rapidly from European and more progressive American organizations into the corporate mainstream. Accordingly, Wells Fargo was putting together their first Social Responsibility group, and early into Porter’s tenure with Wells Fargo, it was clear the group would need a lawyer.
Fast-forward 10 years: Porter is now an SVP and co-head of Wells Fargo’s Community Relations team. We sat down with her for five questions.
So, technically, you’re still a lawyer, of course, but are you surprised when you look back and think about your initial desire to practice law vis-à-vis where you are now?
I’m more grateful than anything. When I look back, I worked so hard to pursue a career in law, but my work with CSR came much more naturally. In fact, my entire career shift can really be traced back to two key phone calls I never expected to receive.
The first call came about six months after joining Wells Fargo. Out of the blue, one of my senior leaders called to ask if I would be willing to set aside everything I had been working on since I joined the company and shift to supporting CSR issues full-time. I didn’t have to think about it—I immediately said yes. It was an interesting opportunity for a young lawyer. In other areas of the bank, we had lawyers who had been nationally recognized subject matter experts in their fields for years. There wasn’t much a young attorney could do to add value to their work. But the CSR field was emerging as its own area of legal practice, and the whole industry was starting fresh. The timing couldn’t have been better.
I spent seven years as the lead—which, for a while, meant the only—CSR attorney with the company. During that time, I was privileged to work on a number of impactful projects, including watching the industry evolve from thinking about CSR as primarily an environmental issue to broadening the definition to include issues like human rights, corporate citizenship, and social impact. I had the opportunity to draft the company’s first-ever human rights statement, and served as an officer of the Wells Fargo Foundation. The work was tremendously fulfilling, and it became clear that I had found my passion.
The second phone call came two years ago, when a business leader in our Corporate Responsibility group called (again, out of the blue) to ask if I would be interested in leading a team within Community Relations. Looking back, I’m surprised by how quickly I said yes, given how hard I had worked to achieve the in-house counsel role. Leaving the Law Department was a huge professional risk—abandoning a job I loved to leap into the unknown. I wasn’t sure I’d be successful, but I’ve learned that when opportunity knocks, sometimes the best bet you can make is on yourself.
It’s been two years, and I now co-lead the team I was hired into. I couldn’t be happier with my decision.
Social impact is a pretty big topic, and it can be measured in myriad and subjective ways. How do you decide where to focus?
That’s a great question, because it’s difficult to generate significant social impact if you don’t have a clear focus on the outcomes you are trying to achieve. We’ve been on a journey to evolve our own philanthropic strategy. While we have historically been known as one of the most generous corporate givers in the country, we know we can’t solve complex problems with just a checkbook. We’re pushing beyond generosity, to develop a problem-solving mind-set that aligns with our role in the community. As part of that process, we narrowed our focus to three areas: housing affordability, financial health, and small business growth. These are systemic challenges that are key to economic advancement, and they align with our business expertise. And it’s exciting; it helps us dig in deeper with our communities. It feels like this is the time to collaborate, be bold, and think like social entrepreneurs.
How has COVID-19 impacted your thinking around philanthropy and engagement?
Like everyone, at the end of 2019 we had a plan, but of course COVID-19 changed everything. It’s a major challenge—nonprofits that rely on government funding and individual donations have, with unemployment and uncertainty, seen those income streams dry up. At the same time, demand for nonprofit services is skyrocketing. It’s a perfect storm.
One of the things I’m most proud of is how quickly and decisively Wells Fargo moved in Q1 to redirect $175 million dollars to help address food, shelter, small business, and housing stability issues, and to support public health organizations fighting to contain the spread of COVID-19. We transitioned from a model focused on funding specific programs to a model that prioritizes accelerated and highly flexible giving. We are listening to our grantees and letting them lead by telling us how we can support them during these unprecedented times. We’re also trying to simplify how we interact with our nonprofit partners, by offering short-form grant applications, reducing the number of site visits we make, simplifying the reporting we require—really doing what we can to ease the administrative burden that goes into the deployment, management, and monitoring of philanthropic investments.
So, the elephant in the room, of course: How have you and your team dealt with the dichotomy of running one of the country’s largest corporate foundations while the company itself has experienced such a loss of public trust?
We clearly made mistakes, and I want to acknowledge that. We allowed sales practices to occur that let down our customers, communities, team members, and investors. We are committed to transparency as we look in the mirror, fix the issues we find, and make things right. To that end, we have made significant strides in shifting the culture: We are simpler and less complex, and we have made fundamental changes in the way we approach risk management.
Speaking as someone who has been here for nearly 10 years, I can tell you that the company feels like an entirely different place. We have a new CEO, new board members, new senior leaders—and everyone is committed to building a better, stronger Wells Fargo. I’m very optimistic about the future. Every day I get to be part of a team that is providing new pathways to opportunity for those that need it most.
Do you have any advice for people who either want to get involved in what Wells Fargo in particular is doing or in the movements that you’re helping support?
You can go to our donations website, www.wellsfargo.com/donations, to learn more about our model—we do national grant-making within our three areas of focus, and also provide local grants to nonprofits providing on-the-ground services across all 50 states. We recently published our 2019 Corporate Responsibility Highlights, which is another great place to get information about our corporate citizenship strategies.
As for people who want to get more involved with giving back, start by figuring out which issues you are most passionate about, and find ways to plug in locally. There’s so much innovation happening within communities, and often what community leaders need to get their ideas off the ground is simply attention. Sometimes you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, you just need to get out there and help turn it.