The Foundation for the Carolinas — the Charlotte-based nonprofit organization with more than $4 billion in assets — will enter its fourth generation of leadership in 2024.
Veteran Bank of America executive Cathy Bessant will take over the nation’s sixth largest community foundation as its president and CEO in the new year, leaders told reporters Wednesday.
Bessant, who in July announced plans to retire from Bank of America after 40 years, succeeds Michael Marsicano, who grew the foundation’s assets from $245 million in 1999 to nearly $4 billion as its third president.
Bessant, a former chair and longtime FFTC board member, will be tasked with taking over several initiatives — and some controversy — that began under Marsicano’s leadership.
“I don’t think of this as chapter two,” Bessant said. “I think of this as a return to chapter one. I never intended to be a banker for 40 years.”
Bessant said she got a job at the bank to make money before going to law school. She wanted to be a lawyer for the ACLU.
“This is yet another expression of, I think, the person that I’ve always been,” she said.
Bessant will inherit several programs that began under Marsicano, including the Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative, the Greater Charlotte Cultural Trust, the Charlotte Housing Opportunity Fund and the Carolina Theatre.
The foundation originally planned to replace Marsicano before he retired in January, but interim CEO Laura Smith helmed the organization throughout this year.
The search for a new president was “no easy task,” said Jada Grandy-Mock, who sits on the Board of Directors and search committee.
“It was a long search that was done with intent, as well as a whole lot of focus,” she said. “We didn’t want to rush in identifying the best candidate for this foundation, for this community.”
Smith’s staff gave the search committee the flexibility to spend time looking for the best candidate, Board of Directors Chair Arrington Mixon added.
Bessant, the daughter of a public-school teacher and nonprofit leader, graduated from the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. She is a breast cancer survivor and earned the “Most Powerful Woman in Banking” designation from American Banker magazine three times in a row.
At Bank of America, Bessant served as the president of Global Corporate Banking, chief marketing officer and, most recently, as vice chair of Global Strategy in Paris. She said she looks forward to returning to Charlotte and the Carolinas, which will always be her home.
“There isn’t a better job in a better city at a better time,” Marsicano said in 2019 when asked what advice he’d give his successor.
Bessant also manage the foundation’s partnerships and donor-directed funds, $20 million of which were funneled to anti-immigration groups from 2006 to 2018, a 2019 Charlotte Observer investigation found.
With the foundation’s long-standing donations to area nonprofits that support asylum-seekers and refugees, its investment in the Center for Immigration Studies and Federation for American Immigration Reform — designated hate groups — boggled and upset some.
While charitable grants from the foundation did not go to anti-immigration groups, “donor-advised” funds did, the Observer previously reported. In most cases, donors determine where money goes, and the foundation can channel it to any organization recognized as a nonprofit by the federal government.
“Philanthropy is a form of freedom of speech,” Marsicano previously told the Observer, “and I don’t think any institution should be cutting off freedom of speech on fund holders.”
Bessant said deliberating funds and partnerships is “an incredibly important part of the mission of the CEO” but did not say if the foundation would change the way it funds groups.
With four months until Bessant assumes her position, there are things about the foundation’s work she does not yet know, she said.
This story was originally published September 7, 2023, 11:30 AM.