Banks giving back; local philanthropic efforts net millions for community over the years

REGION – Banking institutions have long been good neighbors when it comes to giving back. Here in Traverse City, where at last count 16 different banks are doing business, they have created a strong charitable engine. Some have foundations with fairly deep pockets, some don't. In this case, size doesn't matter – the gift does.

The Business News selected a cross-section of both big and small institutions in our community and learned about how they approach financial giving and where they direct those funds.

Northwestern Bank has a simple, specific approach to its financial charitable efforts – giving to "locally-based, locally-operating charitable organizations" with a focus on young people and education, said Doug Zernow, who handles marketing and communications for the bank.

Because the bank services a lot of small communities all with their own unique needs, Zernow said he relies on input from the area managers when making decisions about what the bank will support, a task that is becoming increasingly difficult as requests seem to come along almost daily. Over the last few years, he has noticed an increase in requests from schools for activities normally handled by their budgets but tough economic times have forced them to turn more to their communities.

For Amy Johnson, vice president/marketing manager for Huntington Bank's west Michigan district, the charitable giving program she administers has two aspects. First, she receives funding every year from Huntington's corporate office to support the United Way and the American Cancer Society's efforts in the community, both identified by top management as good stewards of the money they receive with programming that touches a broad base of people, said Johnson.

Secondly, with its regional dollars, Johnson said the bank supports educational programming, health and human services, arts and culture, and business development – all with an eye on the number of people a program will impact, how it will raise the quality of life and the "trickle down effect for business."

"We try to support a well-rounded effort," said Johnson. "Our overall philosophy is if we can strengthen an organization, then that strengthens business and that's better for all of us."

But, she added, "I have to say 'no' a lot more than I say 'yes.' There's always a project in this town, often more than one, and that's great. It's the mark of a vital community."

Doug Wolf, president of Chase, Traverse City District, said the bank has given $1.5 million to regional efforts since he arrived in 1989, gifts from the local budget as well as from the JPMorgan Chase Foundation.

Wolf said the foundation's gifts largely fund programs in three areas: arts and culture, youth and education, and economic development. The overriding criteria, he said, is the program must provide access to people who otherwise wouldn't have it, such as supporting Traverse Symphony Orchestra concerts at the Open Space and funding scholarship programs at NMC.

Annual foundation gifts to the Traverse City district vary depending on need, Wolf said, but the size of the gift is trending upward. In 2008, Wolf said the foundation is looking to make gifts of $15,000 or more to various programs.

"The need is great," said Wolf, adding that he receives at least one request per day. "We want the gifts to be impactful."

Similarly, Fifth Third Bank operates its charitable giving through the Fifth Third Bank Foundation and its local budget for its regional offices and fields more than 200 requests a year.

"We try to have an impact on everyday things for everybody," said Mark Eckhoff, president of Fifth Third Bank Northern Michigan, which lends support to programs aimed at housing, health care and education as well as efforts that enrich quality of life.

A first-time gift in 2007 to the Michigan Land Use Institute had that local economy in mind. It gave $10,500 in support of the institute's farm-to-cafeteria program that works to get local farm produce on lunch trays at area schools, hospitals and company cafeterias.

Its foundation also recently gave a $60,000 grant to the Grand Traverse Area Regional Land Conservancy that will help with plans to protect land in every watershed within its service area, close land deals and expand its volunteer base, according to the conservancy's Director of Communications Megan Olds.

"We are driven by what's important to the community, the people who live here and our clients," Eckhoff said, of the grant to the conservancy.

At Irwin Union Bank, its financial gifts are targeted at three distinct efforts: affordable housing and programs for self-sufficiency, at-risk youth and community and economic development. A $35,000 gift to the new Goodwill Inn was one of the bank's largest recent gifts.

For 2008, the bank has pledges underway in support of facility improvements at Thirlby Field and the new YMCA, said Randy Williams, Irwin Union's market president for Traverse City. The bank's charitable giving tends to focus on multi-year pledges to meet its philosophy of sustaining programs over several years.

In 2007, Traverse City State Bank gave financial support to some 100 local causes in the Grand Traverse Area through sponsorships and donations. The bank considers three things when deciding where to focus: does the money stay local, are the bank's employees involved in the effort and are its customers and shareholders involved?

"We are a locally-grown bank and we want to support initiatives that sustain communities in this region," said Onlee Bowden, who handles community relations for the bank. "We also think that it's important to support our employees and customers in the causes they are involved in. "

Like all the other banks, Traverse City State Bank has identified an increase in needs by the community.

"This is a dynamitic place to live and with that comes great ideas and programs to make this region strong and sustainable," added Bowden. "We know that the needs are greater than our ability, so we rotate our giving every two to three years in order to reach as many programs as possible."

Of course, banks also "give back" through volunteer efforts, contributing thousands of hours annually. Many banks pay their employees their regular wages to volunteer. BN