By Phyllis Hanlon
When Hurricane Sandy blew into the area in 2012, leaving behind destruction and damage that, in some cases, has yet to be addressed, the New York Bankers Association (NYBA) and the New York Business Development Corporation (NYBDC) established a $10 million small business emergency loan fund to provide financial aid to businesses impacted by the super storm. The fund offered expedited loans of up to $25,000 to qualifying small businesses. Interest and payment free for the first six months, these loans assumed a one percent interest the next two years.
Following suit, several NYBA member banks initiated their own philanthropic efforts directed toward individuals. M&T Bank, headquartered in Buffalo, and Astoria Federal Savings made a combined $350,000 donation to the American Red Cross. Both banks also matched contributions from the general public, its employees, directors and retirees.
Other financial institutions were well prepared to respond to natural disasters. In January 2010, New York Community Bank (NYCB) launched NYCB Cares Program when a devastating earthquake struck Haiti. This initiative brought key departments together to develop a collection campaign that was supported by the bank and its Foundations. This program has served as a model ever since and was implemented after Hurricane Sandy and most recently for the Arizona wildfires in Yarnell, according to Kelly Leung, spokeswoman for NYCB. “We have run multiple disaster campaigns at this point and have a team that comes together when one needs to be considered,” she says.
Hurricane Sandy prompted NYCB to coordinate multiple campaigns and donations. “We collected over $100,000 for the Salvation Army efforts, and developed a Family Helping Family program internally for employees to help each other, since many of our employees were affected,” said Leung. “And finally we chose to support some regional hands-on organizations, like NeighborWorks, that were going to be around beyond the storm.”
NYCB also has a Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) officer who ensures the organization reinvests in a way that benefits the communities it serves. CRA officer Mike Fields develops relationships with organizations and helps create opportunities for employees who want to become involved in these efforts. In fact, oftentimes, employees propose projects, based on their personal passions.
Like many of the other New York institutions, Berkshire Bank, a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hills Bancorp with a presence in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont, partnered with the American Red Cross to increase financial support for victims of Hurricane Sandy. Lori Gazzillo, of Berkshire’s Foundation, points out that whenever one of the non-profits they traditionally support suffers from a natural disaster like this, Berkshire steps in to offer additional assistance. “We’ve provided grant money to some of these organizations. They might have gotten a grant earlier in the year, but may need more money if their insurance does not cover their losses,” she says.
A disaster like Sandy can become an accounting nightmare when it comes to tracking financial contributions. “It’s best to use a software tool of some sort to manage the charitable giving and to ask individuals to give their donations through that tool for transparency and tracking,” says Bill Horne, CEO of Truist, a provider of corporate philanthropy solutions. “In recent disasters, there have been some issues of accountability raised about whether the donations were actually getting to where they needed to go. Using an automated tool generally minimizes that disruption. Moreover, if the agencies receiving the help could provide a statement of outcomes, clearly noting who benefitted from these gifts and how, the entire process and all constituents would be better served.”
Year-Round Community Involvement
While Berkshire Bank is a stalwart presence during disasters, the institution also makes a concerted effort to be present all year round for its local communities. In addition to grants, corporate giving and in-kind donations, the bank partners with other financial institutions in the Recycle, Reuse & Renew Technology Partnership Program, which distributes computers, servers, phones and other pieces of technology to those who express a need. They’ve also given away furniture and other items on a case-by-case basis.
Berkshire’s Foundation, which gives $1.4 million each year to organizations, fosters a sense of giving back in all its employees. “It’s a key piece of who we are,” Gazzillo says, noting that employees give more than 37,000 hours of volunteer services. “Our employees understand and embrace the bank’s philosophy. From the moment they join the organization, they’re encouraged to volunteer,” she says. “They participate in one hundred company sponsored projects of different sizes and they do independent volunteer work.”
Berkshire Bank provides employees with 16 hours of paid time off every year during business hours to volunteer. “This speaks to the commitment of the bank. Between sixty and seventy percent of our 1,000 employees participate in programs,” Gazzillo says. She points out that the bank uses a volunteer service software system, which enables them to send notices to a specific region when a project is available. “People can then sign up. We often have waiting lists,” she says.
Generally focused on two priorities: community and economic development and education, Berkshire Bank employees help refurbish buildings, participate in charity walks and collect food; they also serve on boards and committees, coach athletic teams, do fundraising and marketing and present financial literacy programs for homebuyers and in schools.
Re-engaging With The Community
Horne points out that a bank’s resources are best directed to the needs of the immediate community it serves and doesn’t disappear when those needs are met. “If done properly, the bank is further positioned as a pillar of the community and customers see that it is in touch with the community’s needs. While individuals do not appreciate public relations posturing in light of natural or manmade disasters, being there and staying there long after the disaster means a lot to the community,” he says. “Holding charitable reserves for such disasters may be prudent or having the mechanism to make the call to national headquarters for immediate funding is paramount. Often, it seems like there is a tremendous outpouring of charitable donations directly after an unfortunate event occurs, and then it dries up shortly thereafter. What may be more meaningful is the care administered to the community in the coming weeks and months after the disaster when everyone else has ‘moved on.’”
For instance, banks can re-engage with the community long after a disaster first takes place by sponsoring a first responders breakfast to show appreciation for everyone who helped out right after the disaster, notes Horne. “The bank could be a no-charge depository for supporting victims of the disaster and report back the use of proceeds to the community and donors at large. The bank could also hold another fundraiser six months after the disaster as a reminder that people still need help and support.” Additionally, Horne recommends partnering with an outside organization that specializes in publishing stories about victims and how they benefitted from aid and support.
When Hurricane Sandy struck, it impacted much of the area that Popular Community Bank serves. Pamela Kulnis, director of people, marketing and public relations, says, “Our headquarters is in lower Manhattan, right in the thick of it. It hit us, particularly in the New York and New Jersey branches.”
Once all employees were accounted for, the bank launched into action, setting up collection points for in-kind donations as well as cash, which was given to the Food Bank for New York City, with whom the bank had a previous relationship, and the Salvation Army of New Jersey. General donations and matching funds from the bank amounted to $50,000, according to Kulnis.
She notes that some of their branches were operational, but people living in those areas had experienced some horrific damage. In spite of their dire situations, many of these individuals came to the bank to contribute to the funds. “This is a testament to the strength of our customers and the community,” Kulnis says. “We look to be a presence, a shoulder-to-shoulder community partnership. These are the people we bank with, the people we sit across the table from. Through our branches we try to be a footprint in the community.”
Once the fundraising and in-kind donation drives ended, Popular Community Bank wanted to express its appreciation to the community that so generously helped the storm victims. “We said, ‘Because of you, these organizations can do the work they need to do,’” Kulnis says. “On the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, I expect we will hear lots of stories. There are still many people living in hotels. I hope [the attention] raises the level of awareness.”
Throughout the year, Popular Community Bank’s Foundation provides grants to various community organizations and involves employees in the process. Kulnis says, “Organizations come in and do a presentation to explain what they’ll do with the money. A committee of employees goes onsite to check out the organization and decides where much of their contributions will go.”
In 2012, Popular gave grants to eight local organizations that totaled nearly $140,000. The grants support issues such as community health initiatives and victims of domestic violence. The bank’s partnership with Operation Hope trains employees to deliver effective financial literacy workshops.
During the annual Employees Make a Difference Day in October, staffers from Popular Community Bank provide elbow grease as they paint schools, sort and prepare food, plant community gardens and offer their services in other ways. Kulnis asserts that monetary support helps tremendously during and after a disaster, but feet on the ground and hands helping really make the difference. “It’s less about what you do and where you do it, as long as you do something,” she asserts. “We make sure we step back and look at how we can further connect with the community.”■