Five years ago, when I started my role in marketing with Lee Bank, I had no idea how much of my job would be tied to the philanthropic activities and strategy of the bank. Growing up in the Berkshires, I knew that there were many local nonprofits, all doing fantastic work in our communities. It wasn’t until my current position that I began understanding and paying attention to the symbiosis between community banks and local philanthropic organizations.
For better or worse, banks are often seen as very traditional, and giving back to the community is often a longstanding tradition for banks. Before 2020, Lee Bank operated with a very traditional giving strategy. All our giving was done through the bank’s contributions and sponsorships program, which saw 90% of our philanthropic decisions pass through one or two people in the main office. We would fund upwards of 200 organizations annually, with the bulk of our contributions falling in the $250-500 range. We received requests for those contributions in many different formats, and tracking our gifts was generally done in an Excel spreadsheet.
Evolving the Traditions to Make an Impact
With 2020 and COVID-19, many industries, including banking, were forced to evolve their business models almost overnight. While we made the most obvious changes to how we conducted day-to-day business, other changes and conversations were happening behind the scenes.
One of the first things we changed about our giving strategy was becoming more proactive. During the spring of 2020, our incoming requests for contributions were virtually zero. Rather than sitting back and waiting for organizations to approach us, we sought out organizations in the community making an impact and sent them unsolicited contributions. In many cases, these were first-time donations to organizations we had yet to give to.
The next thing we did was increase the size of our contributions. As it became apparent that the typical in-person fundraisers we would normally sponsor were unlikely to happen, we reallocated that money. In 2020 the bulk of our contributions was in the $1,500-2,500 range.
Finally, due to the pandemic and other overarching factors, we decided that the time was right to establish the Lee Bank Foundation.
Launching a Foundation
In the spring of 2021, the Lee Bank Foundation officially launched! The addition of the foundation has allowed us to separate our giving into two pathways, which now have an online application to streamline the process. We still have the traditional “corporate sponsorship” stream for organizations looking to fundraise through events and advertising. We are in our second year of the Lee Bank Foundation, which reviews grant proposals and distributes funding quarterly. The average grant given by the foundation is just over $5,000, and our overarching focus is to bridge the opportunity gap in Berkshire County.
As the Foundation enters its third year in operation, we are constantly learning and looking for new ways to reach our communities. We continue to evaluate the types of organizations and programs we are funding to ensure that our philanthropic strategy aligns with our brand and core values. It’s been an exciting process to be part of from the beginning and to continue to evolve.