Whether it’s sponsoring events, making donations or volunteering, local banks see community involvement as a requirement, not an option.

Getting involved in the community through donations, sponsorships and volunteerism is more than just a priority for community banks, it’s an integral part of business.

“It’s ingrained in the culture,” says Robert Palmer, president and CEO of the Community Bankers Association of Ohio. “Community banks are the center of the economic engine of the communities and they believe that one of their missions is to continue to give back to the communities that they serve.”

It’s a financial circle of life. A successful business community is necessary for a community bank to thrive. “Healthy communities give way to healthy businesses, which in turn give way to healthy residents and that full circle rely on each other to make the community stronger. The banks are not only the beneficiaries of that, but they help in that regard. Banks need to always be looking for opportunities to help its residents and to help its small business owners and to help the organizations within the community,” says Tom Westfall, president of Arlington Bank.

Beyond sustaining the local economy, a community bank’s involvement can help keep its name in the minds of potential customers. “As a consumer, you have lots of choices,” says Harvey Glick, president and CEO of Insight Bank. “Do you want to bank with a large international financial institution? Although they have huge resources and do good stuff, are they rooted in the same community? We look for that hometown advantage, hoping that borrower or depositor says, ‘Look, those guys were there and I learned about them, and now that I have a need I’d like to bank locally.’ ”

When people see a bank’s name as an event sponsor or see its employees volunteering, that creates loyalty and fosters trust between the bank and the community, says G. Scott McComb, chairman, president and CEO of Heartland Bank. “They know us personally and folks like to deal with people they know if they can,” he says.

Bigger banks are likely to lend their support to large charitable organizations. For community banks, “It’s more down on a gradual level to individual food pantries to local communities in which we have a presence. Larger companies don’t think to put money at that level, and that’s where a community bank thrives,” McComb says.

Marketing exposure is certainly a benefit, but it’s not the sole reason for many banks’ community involvement. “We don’t make contributions or donate time because they’re a customer. We do that regardless of the customer relationship,” says Laura Lewis, director of marketing for Park National Bank. “Obviously, we love supporting our customers and we want more customers, but if it’s the right thing to do, we try to get involved in it regardless of that relationship.”

“It needs to be stressed that this is based on the resources that are available to the community banks, and most community banks are extremely generous in reinvesting those dollars back into the community,” Palmer says. “In some communities, there’s a perception of doing business with regional banks because they have more ATMs and more physical locations. But the commitment may not be there for the dollars to be put back into the community in a give-back philosophy more so than it’s a business decision.”

Part of the Community

Any community bank opens its doors to local residents and business owners who are potential depositors or borrowers. Benchmark Bank takes that open-door policy to the next step with a room set aside for use by anyone in the Gahanna community, even after-hours. “If we’re closed, they come by and pick up a key before we lock up and they have use of the room until 10 p.m. It’s a real nice benefit for the community,” says Jeff Caldwell, the bank’s vice president of retail and business banking.

The room has hosted meetings for a variety of groups, including condominium associations, Girl Scouts and local schools. It has also been used for seminars such as accountant instruction on QuickBooks and a how-to on digital cameras for older residents from Cord Camera. “We put these programs out in the community for anyone to participate in. When the financial crisis first hit, we did FDIC instruction on how to make sure that your accounts are adequately insured,” says Ann Leak, Benchmark’s senior vice president in charge of community relations.

In July, Benchmark hosts the Beecher Block Party, which includes food, a DJ, inflatable attractions and a movie projected onto the side of the bank. Area businesses partner with Benchmark for the event. Diamonds and Designs, for example, has offered a diamond dig that challenges people to find one true diamond among cubic zirconia. “We started it when we first opened this office,” Leak says. “We didn’t do it last year for a number of different reasons. Everybody, economically, was having a little bit of a challenge.” However, the party is back on for 2012.

Insight Bank also offers its space, giving sports teams and clubs in Worthington City Schools the opportunity to hold a weekend car wash. The bank provides the water and hose, and the students bring their own soap, buckets and labor. “As there is more pressure for students to pay for parts of the bus ride or things that were, in the past, paid for by taxpayers, us being able to provide that gets more important,” Glick says. “What do we get out of it? There might be a person who gets their car washed and now they know there’s a bank here and an ATM, and when they need a bank we hope they think of us.”

The employees of Heartland Bank organize an annual golf outing for customers and other community members that benefits several charities. In the last 14 years, the Annual Charity Golf Classic has raised $280,000. “We do it all internally. We have some vendors and customers who donate door prizes, but all organization is done at the bank level and we donate our employees’ time to do this,” McComb says. Most recently, the event provided funding to Special Olympics Ohio, Masonic Learning Centers for Children with Dyslexia, Victory Ministries for Children’s Outreach Programs and several other organizations.

Reaching Out

Sponsoring local events is a great way to get involved, but many community banks don’t stop there. Benchmark provides volunteer hours, in addition to financing, to the Creekside Blues & Jazz Festival. Eight employees give their time to count and bundle cash and distribute change to the festival’s vendors. The bank participates in several events through the Gahanna Convention and Visitors Bureau, including the Holiday Lights Festival and Saturday with Santa.

Benchmark has also committed funding to Gahanna Lincoln High School for new bleachers and a press box for the baseball team. “Instead of just advertising in signs and so on, we’re actually putting money at a discounted rate in a project to help better the baseball field,” Leak says. The bank gave the school a reduced interest rate and modified loan terms to make the loan more affordable and flexible.

Heartland Bank has not only provided funding for events, but also helped save them. In 2011, the city of Gahanna made budget cuts and was unable to finance the Freedom Festival for Independence Day. The Gahanna Parks & Recreation Foundation took over the festival, but didn’t raise enough money. “We saw that was an issue. Our bank has been blessed to do well in the Gahanna community, and we’ve had good profits based on strong community bank values. We decided to make up the difference,” McComb says. The commitment was about $14,000. “That’s big money for a community bank. For a larger bank, that’s a drop in the bucket,” he says.

The Hartford Fair, an annual event in Licking County, approached Heartland about financing two electronic signs to direct guests to the attractions. “They wanted to get them in before the fair, so I looked at what they were doing and was able to save them 30 percent by directing them to a vendor we used,” McComb says. Heartland financed the signs at $42,000 for five years, interest-free.

Education

“The standard for community banks would be the involvement that those institutions participate in with the local schools. We’re no different,” Westfall says. Arlington Bank partners with schools in Grandview Heights and Upper Arlington through donations as well as event support. The bank provides a $1,000 scholarship annually to a graduating senior from Upper Arlington High School chosen for his or her dedication to community service.

First Bexley Bank and Insight Bank also provide scholarships, $2,500 to a senior from Bexley High School and $1,000 each to graduating students at Thomas Worthington and Worthington Kilbourne high schools, respectively.

“We are a strong supporter of the Bexley Education Foundation and we give annual monies for that work,” says David Mallett, president and CEO of First Bexley. “It is unique in terms of the way this school raises money. Other schools have many booster clubs for athletics, drama, music. Years ago, Bexley consolidated their booster organizations into the Bexley Education Foundation. It’s a great way to give back to our school district.”

Benchmark has participated in a number of school programs in Gahanna, such as providing USA Today newspapers and related curricula to high school career path classes. “That was something we could do for financial literacy. That’s such a big buzzword in community banking now. We feel an obligation to support the schools in terms of financial literacy,” Leak says.

Two Gahanna Lincoln High School students, Jade Shepard and Nick Lanno, used Benchmark for a marketing research project for the DECA program, an international association for marketing, management and entrepreneurship. The students were first-place winners at the Ohio DECA State Career Development Conference and qualified for the International DECA Competition. “For two or three years, there have been a few kids who have chosen to do a research project around Benchmark. … So we worked with them on these projects,” Leak says. “For the last five years, we’ve hired a DECA student to work here at the bank. That’s been a great relationship to get the kids in here.”

Park National Bank produces a community calendar using student art and photography. Winners are selected from different age groups—the most recent contest was for high-school photographers—and the bank orders about 12,000 calendars.

“We give them a theme because we want it to be focused on the local community,” Lewis says. The bank donates $100 to the contest winners, and a gift basket of art and photo supplies—camera cards, rechargeable batteries, Sharpie markers, note cards and the like—is delivered to the winning students’ art departments. In addition, several photos, including some that didn’t win, are featured on note cards used internally at the bank. “We very much believe in active involvement in our schools, not just with dollars,” Lewis says.

Volunteerism

In 2010, Park National Bank started PNB Cares Week, allowing employees to volunteer for a half-day during work hours. The program proved to be so popular that it was expanded to a two-week period. In 2011, 400 associates racked up nearly 2,000 volunteer hours.

From tellers to Chairman and CEO C. Daniel DeLawder, employees donate their time on projects such as building a ramp for a family with a disabled toddler, working on Habitat for Humanity houses, opening a Goodwill store in Heath and packing boxes for the Mid-Ohio Foodbank.

“It’s noticeable in the community because our associates wear T-shirts that are all the same,” Lewis says. “When we started in 2010 it was just one week, and we found that we had more projects than we could handle. … In a week, that’s difficult to get several hundred associates out because we still have these business offices to run, obviously. The two weeks is a good amount of time, we found. We still had projects that we couldn’t fulfill, but we were able to fulfill most of them.”

At Benchmark, Leak was asked this year to join the board of the Gahanna Convention and Visitors Bureau because of the bank’s involvement with the organization. “Each of us gets involved in our own little things, too,” Leak says.

“Our employee group donates a fair amount of their time and resources to various local volunteer efforts, and the bank allows them to do that during work hours,” Westfall says of Arlington Bank. “We encourage our employees to play an active role in nonprofit groups around town, which of course support the communities we serve.”

Arlington employees volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army and Upper Arlington Special Olympics, among other causes.

At Benchmark, staff members volunteer for organizations including schools, Girl Scouts, area churches, Taste of Gahanna and Meals on Wheels. Employees can also participate in Dress Down for a Cause, where a $5 donation to the Mid-Ohio Foodbank gives them the privilege of wearing jeans on Fridays.

“We’re doing all that with [30] employees,” Leak says. “There are a lot of other banks that get involved in things, but they’ve got such a large group of people to get involved. This is stuff that our people believe in and participate in. And, in the meantime, we’re trying to run a business. We think that all of this investment in the community does give us opportunity to gain back.”

Michelle Davey is a former editorial assistant for Columbus C.E.O.

Reprinted from the June 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.