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Banking on Philanthropy

Countering global banking's bad image, Valley bankers fine-tune their giving to provide help where it's needed most

BY JIMMY MAGAHERN

Published by: AZ Society, May 2009


President Barack Obama took time out of his address to a joint session of Congress to salute a Miami bank president who privately divvied up his $60 million bonus among his current and former employees. At that moment, Leonard Abess Jr. became a modern-day George Bailey, an emblem of ethics and responsibility in a time when it’s anything but a wonderful life for those in the banking industry.

Between all the headlines about misspent bailouts and overblown bonuses, bankers have taken a serious beating in the public eye lately. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 80 percent of Americans put the blame for the nation’s economic plight squarely on banks and other financial institutions.

Experts in philanthropic fields say boosting charitable contributions may be the surest way for banks to ease the public anger — and, in the process, do good for their communities. The positive news is that Valley financial institutions have been doing this for many years. They are not reacting to a PR crisis; giving has long been part of their corporate culture.

Bank of America

Benito Almanza, president of Bank of America’s Arizona operations, says one of his favorite things about working for the giant $124 billion-a-year corporation is that it allows each market to determine what philanthropic cause is most important to them.

For Almanza, that cause is helping facilitate affordable housing, child care and financial education for the working poor. “I grew up in an itinerant farm-labor family, and what made a world of difference to us and allowed us to succeed was finally getting some stable housing,” Almanza says. “So what we really try to do is assist the working poor in developing their own sustainable financial abilities. It’s important to all of us, from an economic standpoint, that they become self-sufficient.”

Kellie Manthe, market-development manager for BofA Arizona, says the division annually contributes between $2.8 million and $3 million to causes and offers $200,000 operating-support grants to non-profit organizations ranging from Habitat for Humanity and National Housing Services to UMOM Day Shelter and Native American Connections. This year, however, a lot of the market’s charitable funds have gone toward financial-education and workforce-development programs.

“It’s important that people know not only how to make the income but also how to manage the income,” she says.

Northern Trust

David Highmark has heard all the talk about how bankers need to be more charitable to quell public outrage over recent recklessness, but he insists that’s a character trait that can’t be enforced.

“I’ve heard that for years, that if you’re a banker you have to get involved in the community,” says Highmark, vice chairman and managing director of the national professional-athletes division of the Chicago-based bank, who has been with the firm for 23 years. “But you can’t tell people they have to go on the board of Arizona Community Foundation or Phoenix Art Museum or the American Cancer Society.

“Our message to employees is, ‘Pick something that you are absolutely passionate about.’ And that takes care of it. Because everybody’s got a hot button.”

In addition to the parent company’s $14.4 million in cash contributions last year, employees globally put in more than 183,000 volunteer hours to charitable organizations in 2008. The company does not give out local figures, says Cathryn Raia, vice president of corporate communications. Arizona organizations Northern has contributed to include Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center, the Arizona Blind and Deaf Children’s Foundation, Valley of the Sun YMCA and the Jewish Community Foundation.

Highmark’s hot-button cause is Arizona Quest for Kids, a nonprofit committed to mentoring young students in low-income, Title 1 schools whose dreams of a college education need ongoing support, as well as scholarship dollars, to flourish. Students from the first three years of the program, founded by Highmark in 2000, are now either in college or college-bound.

“At this point, we’re 34 for 34,” Highmark says. “We’ve literally stopped the cycle of poverty for these kids.”

JPMorgan Chase

Mary Martuscelli, Arizona president for JPMorgan Chase, says Chase Arizona has been giving out $3 million annually in charitable contributions for more than 20 years to three key areas: community development, education and the arts. This year, however, arts and education have taken a backseat to funding basic services like food banks and shelters.

“Every year, we look at how we’re allocating those funds, and one year we may put more emphasis on arts and culture, the next we may put more into education,” she says. “Right now we’re putting more of a focus on our community-development piece: housing, financial education and support of small businesses.”

So critical are charitable dollars this year that Chase partnered with nine other funding organizations, including Wells Fargo, the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust and Arizona Republic Charities, to form ChooseToHelp.org, a grant program that matched donor gifts dollar for dollar to help provide food, shelter, health care and emergency assistance to more than 100,000 Arizonans in need. The program ended April 19.

“We’re all coming together to leverage our resources,” the bank’s community-relations spokeswoman Lydia Lee says. “As a team, we are much more powerful and our resources can go much further in the community when we work together.”

Philanthropy’s not just about looking good on the annual report. “We all have to work together to solve some major issues,” Martuscelli adds.

US Bank

Amid reallocation of charitable funds toward basic community services, Arizona’s division of U.S. Bank is one institution that’s not cutting back on arts grants. Last year, U.S. Bank provided nonprofit organizations in Arizona with a total of $140,000 in grants via the U.S. Bancorp Foundation, which focused 17 percent of its charitable funds on arts and culture.

“I know that there’s a lot of concern in this cycle of the economy about where the arts are going to find themselves,” says Hope Levin, U.S. Bank’s regional president. “There are worries that the arts may be overlooked for the health- and human-services side. But our bank is a very strong supporter, and that will continue this year with grants being considered for Phoenix Art Museum, Ballet Arizona and others. Those organizations aren’t going to be forgotten.”

Levin insists banks can still serve the poor in their community by funding arts projects that benefit charities, citing as an example U.S. Bank’s annual Arizona Celebration of Lights, which this past holiday season benefited St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance, the Salvation Army and the Prison Fellowship Angel Tree Program with admission proceeds.

“That helped bring some holiday cheer to everyone in the community, but it also served to provide economic relief to the families served by those organizations,” she says. “Plus, we need to remember that opportunities to experience arts and culture tend to be even more important when the economy is challenged like it is.”

Wells Fargo

Wells Fargo’s regional-banking President Pam Conboy is proud of the financial donations her bank makes annually — nearly $5 million to more than 400 Arizona non-profit organizations in 2008 and an additional $1.33 million raised locally through Wells Fargo Arizona’s Community Support campaign.

But Conboy also is gratified by the personal time her more than 4,000 employees contribute to charitable causes. “Financial donations are important, but so is the personal commitment of our team members,” says Conboy, who took the helm as regional president in 2007 after 30 years with the company. “In 2008, they volunteered more than 61,000 hours to Arizona non-profit organizations and served as mentors, board members, project heads, fundraisers, educators and more.”

Like most banks, Wells Fargo says the tough economy has boosted employee participation in volunteer projects, as more of them become personally affected by the recession.

Marjorie Rice, regional vice president of communications, proudly displays dramatic beforeand- after photos from a recent Ronald McDonald House apartment renovation. “All the work done on the apartment was by volunteers, and all the items were donated,” Rice says. “It looks like something out of a TV show!”

“Our success comes from a time-tested formula,” Conboy adds: “Local people making local decisions because they know best what their communities need.”

Alliance Bank

One of the state’s youngest financial institutions, 6-year-old Alliance Bank has quickly built a record of philanthropy. Senior Vice President Barbara Boone says Alliance gave $84,500 in 2008 to Arizona organizations, including Chicanos por la Causa, Arizona’s Children Association and Habitat for Humanity.

“We’ve been focusing on supporting organizations that are helping with foreclosure prevention and home counseling,” says Boone, who cites Arizona Saves and Newtown Community Development in Tempe as major beneficiaries. Alliance has contributed $50,000 to the Arizona Community Reinvestment Collaborative, which provides building grants and assistance for affordable housing, and participates in the governorsupported Arizona Foreclosure Prevention Task Force.

But Alliance CEO Jim Lundy says the most philanthropic thing his bank is doing during the economic downturn is simply continuing to provide loans to average folks in the community.

“People are asking, ‘Is anybody making loans?’ Well, we are!” Lundy says, noting a recent $2 million construction loan Alliance made for two much-needed senior-living developments in Yuma and Show Low.

“In down cycles like this, it’s important to note we’re not shutting the doors and turning the tap off,” Lundy says. “Just keeping the money flowing is probably the best thing we can do for our communities.”

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Photos by Jill Richards, Michael Chow, Dierdre Hamill

1(From left) Hope Levin, David Highmark and Pam Conboy. "We need to remember that opportunities to experience arts and culture tend to be even more important when the economy is challenged like it is," says Levin.

2Banf of America's Benito Almanza. "It’s important to all of us, from an economic standpoint, that they become self-sufficient.”

3Mary Martuscelli, Arizona president for JPMorgan Chase. “Right now we’re putting more of a focus on our community-development piece: housing, financial education and support of small businesses."

4Alliance CEO Jim Lundy. “In down cycles like this, it’s important to note we’re not shutting the doors and turning the tap off."