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In Delaware, There's More to Banking Than Just Money

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As founder, president, CEO and principal owner of Sussex County-based Community Bank, Alex Pires is keenly aware of the area’s needs. So when it comes time to distribute funds to those in need and to direct Community’s 35 employees toward opportunities to serve, he doesn’t look beyond his own neighborhood.

Pires and his staff receive about 160 requests each year for financial assistance. Every three weeks, he and staff members meet to vote on who it will help. Four percent of profits go to causes in Sussex. Every Friday, employees contribute to smaller charities that Pires and his team consider especially worthy. The goal is to make a direct impact on the people who live closest to Community Bank branches. That could mean giving $100 to sponsor a Little League team or contributing $5,000 toward a van for a recently paralyzed neighbor, though most of the donations are in the $500-$1,000 range.

“Our efforts are more personal,” Pires says. “We want to know the people we’re giving help to.”

It’s a disciplined approach to the execution of the bank’s motto: Community matters. “It’s about the street where you live,” Pires says. “It’s nice to make a comment on social media about a major problem in another part of the country, but why not help somebody at the end of your street, too?”

Across Delaware, banks like Community go beyond the business of holding deposits and lending money. They help to make people’s lives better.

According to the Delaware Bankers Association, the state’s financial institutions donated $13.9 million to local charities and community organizations in 2017. In addition, employees donated 205,000 hours of service to more than 500 nonprofits throughout Delaware. Name an area of need, and it’s likely someone from a bank in the First State who has donated time and talent. The result is a network of support designed to make an impact in every corner of the state.

“Our bank is mission driven,” says Vernita Dorsey, senior vice president and director of community strategies for WSFS. “The culture here is that we are community driven. We take that seriously. If we are a community bank, we need to be investing in the community.”

When it comes to charitable endeavors, WSFS has four areas of focus: education, health and human services, business and economic growth, and the arts. Dorsey is charged with managing the corporate contributions budget to support the bank’s nonprofit partners in Delaware and two Pennsylvania counties where the bank has branches. In addition to the financial support, WSFS encourages each of its employees to volunteer in the community. Last year, its staff logged more than 13,000 volunteer hours. All WSFS team members are expected to give four hours a year of support during bank hours, and Dorsey provides opportunities for them to contribute.

“It’s the culture of the bank,” she says. “Our associates are interested in many different things. The expectation is that they will do community service. That goes from the president through the ranks. We need to share our knowledge with the community.”

In addition, there is a WSFS Foundation that provides support for education issues and works on changing public policy to benefit schools and the children they serve. The overriding goal is to have a complete approach to helping the community through business and service.

“As part of the community, we need to help it grow and flourish,” Dorsey says. “A lot of that comes through our nonprofit partners doing a lot of good work in our areas of mission focus.”

Community Bank and WSFS aren’t the only institutions that provide support. All over Delaware, banks are helping others. They are also big players in educating young people about financial matters. Though the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 mandates that institutions give back to the people they serve and eliminate “redlining” practices that were deemed discriminatory against low- and moderate-income constituencies, most have gone well beyond the basic requirements.

The result is a flow of financial resources and individual talent that helps charitable institutions and other nonprofits.

“We want to make sure the community knows we’re here for them,” says Sherry Sawicki, marketing coordinator at DEXSTA Federal Credit Union. “We want them to know they can come to us with their needs. They’re not just a number. We care about them. Let’s sit and talk about what their needs are.”

For more than a year, Terri Hasson has served on a committee to provide economic development in northeast Wilmington. Her participation helps the bank fulfill its CRA requirements, but it also allows Hasson, director of community reinvestment at WSFS, to take her expertise and, in some cases, the bank’s resources to organizations. She is active in the community, just as WSFS chairman and CEO Mark Turner is actively engaged with Teach for America, which hires recent college graduates to work in inner-city schools, and COO and executive vice president Rodger Levenson serves on the boards for the Wilmington Housing Partnership and the United Way. Dorsey is involved with the Henrietta Johnson Medical Center, Girls Inc. and Downtown Visions.

WSFS has also staged a food drive for the past several years. It has provided 1 million meals to hungry families in the communities it serves.

That’s impressive, but it’s a small part of a statewide commitment by all banks. Combined with loans and other programs to enhance the region, it makes a significant impact. According to the Delaware Bankers Association, state banks made $106.7 million in community development loans and $523 million in Cinnaire (formerly Delaware Community Investment Corp.) loans to spur community stabilization and economic development. As DBA president, CEO and treasurer Sarah Long says, the goal is to “share the fruits of [banks’] growth with the community.”

At DEXSTA, there is a substantial commitment throughout the year to the Children’s Miracle Network—the charity of choice for DEXSTA’s governing body—through fundraising and staffing of phone banks during its radiothon. But that’s not the extent of its charitable work. DEXSTA’s 75 employees also support the Sunday Breakfast Mission by donating and distributing food to those in need. Every Thanksgiving, the credit union sponsors a turkey drive to benefit the Mission. And twice a year, employees make dinners at the Ronald McDonald House for kids and their families.

“This work gives the community a sense of trust,” Sawicki says. “They know they can come to us, and we will help them. We definitely look to the future trends to see what we should be doing. We always want to adapt to the changing environment.”

As DEXSTA works to keep current in its philanthropy, it joins with other institutions to offer education about money and finance to local students. The Delaware Financial Education Alliance—the educational arm of the DBA—offers a variety of programs to help young people understand how to handle money, avoid debt, stick to reasonable budgets and save for the future.

One program is Keys to Financial Success, a semester-long course taught to more than 4,500 students in 28 high schools throughout the state. The curriculum was developed through the DBA’s partnerships with the University of Delaware’s Center for Economic Education & Entrepreneurship, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Maryland and Delaware.

The goal is to introduce students to the basics of money management, including goals and decision-making, career research, consumer skills and risk protection. Each May, the DBA awards two Keys to Financial Success scholarships (totaling $2,500) to students who complete essays on the importance of financial literacy education. Since the program’s inception, the association has awarded more than $60,000, according to Long. In April, the DFEA celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Teach Children to Save initiative, which targets third- and fourth-grade students and provides them education and opportunities to put away money for the future. UD solicits teachers throughout the state who want a banker to speak to their classes. Last year, 185 volunteers visited more than 8,200 students in 75 schools, says Long. More than 90 percent of Delaware’s banks participate in the program, the largest rate in the country.

Banks and credit unions are active in schools as part of their obligation to educate the community about financial matters. For instance, DEXSTA supports the Banzai software program, which is used to provide financial education. Sawicki goes to schools that request her to provide some real-world knowledge to students.

“I talk about the credit union, but I also talk about budgeting and making sure they will know how to pay their bills,” Sawicki says. “This is something that’s not always in schools. It’s something that’s lacking in the community.”

Sawicki can also be found at Bayard Middle School in Wilmington, which she visits every Wednesday to help students manage their savings accounts. She finds that the boys and girls put away money to pay for their year-end formals or just about anything else they can think of. She delivers a “mobile branch” to them, and they can build their accounts.

When Community Bank’s Pires looks at the banking climate across Delaware and the nation, he understands that things are changing fast.

“We used to have 30,000 banks in America,” he says. “Now, we have 5,200 banks. In the state, we have no more than 10 banks.”

With fewer citadels of finance available, nonprofits and other worthy causes don’t have as broad a range of targets for their funding requests. Pires says people treat Community as if it were on the same level as WSFS or Barclays. Because it’s not as large, Community can’t dole out six figures of generosity each year. But it still does its part.

“We are owned by local people, and all of our shareholders are from Sussex County,” Pires says. “All of our employees are from Sussex County. We only have $60,000 to give every year. That’s not a lot. We want to deal in increments of $500 to $1,000 at a time.”

That may not seem that impressive, but when the efforts are directed at individuals or small groups, it makes a difference.

“Unless you are Bill Gates, it’s not a global effort,” Pires says. “The best you can do is help people one or two at a time. Every year, we hope we can help 35 to 40 people. That’s not front page stuff in The New York Times, but it’s realistic.”

And it’s certainly appreciated.

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