Doing Well by Recognizing Good

By Marilyn Melia

Banks are held to a high standard. Unlike most other businesses, the public expects—and regulations dictate—that a bank serve as an economic pillar of the community.

Often, banks are honored for their role, receiving recognition from any of an array of groups:  affordable housing non-profits, women’s entrepreneurial networks, financial literacy proponents, small business associations and others.

Better to give than to receive?

As community leaders, many banks also bestow awards on deserving groups and individuals.

In fact, in giving rather than receiving recognition, an institution may garner even more public goodwill. That’s the perspective of Otis Fulton, vice president for behavioral economics at Turnkey, a marketing firm serving the nonprofit sector.

Centuries of evolution have molded humans to feel connected to entities that exhibit “pro-social behaviors” like recognizing others, says Fulton. Moreover, when a bank publicizes an honor conferred, it’s usually perceived as more genuine than if it issues news releases announcing its own laurels.

“We tend not to toot our own horn about honors we receive,” says Dawn Beers, vice president, marketing, Franklin Savings Bank.  “Instead we devote more attention,” says Beers, to publicizing the annual Richard W. Dubois Community Impact Award, named after the bank’s former CEO, well known in the central New Hampshire region Franklin Savings serves.

Conveying awards, however, involves a lot more than ordering an engraved plaque.

Careful strategy and logistical details are behind every successful recognition program. Among the issues:

  • What group or individuals to honor?
  • Should the bank solicit participation from the public and/ or a bank’s own employees?
  • Should awards involve a monetary grant?

We talked to bankers and other experts for a primer on the art of recognizing the achievements of others.

Enlisting employees and the public enhances the effort.

The work involved in hosting an awards ceremony might fall to a bank’s marketing or community relations staffers. But ideally, all employees should feel involved in the effort—particularly in selecting award recipients, says Michael Norton, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied corporate giving.

“Our research suggests that involving employees in selecting reward recipients would likely lead to higher employee satisfaction than merely informing employees about the recipients after the fact,” Norton notes.

Moreover, multiple studies have shown that workers, especially millennials, place a high value on working for a company that is socially conscious, says Rich Maiore, president of consulting firm Rocket Social Impact.

What’s more, Maiore adds, if customers and the public are also involved in nominating honorees, that reinforces the bank’s image as a community leader. It also boosts awareness of the award program.

When Enterprise Bank, based in Lowell, Mass., began its Celebration of Excellence award program in 2008, it issued news releases in its market areas. The announcements explained that the bank was soliciting nominees—both individuals and organizations—based on their achievement in various categories, such as:

  • Educator of the Year
  • Business of the Year
  • Community Service Award
  • Nonprofit of the Year

Awareness of the biennial awards has become so widespread that announcements on social media, branch posters and news releases now bring in several hundred nominations from employees, customers and members of the public, says Matthew Coggins, SVP and CMO at Enterprise.

Indeed, the publicity benefit for a bank hosting an awards program often begins long before any winners are announced, and can endure for months afterwards.

For instance, “every recipient [of the Enterprise bank award]gets a media kit,” Coggins explains.  “It has a sample press release that they can send out later, and a logo of the award that they can use on their website.”

With organizations each maintaining their own social media accounts—and pushing the news of an award—there’s a synergy that can result in significant publicity, Maiore adds. He also suggests that banks offer recipients a plaque that can be displayed in their offices, for maximum cyber and physical world exposure.

Determining the right honorees.

Any program where winners are selected for an award should have “clear and concise criteria” outlining the individuals or groups eligible, says Maiore.  He suggests defining parameters with as much detail as possible, like the geography served by the honorees. Also, any nonprofit under consideration for an award should undergo a “due diligence, like what a bank would do before [granting]a loan,” Maiore says.

Some investigative work may simply involve an internet search. “You want to make sure there is no bad news out there about the leadership or the financials [of a nonprofit].”  Maiore also suggests visiting a site like Charity to check how a nonprofit ranks on various measures.

Regions Bank, which has some 1500 offices in the South, Midwest and Texas, employs community relations officers throughout the bank’s footprint. “They are in touch with the pulse of the market they serve,” says Jeremy King, SVP of public relations. “They are aware of how organizations can use our services.”

Each year, those officers define a category for Regions’ What a Difference a Day Makes campaign, which has run for 11 years. The last four years have involved an online voting campaign whereby the public can vote for winners once a day during November.

At Franklin Saving Bank, applications from nonprofit groups in its New Hampshire market area “come in throughout the year to our committee,” says Beers. That committee hires the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation to review the competency and mission of each of the applicants. “It takes so much time to look over these applications,” says Beers. “That’s why we have the Foundation make recommendations, and they also recommend the amount to give each recipient.”

The bank committee overseeing the annual award, however, has the ultimate say on winners, Beers adds.

Linking a program to a bank’s history.

This spring, PNC will be hosting the Common Wealth Awards ceremony—now in its fortieth year. The annual event, which honors individuals who make an outstanding achievement in their field, has awarded some $6 million to honorees since it inception. Former recipients include Walter Kronkite, John Glenn and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

A trust established by philanthropist Ralph Hayes—who served on the board of one of PNC’s predecessors banks in Delaware—funds the awards and PNC manages the program.

With so many famed honorees, the event draws lot of publicity, notes Bruce Colbourn, market executive for PNC Bank Delaware.

But he adds that although the awards provide “an opportunity for brand recognition through PNC’s support and management of the event, it’s really about celebrating the honorees…. That really is the value the PNC team realizes through the awards—bringing everyone together to celebrate our community.”

In connection with the event, PNC also administers its own essay contest for middle and high school students in Delaware, in which students write about the honoree of the year they would most want to meet. The writer of the winning essay is then invited to the awards presentation.

Working within time and money limits.

By outsourcing application review duties to the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Franklin Savings staff are able to reduce the amount of time they must devote to the annual awards. The annual event takes place at a local country club, but they control expenses by serving only appetizers and keeping the presentation to about an hour. And because they use the same format each year, it takes minimal time to administer, Beers says.

Enterprise Bank’s Celebration of Excellence involves a large dinner with some 2,000 attendees.   The hours spent coordinating the event are significant, as is the cost of the dinner—and attendees don’t buy tickets, Coggins says. When the award was first introduced in 2008, the dinner was held every 18 months, but is now scheduled for every two years, due to the heavy time commitment for Coggins and others Enterprise bank staff.

Any time an award involves a monetary grant, that’s another expenditure to consider. However, even though in some instances a monetary grant might help fulfill a bank’s Community Reinvestment Act obligations, Maiore feels strongly that awards “should not be tied to CRA obligations.” Allowing the award to stand on its own, he believes, lends it more credibility.

Marilyn Kennedy Melia is a banking and personal finance writer based in Chicago. Email: [email protected].