Last year was earth-shattering in many ways. And while community banks always do their utmost to support local residents and businesses, they have truly pulled out all the stops over the past 18 months. ICBA’s National Community Bank Service Award winners for 2021 demonstrate that when their local areas need support, community banks are there with innovative, compassionate and thoughtful responses.
Exceptional Community Bank Service Award
Kennebec Savings Bank
Asset size: $1.36 billion
Location: Augusta, Maine
Kennebec Savings Bank: Fighting food insecurity
One Thursday in October 2020, police officers were called out to the streets near the Augusta Civic Center, where a huge traffic jam had formed. The disruption, it turned out, had been caused by a food distribution event. The Augusta Food Bank was giving out boxes from the federal government’s Farmers to Families program, as well as Thanksgiving turkeys donated by Kennebec Savings Bank and the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation.
Andrew E. Silsby, president and CEO of Kennebec Savings Bank in Augusta, Maine, was on the ground helping that day. “Nobody anticipated that there was going to be that much demand,” he says.
Bob Moore, Augusta Food Bank’s executive director, says traffic was backed up for miles. “Andrew’s staff were each going to work two-hour shifts, but they couldn’t get there because the traffic was so bad,” he adds. “So, Andrew and four or five others spent four or five hours giving out turkeys and food.”
COVID-19’s effects had resulted in one of the toughest years anyone in the community could remember. The event was a resounding success, putting 2,300 boxes of food, 2,300 gallons of milk and 1,200 turkeys into the hands of hard-hit families.
That day’s event was just one of the many ways in which Kennebec Savings Bank stepped up to help its community in 2020. A local stalwart since its founding in 1870, the community bank was signed into existence by Civil War hero and Gov. Joshua Chamberlain to help the population save money and buy homes.
Silsby, who has been with the bank for nearly 28 years, says giving back runs deep within the organization. In fact, 10% of its annual income is dedicated to the communities it serves through the Community Dividends program.
“We’re not a stock-held institution,” he says. “We really look at this as dollars that would go to stockholders. Instead, we give those dollars to the community.”
Turning on a dime
When the pandemic hit, Kennebec Savings Bank had a chance to make a real difference. The community bank was about to celebrate its 150th anniversary with an extravagant party, Silsby says, but nobody was in a celebratory mood.
“Community banking is about the health of your community. That really dictates the health of the bank. So, this was a moment that they needed us more than they probably ever have.”
—Andrew Silsby, Kennebec Savings Bank
They decided to reallocate the money, giving each employee $150 to donate to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit of their choice in their service area. The KSB Lends a Hand program took anniversary funds totaling $20,000 and distributed them to more than 100 local organizations.
“We realized that we needed to pivot quickly,” Silsby says, “and that we needed to make sure that we were helping our friends and neighbors. Community banking is about the health of your community. That really dictates the health of the bank. So, this was a moment that they needed us more than they probably ever have.”
The bank didn’t stop there. In 2020, Kennebec Savings Bank donated $1.1 million to approximately 300 organizations in 35 communities. Donations were made to local theaters that had been forced to close their doors, to chambers of commerce that didn’t qualify for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and to volunteer literacy programs that needed tablets for remote learning. The bank’s employees put in more than 8,000 volunteer hours while processing $75 million of PPP loans and many home loans.
Under the KSB Eats Local program, employees received $50 each week for five months to buy takeout at local establishments. “It rewarded our employees for hard work that they were doing in a kind of unconventional way,” Silsby says. “But [they also] knew they were able to help our local restaurant owners. So, it gave them a little bit of benefit, and certainly gave our restaurant folks some much-needed income.”
The community bank did the same for patrons of the Augusta Food Bank when it closed to walk-ins in March. “They knew that our clientele was getting hit hard as well,” Moore says.
“Some of these folks were going to food pantries for the first time,” Silsby adds. “There’s always a bit of shame, and guilt enters into that, and to give them an opportunity to go to a local restaurant and sit down and feel like a contributing member of society is an important component to that.”
Moore has nothing but praise for the bank’s work. “Kennebec Savings was in the game a long time before COVID-19 was, at least from a food insecurity standpoint,” he says. “They are just incredible corporate citizens and a great blessing for this community.”
Roshan McArthur is a writer in California.
Emerging Service Program Award
Cross River Bank
Asset size: $13 billion
Location: Fort Lee, N.J.
Cross River Bank: A prolific PPP lender
The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was a chance for community banks to serve thousands of small business customers during the pandemic. Cross River Bank quickly became one of the country’s most prolific PPP lenders. The community bank provided nearly 480,000 PPP loans totaling more than $13 billion to businesses across the nation.
“I think the most compelling part of the story is that we opened our front-end PPP portal to serve every borrower who needed capital,” says Phil Goldfeder, the bank’s senior vice president of global public affairs. “It wasn’t just for our existing customers. We accepted applications from any eligible business.”
Cross River Bank was well-positioned to become a PPP leader. Independent Banker named it one of the most innovative community banks because of its technology-forward attitude. Among its digital innovations is an extensive library of application programming interfaces (APIs) that runs its customer platform and allows the bank to originate and service loans on online lending platforms. In mid-June 2020, the community bank launched Cross River Digital Ventures, a venture capital arm that invests in fintechs.
“We’ve specialized in providing technology companies with the back-end connection to a trusted and reliable community bank,” Goldfeder says. “We can merge both worlds, so consumers have access to financial services in the safest and most convenient way.”
When it became apparent that the Small Business Administration (SBA) would be providing loans to businesses to ease the sting of the pandemic, Cross River Bank employees urged leadership to embrace the program, Goldfeder says. Employees—there were 400 at that time, a figure that has since ballooned to over 520—felt the community bank could use its advanced technology to reach American small businesses and deliver economic relief.
“Every single person at the bank committed their days and nights to ensuring we could stand up a program that was safe and reliable and could serve as many small businesses as possible.”
—Phil Goldfeder, Cross River Bank
Cross River Bank launched its PPP application process in the short window between the passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act on March 27, 2020, and the official PPP application opening date of April 4. The community bank worked with its technology partners to make sure the portal could handle the expected surge of applications with appropriate safety checks and systems. Among other elements, Cross River Bank integrated technology from the fintech Ocrolus, which automated review of bank statements, payroll data and other documentation from applicants.
Championing community banking
When the date arrived, Cross River Bank was ready. “We stood this up from zero to fully operational in two weeks,” Goldfeder says. “Every single person at the bank committed their days and nights to ensuring we could stand up a program that was safe and reliable and could serve as many small businesses as possible. And this was at a time when there was so much uncertainty in so many peoples’ own lives. They were transitioning to working from home, they were concerned about the economy, they were concerned about health. Even with all that going on, our amazing employees said, ‘We have the responsibility to serve the American business community with the PPP.’”
Many customers found Cross River Bank’s portal just by searching online, Goldfeder says. Few banks offered PPPs to as broad a market as the bank, so thousands of business owners across the country who lacked an existing banking relationship turned to Cross River.To promote the program, the community bank primarily relied on its fintech partners. In addition to the online loan platforms the bank serves, it partners with companies, such as online payroll processor Gusto, QuickBooks provider Intuit and expense management platform Divvy. These companies alerted their small business customers to the bank’s PPP work—and applications flowed in.
The average PPP loan it provided was just $27,000. “Regardless of how big or small, we treated them all the same and knew it was our responsibility to serve them,” Goldfeder says.
Cross River provided more than PPP loans to its customers. It also partnered with community organizations, chambers of commerce and elected officials to provide financial coaching and literacy education to small business customers and the greater community. The training, which continues, has included webinars, other online resources and in-person coaching.
“At its core, the PPP [showed] what Cross River is all about,” Goldfeder says. “We talk about our need to give back, and everything else comes second. This is what community banks do, and we’re proud of that.”
Ed Avis is a writer in Illinois.
People’s Choice Award
Central Valley Community Bank
Assets: $2.3 billion
Location: Fresno, Calif.
Central Valley Community Bank: Resilient under fire
Before the area was devastated by one of California’s largest wildfires, Prather, a quiet mountain town near the Sierra National Forest, was known for picturesque outdoor getaways.
Situated between the town’s post office and grocery store, Central Valley Community Bank is the only financial institution sustaining this mountain region outside of Fresno, Calif., where it’s based today. The bank, originally called Clovis Community Bank, has grown alongside its mountain home, having been founded in nearby Clovis, which sits at the base of the Central Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.
“We’re the only bank in the foothills up there. We were the only financial institution that people could turn to,” says president and CEO Jim Ford. “I think that makes us more empathetic with the folks on the mountain, because they’re very self-sufficient, a very proud group of people, and we’re proud to have served them all these years.”
“We had clients that just couldn’t believe how much support they got, not only from our bank but the entire mountainside. You know, that community kind of hung together.”
—Jim Ford, Central Valley Community Bank
Wildfires were a known risk in the community bank’s over 41-year history, so when the Creek Fire started in September 2020, it didn’t immediately raise alarm bells. But in a matter of days, the wildfire grew out of control thanks to a “perfect storm” of factors, Ford says. These included droughts and invasive beetle infestations, which weaken canopies.
The resulting pyrocumulonimbus cloud—one of the largest ever recorded in the U.S., according to NASA—stretched roughly nine miles high, resembling the plume of an atomic blast. Winds dispersed the cloud’s embers, spreading the fire farther.
Residents and clients, including several Central Valley Community Bank employees, were forced to evacuate their homes, so the community bank immediately held an internal donation drive to put staff up in hotels. Local banking centers down the hill also gave out water to first responders and handed out fire relief kits to residents. During the holiday season, the bank hosted a gift drive with local businesses to spread cheer among affected families.
“We had clients that just couldn’t believe how much support they got, not only from our bank but from the entire mountainside,” Ford says. “You know, that community kind of hung together.”
All told, the wildfire burned nearly 380,000 acres and destroyed more than 850 structures. No one was killed, thanks to the National Guard and first responders, who airlifted hundreds of campers and residents to safety. Its cause is still unknown.
Growing back from the roots
To help the region rebuild, Central Valley Community Bank launched the CVCB Central Sierra Resiliency Fund within the nonprofit Museum of the Sierra. The community bank kicked off a fundraising campaign with a $25,000 donation, which was matched by the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco. Donations from the public and businesses brought the fundraising to $83,000.
The efforts are helping to fund the reconstruction of property and replant decimated forests to revitalize the mountain economy. “[Reforestation] is really important,” Ford says. “Right now, it’s predominantly being done in areas where people live.” Local officials plan to plant tens of thousands of seedlings this fall and next spring, and Central Valley Community Bank will support continued replanting, he adds.
“What we wanted to do was not just write a check and walk away,” he says. “We wanted to do something that engaged not only [a financial need] but also the people and make it a community activity. If you think about our mission, it’s taking care of the communities that we’re in.”
From a credit perspective, helping a community rebuild after a wildfire is complicated. Many homeowners will simply reconstruct their homes via insurance or cash. For others, Central Valley Community Bank offers single-family construction financing, a lengthy process that involves clearing debris and waiting on federal and local government groups. The community bank is offering lower interest rates to families who choose this option. Ford says the bank also plans to work with local businesses that choose to rebuild above and beyond what their insurance policies are able to cover. Most importantly, he adds, the bank will be there when locals need it.
In June, Central Valley Community Bank finished its own reconstruction project, the major overhaul of its original Prather branch location. The community bank planned to rebuild the office, originally opened 34 years ago in a strip mall in the heart of the 1,700-person town, prior to the Creek Fire. While the branch wasn’t damaged in the fire, it was completely redone. The bank only kept the vault.
“With the folks I’ve talked to up there … they were just so happy that, one, the bank was there and, two, that we were rebuilding a brand-new banking center, because it meant that we were going to be there for a while,” Ford says. “They feel like they’re going to have a partner there for a long, long time.”
Eric Best is deputy editor of Independent Banker.
2021’s Honorable Mentions
Four other community banks received recognition for outstanding service to their communities
BOM Bank, Natchitoches, La.
Right from the start of the pandemic, employees of $650 million-asset BOM Bank were ready to help others get through the pandemic. They purchased and delivered meals to frontline and healthcare workers, donated 300 community service hours to COVID-19 vaccination sites, and more. Because of their efforts, employees were able to help 6,000 people get vaccinated.
“It became our mission to not only give back financially to food banks, restaurants and nonprofit organizations,” the community bank said in a statement, “but to increase our physical presence outside of the bank when possible.”
Community First Banking Company, West Plains, Mo.
What started with Community First Banking Company consciously diversifying its board of directors has grown into Business Women First, a regional educational program dedicated to women entrepreneurs and business professionals. In 2017, the $250 million-asset community bank hired its first two women board members. The next year, one of them, Andi Hilburn Vaini, proposed Business Women First. Its goal is to empower women in the region by providing networking opportunities and seminars on topics like wealth, communication and mentoring. The bank’s employees hope to grow the program to cover more topics and reach women in a larger range of industries.
Olympia Federal Savings, Olympia, Wash.
In 2013, Olympia Federal Savings created Better Fedder, a community outreach program dedicated to improving the quality of life in its community. In 2020, the $800 million-asset community bank donated more than $465,000 in grants and sponsorships to roughly 110 local nonprofits. In recent years, it has expanded the program by partnering with local Habitat for Humanity organizations. Having seen firsthand the demand for affordable housing, bank employees created a dedicated loan program. So far, Olympia Federal Savings has provided more than $14 million in affordable housing loans.
1st Bank Yuma, Yuma, Ariz.
Financial literacy and community service are important facets of 1st Bank Yuma’s investment in its community. To that end, the $569 million-asset community bank created the Kinder to College Financial Initiative. Since 2015, the program has helped more than 20,000 students and community members learn the value of financial literacy. Younger students visit the bank to learn the basics of economics and how banks operate, local high school students receive online classes, and college students and community members can attend presentations to learn about topics like identity theft.
Tiffany Lukk is associate editor of Independent Banker.