As readers can tell from our cover of this month’s “Thanksgiving” issue, we had an opportunity to break bread with Brandon C. Lorey, President and CEO of the Bank of Clarke, his “Philanthropy Engagement Officer, East and Leesburg branch manager Betsy Bennett, and others from the bank’s C-suite and foundation board in recreating Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” painting. Color us nostalgic, but sometimes a picture’s worth 1,000 words. Our point? Both in terms of wealth creation and in giving to local charities, this particular bank has done more than most in keeping “want” from the doors of local families.
We turned the occasion into a conversation about why we give and how philanthropy enriches both the giver and the recipient, for both individuals and businesses.
For reference, in the 20-year period until 2019 when Brandon came on board, the Bank of Clarke gave a little more than $1 million to local charities. Since Brandon established the Bank of Clarke’ Foundation in 2021, through the end of this year, the Bank of Clarke Foundation will have donated another $1 million (in just three years.)
Creating the foundation as a 501c3 in 2021 was meant to ensure that the bank would be able to give in both prosperous years and lean. Says Brandon, “It may sound a little corny, but as a community bank, from a strategic perspective, we’re only as strong as the communities we serve. It’s our job to make sure that we remain a steadfast steward of our giving. I didn't want the bank, if we had a year where we had to cut expenses, for that to negatively impact the giving that the bank can do. It's no secret. If we look at the second quarter of 2023, like every bank we have less earnings than last year, but our giving is still up by 20% year over year.”
Grants to more than 170 deserving charities in the bank’s footprint, both large and small, have been made since the foundation’s inception. Giving is focused on community services, children, health, environment and education.
“We're giving around $150,000 a year since 2019, and that's just continuing to grow as we expand,” he added. Banks like all businesses, have stakeholders who expect them to turn a profit, so one facet of the bank’s giving is focused on the non-profits it serves as clients. “We’re the bank for non-profits,” proclaims bank marketing material. Non-profit business checking accounts earn interest on all balances, with fees waived for cash management. Remote deposit and merchant services are available, as well as a professional trust department to administer or set up a trust for these organizations.
“I’d love to say our giving is completely altruistic, but it’s also a way for us to build community relationships and create a non-profit niche market for ourselves,” Brandon says. Besides its foundation executive director, the bank also has two regional philanthropy engagement officers, “because we want to make it easier for such organizations to ask for money.” Having those positions in the community, “has really helped significantly with outreach.”
As part of the 2-year-old foundation’s strategic planning, it will begin to build out its mission statement and establish guidelines so that its giving benefits both the entities that have the biggest impact in the communities they serve, and the smaller organizations that help clients who would otherwise go unnoticed. “I've worked for organizations that say their foundations aren’t going to do small donations like $250 or $500. They want to do just a few donations of $10,000, $20,000 or $30,000. I think that’s a mistake, because, as difficult as it may be to administer, these amounts can make a big difference to smaller institutions.” One way that smaller groups benefit is during the holiday season when branch managers have the opportunity to select local charities that may have touched their lives, and make them the focus of their own and their depositors’ donations at the branch level. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Brandon; “the generosity of our community is what makes it special.”
As the foundation’s internal resources grow, it will have more autonomy to make donation decisions, but will also develop key performance indicators and hone its strategic mission to help ensure the efficacy of that giving, he said. At the end of the day, though, there’s no P&L statement for giving. Brandon explains, “I think it comes down to, it's the right thing to do. That may sound simple, but I think that's why I'm a community banker and I'm not working for one of the big guys. The more we can engage with non-profit entities and they can introduce me to their boards, and we can work with those other organizations that support them – all that goes to our bottom line, but it’s not something we objectively measure. We are working to maintain the connectivity we’ve always had with the communities in which we operate. I believe we’ve just improved upon what was already a great process.”
The bank itself has a fresh look, and dropped the word “County” from its name because of its rapidly growing footprint in Fauquier, Loudoun and Fairfax counties in Virginia and Frederick County, Maryland. It has doubled in size in four years, and its expansion in Loudoun County accounts for two-thirds of that growth. Known as a change agent at his prior posts, Brandon also is focused on making sure the bank’s technology platforms offer “the products and services of Wall Street with the customer service of Main Street.”
“Safe and sound” growth doesn’t mean that the bank won’t take risks. When he met Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-VA) in 2021, he was proud to tell her that Bank of Clarke had done more PPP lending than any other bank in her district. “We were up at 2, 3, 4 in the morning processing loan documents and getting money out the door, but that’s the cornerstone of the Bank of Clarke and speaks volumes about who we are and what we do.”
Collaboration for change also marks Bank of Clarke’s community commitment. In the midst of the worst Black Lives Matter rioting following the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, Brandon met with his fellow bank CEOs Scott Harvard of First Bank Virginia and Alice P. Frazer of the Bank of Charles Town to address the issue that PPP funding seemed not to be reaching minority businesses proportionately. Together they created a banking and diversity program that set aside $750,000 for 0-interest loans for minority start-ups. (Start-up loan funding was limited to $5,000 and $10,000 for existing businesses.)
“In 2020, when interest rates were around 3 percent, that may not have seemed like a big deal, but three years later with interest rates at 7, 8, 9 percent, we’re still doing it and we’re meeting again next week to discuss re-funding the program for next year. It is absolutely a part of our ‘bottom line’ to grow these communities and I view it as as important as any other outreach.”
The bank also hopes to be a trusted financial advisor to entrepreneurs, helping them build their profit and loss statements and decide how best to advance their business ideas. “We interview them and try to find them the resources they need. What’s your profit? What’s your margin? They’re going to be your customer for life, so it’s important they have the right processes in place.”
No one can plan for every contingency, so there will always be people in every community who need help with basic services, he notes, but teaching the younger generation to save money can help to instill an interest in giving back to those in need. Again, it may seem like a small thing, but the Bank of Clarke is one of those few remaining local financial institutions that offers a “Christmas Club” account. “They are 100% manual and a pain to administer, but I will not be the CEO that gets rid of them because of what they teach about both saving and giving,” Brandon exclaimed.
It takes both to put food on the table, so watch your local branch for this year’s opportunities to donate, and keep an eye on the bank’s redesigned website for opportunities like the Foundation’s first ever “Footsteps for the Foundation” charity walk that occurred October 7th at Claude Moore Park in Sterling and October 14th at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester. All proceeds were designated for the 170 local charities the bank supports.
“I think it comes down to, it's the right thing to do. That may sound simple, but I think that's why I'm a community banker and I'm not working for one of the big guys." Brandon Lorey