IOLTA Feature

Charitable Giving Strategies for Bank Aligned Foundations

Let us acknowledge that raising money is not easy. Today's foundations face less than favorable economic conditions (including the woefully familiar scenario of low interest rates and lower returns in the equity markets) all while deluged with increased demands by an endless ebb of deserving philanthropies. These organizations are lined up with palms exposed and colorfully printed brochures abundant with the needy asking poetically for more. In this environment, fundraising may seem even harder, and can be frustrating and disappointing. So if you are thinking about dropping this article, don't!

This article will address the disconnect between IOLTA programs and bank foundations and outline strategies one might consider when approaching a financial institution or its foundation for monetary support. You will find that many of the strategies noted herein also hold true when approaching non–bank organizations or foundations.

Just remember that so much of the success achieved in developing relationships with funders lies in the following four principles:

  • How well one appeals to the heart and the mind of the person making the decision
  • How well one is able to show an alignment of one's mission with that of the giver
  • How well one times the ask to maximize success
  • Knowing when to follow or break the rules

The Formula for Winning

The formula for winning follows a plan shared by the most successful directors of fund development. The elements of the plan are: know your audience; align your ask with their mission mandates; differentiate your delivery from the pack; speak with facts rather than anecdote; maximize utilization of marketing mediums; adhere to form and deadlines; make it personal with the decision maker; build inside connections; know how to close.

Know Your Audience

Knowing your audience is considered one of the most important keys for success. Banks tend to allocate charitable giving based on how well a philanthropic organization aligns with the bank on the following (these may or may not be mutually exclusive):

  • Charitable Mission
  • Community Reinvestment Act Footprint
  • Business & Branding Goals
  • Civic Goals
  • Employee Support Objectives

It is generally understood that no one bank source can provide capital for all of the charitable needs that exist in the universe of need. As such, a bank foundation may narrowly define its philanthropic focus area and likewise rationalize a concentration on fewer grant recipients. This specialization has a corresponding aim to drive greater, more sustainable and measurable outcomes with fewer more reliable partners. Said another way, a bank may elect to focus on young children versus college students or might elect to focus on person's living with a physical disability versus person's living with Alzheimer's. Note that these are tough and emotional choices both for the bank and the applying organizations.

Align the Ask with the Bank's Mission Mandate

Banks are governed by the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which holds financial institutions accountable for equitably serving the needs of the communities in its footprint. Many banks have created units that drive compliance with this regulation; one of the many ways compliance is achieved is through charitable giving in low to moderate income communities falling within the bank's CRA Assessment Area. Understanding your organization's physical location and understanding the physical location of the families serviced by your organization positions you to demonstrate CRA overlap. This alignment may broaden your appeal to the bank.

And Why Do You Deserve Our Support

Below is a sample argument showing how IOLTA programs align with the requirements of the Community Reinvestment Act:

No organization does what we do better than we do! We make legal representation, support and research accessible to families which might otherwise be left underserved. Our funds are disproportionately distributed in low to very low income communities and with low to very low income individuals. In recent years and with our help, the most underserved families have weathered the most difficult of economic downturns, preserved their homes and contested predatory lenders. With our help, other not–for–profit organizations have funded programs that have helped low income families access information and assistance needed to avoid foreclosures. In a layman's term, so much of what we do reflects what the Community Reinvestment Act asks of the nation's financial institutions. So much of what we do helps to make communities stronger. All of what we do helps to improve the lives of the underserved, and as such, a partnering of IOLTA strategies with bank run foundations would seem natural.

Maximize Utilization of Marketing Mediums


Not all bank charitable monies are purely philanthropic. In fact, many banks will distinguish between charitable giving and sponsorships and may even have separate sources and processes for requesting the same. Sponsorships however have an implied "marketing" dimension, whereby the bank derives a marketing type benefit from participation in an activity.

Sponsorship could take the form of the bank's logo appearing on a gala brochure, or banners on a street post at a city marathon. It could be a table at a fund raiser. Because of the marketing implication, it is helpful for the charitable organization's Development Director to understand the bank's business and branding strategy.

This sponsorship information is not generally published and in many cases is fragmented, as different areas of the bank may have very different marketing and business engagement objectives. It is recommended that one looks at what the bank has done in the past. An effective way to look at this history is to utilize the internet and look at the types of organizations that the bank has given to in the past. Also consider looking at peer organizations to see which financial institutions have supported them.

Board of Directors, Trustees, Committee Members

Banks want to be great corporate citizens and may derive business or branding benefits by having their officers hold board, committee or trustee positions with civic organizations. This membership is often accompanied by the expectation that the bank will support that organization financially. You will see that there is often overlap between the board members of these organizations and yours.

Think of it in social media terms. Are you directly or indirectly connected to a decision maker? Typically, the bank's most senior officers are members of these boards and research into the boards on which senior leadership sit can help you navigate a financial institution and discern how connected you are to them. Likewise, one can obtain a sense for the types of philanthropies supported by that bank.

Bank Employees

Banks tend to support their employees by encouraging volunteerism and then financially supporting the organizations of which they are members. Consider the example of PNC Bank's "Grow Up Great" program; PNC employees receive up to 40 paid hours of work a year to volunteer in their communities. If the employee or a combination of employees serve 40 or more hours at a qualified organization (elementary schools, day care centers or organizations serving young children), that organization can receive up to $3,000 in PNC grants.

Further, the employee may elect to provide a personal gift and receive a matching donation from the bank (up to $2,500). The employee may also contribute to a bank sponsored United Way campaign and direct those funds to your organization. Aligning with or recruiting bank employees should be considered an important part of your strategy.

Differentiate your Delivery, Speak with Facts

As I shared in the opening, there are hundreds of organizations vying for a bank's limited resources. Success for your fund raising program will rely on the creativity and effectiveness of your ask. I suggest two points: 1) differentiate your delivery from the pack and 2) drive home your message with facts, not anecdotes.

Said another way, tell your story in such a way as to appeal to heart and back it up with facts, bigger numbers are generally better. Most foundations want to know that the funding will be material in impact.

Details that Make a Difference

After completing your due diligence and after crafting your story, the challenge is then to comply with the application process. It is not uncommon that a "form application" is required. Keep these forms and dates in mind. Understand what information is required and have the requisite attachments (financial statements, tax returns, W9's, board bios). With the many requests that banks receive, it is easy to dismiss the incomplete file.

Make it Personal

Though it may seem obvious, do not simply mail or email your request. Make every effort to deliver it personally and ideally in a face to face meeting. The application is not a drop shipment.

Connections and the Close

Identify bank employees, clients or prospects as advocates for your cause. In advance of the meeting, line up your advocates and if possible, obtain written endorsements from them.

Then close effectively by reinforcing how your cause aligns with the bank on all the important points discussed above. Ask for a timeline on the decision and clarify what else may be needed. Finally, agree to follow up on a specified date.


Remember, you are competing with many deserving causes that merit funding, but no organization does what you do as well as you do! The success you achieve in securing funding will reflect your ability to articulate the compelling value of the IOLTA mission and its good work. The need for programs funded by IOLTA are only likely to grow as families weather the still brisk currents of this financial crisis.

Thurman Smith is a Senior Vice President and head of Community Development for PNC Bank's Wisconsin–Illinois–St. Louis Region. He is a graduate of the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California and serves on the boards of more than a dozen community based organizations. He is also on the City of Chicago — 5 Year housing Plan Advisory Committee.