Holiday Spirit Lasts All Year
Cobbers at State Bank & Trust explain how they chose a need to benefit from their Pay It Forward allowance:
Happy employees and happy customers have long
been trademarks of the largest privately owned bank in
North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. State Bank
& Trust, headquartered in Fargo, N.D., built its reputation
by promoting a family atmosphere and providing personal
service to every customer. Now it can add happy community
members to its bottom line.
The bank made a move in December 2007 that some companies might consider unconventional. Michael Solberg ’95, the bank’s chief operating officer, asked employees to give away a half million dollars of the bank’s money.
The former Concordia football player expected the Pay It Forward program to have far-reaching effects on both employees and the people to whom they gave. “I was convinced it wouldn’t stop and start with the money,” Solberg says. “I thought it would open the door for these small acts of kindness.” Still, even he was surprised at how quickly the small acts added up.
Employees donated the money to libraries, schools and hospitals. They purchased cars for those without transportation and beds for those that had none. More than 700 needy families and organizations received help.
Rayelle Nelson and her daughter, Kataryna, 5, were just two individuals who benefited from the challenge. The Moorhead family received two new beds and bedding through HopeCare, a church-based ministry that received $30,000 from State Bank & Trust employees.
“People think a bed is a small thing, but it’s not,” says Rayelle Nelson, who can’t work because of a disability. “A bed gives you the rest to become the mother you need to be for your child. With a good bed, your child gets the rest they need to develop.
“These little things mean a lot when you’re someone who has nothing,” she says.
Since its start, one of State Bank’s core values has been to give back. “We don’t have the pressures of Wall Street,” Solberg says. “We are able to invest in the communities we serve.”
Historically, however, the bank has kept its community giving separate from the holiday parties it throws for its employees. One year State Bank hosted the 12 days of Christmas where prizes got progressively larger, culminating in a new car for one lucky employee. Another time Solberg played Howie Mandel from the game show “Deal or No Deal” and gave away $500,000 in cash to be shared among employees.
After that party, Solberg felt some pressure to come up with a bigger seasonal celebration. While brainstorming possibilities, his wife Char mentioned an episode of “Oprah” where the entertainment diva gave money to audience members. The caveat: They needed to give it away.
Solberg ran the idea by his dad, CEO Dick Solberg ’68, and the company’s human resources manager. They gave their blessings.
With an Oprah Winfrey impersonator at his side, Michael Solberg announced the challenge at the company’s 2007 Christmas party. In addition to an annual cash bonus, each employee received money – $1,000 for full-time employees, $500 for part-timers – to spend on someone in need. Donations couldn’t be given to family members, employees or family members of employees. Finally, each give-away needed to be documented with a video camera State Bank provided.
“I thought it was a great idea,” says Dorothy Agather ’76, who works at State Bank & Trust in Moorhead. She contributed part of her money to HopeCare. “What an opportunity it is to have your employer challenge you like that.”
State Bank’s Pay It Forward program drew immediate media attention. Solberg appeared on national television shows like “Good Morning America” and “CBS Evening News.” A USA Today reporter called the bank’s challenge the feel-good story of the Christmas season. But the true influence of the project played out over the next year. In the end, about $665,000 was distributed as employees contributed their personal funds and sought matching grants to stretch the gift.
Still, the experience touched people deeper than employees handing out dollars. “You get so busy with work and family that it was an eye opener for me to see the needs in our community,” says Blake Nelson ’95, who pooled his money with others to give used vehicles to single moms without transportation. “These people are on the roller coaster every day.”
The Pay It Forward campaign is just one example of how State Bank & Trust can influence its communities, Solberg says. The bank’s ownership group feels so strongly about the mission that it will continue the program in 2009.
“It has given me a renewed focus of why we’re in this business. It resets your priorities,” he says. “We need to make sure our actions mirror the same things that we believe in.”