But when it came time to plan the next party, and people started wondering how Bell was going to top the previous year, Michael Solberg, Bell’s president and CEO, wanted to find a way to help employees shift focus.
“It’s human nature to think about ourselves,” Michael notes. “One of the challenges we all have as we have success is to make sure we’re also thinking about how we can share that success with others.”
His wife, Char, had seen an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, where Oprah gave each of her audience members $1,000, but the money came with a catch – they had to pay it forward by spending it on someone else. Char suggested Bell do the same thing for employees.
“The beauty of this Pay It Forward program is it takes the hard work everybody does every day and allows them to invest in people and causes they care deeply about,” Michael comments. “That’s not only the magic of this program, but also culturally why it’s so important. It reminds us how blessed we are individually and as a company, and it keeps us focused on making sure we’re helping people who need it.”
Richard Solberg, Bell’s board chairman, says he liked the concept when Michael first told him about it, but he knew it would be expensive. (The company gave away $650,000 the first year and has given more than $12 million so far.)
“We didn’t want the money to come out of our employees’ pockets, so we don’t do this at the expense of good salaries, benefits and bonuses,” Richard notes, adding that the money for the program comes out of shareholders’ earnings.
When they launched the program at the 2007 Christmas party, they surprised even the other major shareholders and the bank’s board of directors.
“We were confident they would like it and endorse it, which turned out to be true,” Richard remarks. “Giving back to the community had been a big part of our culture for many years, and this was a unique way to do that.”
Laura Snortland Fairfield, one of Bell’s major shareholders, says it just goes to show the level of trust between the company’s leadership and shareholders.
“To whom much is given, much is demanded, and we’ve been given a lot,” Laura remarks. “There’s no U-Haul behind a hearse. You can’t take it with you, so you might as well give it away now.”
Julie Snortland, one of Bell’s major shareholders and wife of the late Mickey Snortland, a Bell shareholder and longtime director, says she and Mickey were thrilled when they learned about the Pay It Forward program at the Christmas party.
“Mickey didn’t want to know anything about the program presented at the Christmas party; he enjoyed being surprised along with the bank’s employees,” Julie notes. “I am grateful that we’ve been able to do this for the last 10 years, and that we’ll be able to continue doing it going forward.”
Not only has the Pay It Forward program made a big difference in the lives of the people who have received the money, but it has also had a profound impact on Bell as a company and its employees, who have embraced the program.
“It’s a ripple effect of giving that you just can’t duplicate,” Laura notes. “The remarkable thing is how widespread the giving can be, and we couldn’t possibly do that without the employees’ own desires for giving. There’s a lot of hurt out there, and there are a lot of causes to give to.”
Julie says she’s always amazed by the variety of places employees come up with to donate their funds, and she’s just as proud of the employees who volunteer for organizations, sometimes the ones where they’re giving their Pay It Forward money.
The funds don’t have to go to a tax-exempt nonprofit organization. Many employees choose to donate to an acquaintance or a neighbor in need or just someone they hear about who needs some help.
“The thing that’s so surprising is how much $1,000 means to people at certain times in their lives,” Richard remarks. “I think for a majority of our employees who have been doing this for years, if they had a choice between continuing the Pay It Forward program and keeping the money for themselves, they would choose to give it away.”
While Michael says banks in general tend to be some of the most generous givers in communities across the country, what makes Bell’s Pay It Forward program unique is it’s not the board of directors or owners deciding where to invest the dollars, it’s every one of the employees.
“There is no way we would find these unique needs in our community without how seriously the employees take finding great people and needs to invest in,” he comments. “Some of the best stories are people investing in people they’ve never met and have no relationship with, but know they need help.”
Some of the needs, he says, have been surprising. The first year, for example, employees pooled their funds and were able to buy 80 beds for kids in the community who didn’t have beds.
“What shocked me at the time was how many kids in our community went to sleep in a pile of dirty clothes without a bed,” Michael remarks. “This program continues to open our eyes to the needs around us. It’s also a great reminder of how fortunate we are. That is a healthy and happy part of our culture, to continue to have gratitude and to count the blessings we’ve been given.”
Bell didn’t put out a news release or contact the media when the company launched the Pay It Forward program, but word got out anyway.
Michael Solberg appeared on a number of news outlets to talk about it, including Good Morning America, CBS’s The Early Show, Fox News, CNN, the BBC and CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. USA Today and People magazine also featured stories about the program.
“That wasn’t the intention, and that’s not why we did it,” Richard comments. “We did it because it’s the right thing to do. There are a lot of needs out there, and there are a lot of worthy causes. That’s the reason we’re doing it. We’re not trying to get recognition.”
The program has also, unintentionally, helped recruit employees and customers, who say they like being part of a bank that’s so dedicated to supporting its community.
“Culture in general attracts people who believe in what the company is trying to do,” Michael says. “The Pay It Forward program has absolutely become part of who we are.”
Michael is glad Bell’s customers also feel a strong sense of pride in the program.
“They have thousands of choices to do business with, but by them choosing to do business with us, it allows us to have the success to continue the program,” he remarks.
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