Bell Bank: Paying It Forward Pays Dividends

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An innovative corporate philanthropy program empowers employees to give back on a personal level

At Bell Bank’s employee holiday party in 2007, CEO Michael Solberg announced the launch of a new kind of corporate philanthropic initiative. Every full-time employee would receive an annual stipend of $1,000 to use for charitable purposes however they liked. The money could be given to traditional nonprofits and causes or to individuals and families in need. He called it the Pay It Forward Program.

Over the years, the Fargo, ND-based company has increased the allowance to $5,000 per employee. Recipients have ranged from community-based charities, like La Mesa Ministries, which serves people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness, to families and individuals dealing with life-changing physical traumas and financial crises. During an Army Reserve deployment in Romania, Bell Bank physical security officer Andrew Gaydos donated his stipend to the Salvation Army to provide school supplies and hygiene kits for families in impoverished areas.

Many employees amplify the impact of their giving by pooling their funds. That’s what Glen Reilly, a Bell Bank loan officer in Chandler, AZ, did when he learned of the struggles of Jenifer Merriam, a single mom with two gravely ill children. Because they require full-time care, Jenifer can’t work outside the home.

“As a single mom, Jenifer is trying to provide both kids with the best quality of life, which includes experiences that bring them joy,” Glen says. A few years ago, he began giving his Pay It Forward funds to Jenifer to help her care for her kids and provide those joyful experiences. When he found out that Jenifer needed a new car, he asked his co-workers if they’d be willing to contribute their Pay It Forward funds to her cause. He raised more than $44,000.

In 2019, 22-year-old Hunter Pinke was skiing in Colorado when an accident broke his spine and left him paralyzed. Gus Schlepp, a Bell credit officer, had coached Hunter in junior high and high school football. When he and colleague Julia Stetz learned about the accident, they rallied their co-workers to consolidate their Pay It Forward funds to help. Hunter used the money to purchase a track chair, enabling him to engage in outdoor sports. “I don’t think somebody gets through this the way that I have without the kind of people who have surrounded me,” says Hunter.

There are countless Pay It Forward stories like Jenifer and Hunter’s. To date, Bell Bank employees have donated more than $27 million, with local businesses also pitching in with funding and support.

From Carpenter Group’s perspective, the Pay it Forward program reflects a brand that explicitly links employees’ personal values and charitable goals with financial performance. Small wonder that Bell Bank is regularly included on “Best Companies to Work for” lists (as in Best Companies for Parents… Women … Millennials etc.).

“Our mission statement is pretty simple,” says Solberg. “It’s ‘Happy employees, Happy customers’ — kind of going back to the idea that if our employees are happy, our customers are going to be happy. And then the financials take care of themselves.”