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Interview - Gary Levante of Berkshire Bank on How CSR is Fueling and Becoming More Integral to Their Rapid Expansion

Submitted by: Scott Tanksley

Posted: Apr 15, 2015 – 06:00 AM EST

Tags: csr, community engagement, volunteerism


Gary Levante is Community Engagement Manager at Berkshire Bank. Berkshire, known as America’s Most Exciting Bank®, is a regional bank, headquartered in MA, experiencing tremendous growth. Known for its distinctive brand and culture, five years ago they had roughly 600 employees and 42 branches. Now, over 1,200 employees and 90 branches in Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, and Vermont and growing. Gary came on board in early 2010 and has led the transformation from a traditional, rather passive, community effort to a strategic effort integrated into their culture, leadership development and business initiatives.

Gary, where were things in the CSR, Community Engagement arena when you joined Berkshire? 

We had an extensive history of philanthropic giving through our charitable foundation and had only recently launched our Employee Volunteer Program. At the time, our volunteer efforts weren’t overly strategic. It was the traditional, "hop on a bus, wear the company t-shirt, and get some pictures" type of effort. It'd be generous to say 40% of the employees participated. We recognized that we were missing significant opportunities to better align our CSR efforts with business objectives as well as more effectively utilize our most important resource, our people, to drive shared value for the business and community.

What's happened since and what are key parts of the strategy?

We overhauled our community involvement strategy and placed an emphasis on empowering our employees to serve their communities. Rather than deciding for them and communicating top-down about efforts, we created regional volunteer committees to give employees at all levels a voice and process to raise up ways they wish to be involved. It's much more inclusive and employees feel greater ownership about an arena they naturally care about - the communities in which they live and share with our customers. We allocate 16 hours of paid time off a year to each employee so they can volunteer at company-supported projects during regular business hours. It was a way for us to stand behind our commitment to service as a company. We also made a strategic and conscious effort to build that culture of service from the very beginning as we hire and onboard new team members. Those are big reasons why participation rates have doubled to over 70% and employees are donating in excess of 40,000 hours of service annually and climbing. 

How has the effort become more integrated into the operations of the company?

For one, the volunteer committees have created more opportunities for the leadership development of our staff. It equips employees to consider process and provide guidance at scale, to deliberate and make decisions that represent their peers and the company, and to develop their skills with multiple stakeholder groups. We link and track our efforts with measures on employee engagement and retention amongst dozens of other metrics. And, as we grow through merger and acquisition and natural expansion of our operations, what we do here helps unify and cement our culture as a company and position in the community. Our messaging around volunteering and community efforts is consistently spread throughout recruiting, onboarding, training, and employee communications. Our volunteer efforts are central to our overall CSR strategy and are driving value on dozens of business objectives.

What personal practices help you in this role?

I studied History and Political Science in college, which gives me an appreciation for diverse, multi-stakeholder environments around issues. I read a ton about the field from sources like Points of Light, the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship (BCCC) and CSRwire, and regularly network with other CSR leaders from across the globe. I’ve found that learning from colleagues at other companies and understanding why different strategies work under different operating environments is an incredibly helpful learning tool. It allows me to adapt those strategies and best practices from the field to continually improve our own CSR efforts at Berkshire. You don’t have to come up with the strategy or program, you just have to know how to execute it best in your context. One of the most effective practices is probably when I "get out of the building" to visit branches and talk with front-line employees and customers about the causes they care about. It helps me understand what’s important to them, what their expectations are, and how we can best drive impact in the community as well as our business.

What do you think we'll see more of in CSR between now and 2020?

Stakeholders are expecting more transparency from companies and more authentic philanthropic efforts. The days of “window-dressing” CSR programs that are primarily used for reputation and risk management are over. The public’s increasing expectation of business to fundamentally solve the challenges in our society will force companies to collaborate in new ways. At the same time we see an increased demand from executives and c-suite leadership for CSR to demonstrate tangible return on investment for every dollar spent. At the confluence of these two interests is where I see CSR in 2020 and beyond. Not doing anything is no longer option for businesses. The companies that are going to be the most effective are the ones that successfully embed CSR principals into every aspect of their business, thus transforming their operations while driving value for the community. Central to that success and integration are people. Employee and community engagement along with measurement are going to become increasingly important. One hope that I have for CSR in 2020 is that more small and midsize companies will adopt CSR into their business models. I’m a firm believer in the value CSR programs provide for the community and business because I’ve seen firsthand their transformative power. 

Connect with Gary: LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/garylevante Email: glevante@berkshirebank.com

Learn more about Berkshire’s Community Efforts: Website: berkshirebank.com Facebook: www.facebook.com/BerkshireBank Twitter: @BerkshireBank

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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