M&T Bank Corp. is one of the nation's top corporate donors, giving out more cash compared to its revenues than such giants as Coca-Cola Co., drugmakers Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer, and Wal-Mart Stores, according to a survey by Business Week.
The Buffalo-based bank, known locally for its support for Westminster Community School and cultural institutions, came in as the 8th-biggest charitable donor for 2003 in the weekly newsmagazine's ranking of most generous companies. The ranking, published in the Nov. 29 issue, is based on cash gifts as a percentage of revenues.
But the recognition isn't what's important to Chairman and Chief Executive Robert G. Wilmers. He said the bank's philosophy of giving can also be called "enlightened self-interest."
"We believe that the success of the bank is inextricably linked to the health and vitality of the communities in which we do business. The better off a community is, the better off we are," he said. "If they rank us well, so much the better, but we're not doing it for the ranking."
M&T last year gave $13.7 million to charitable organizations in its communities last year. That's a fraction of the $176 million that Wal-Mart gave or the $120 million that Ford Motor Co. donated.
But at just shy of one-half of 1 percent of the bank's revenues, it dwarfs the retailing and auto behemoths compared to what they're capable of giving. Both gave less than eight one-hundredths of 1 percent.
M&T was one of only two banks in the Top 10, tying with Fifth Third Bancorp of Cincinnati.
The leading donor was Freeport-McMoran Copper & Gold, whose $21.7 million represented about 1 percent of revenues. Corning was close behind it in second place.
Rounding out the top 10 were Avon Products, Newmont Mining, Computer Associates, General Mills, Eli Lilly & Co. and Medtronic.
The results didn't surprise bank analyst Robert H. Hughes of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods in New York. M&T and Fifth Third historically have been two of the highest-performing banks in the country.
"Historically, banks have always been very involved in their local communities, and one of the ways they've done that is through community giving," he said. "It probably helps the bank in less tangible ways. It helps build a strong corporate image."
One bank, Commerce Bancorp of Cherry Hill, N.J., is known for paying out about 3 percent of its prior year's pretax earnings in charitable donations. It recently put up $100,000 to restore a playground in a Philadelphia park and offered another $100,000 in a challenge grant if other corporate givers came up with additional cash.
But Wilmers was skeptical of how much benefit the ranking would bring. "It's always better to be first in line than somewhere down in the pack," he said. "But I don't know how many customers see that kind of ranking."
M&T doesn't have a particular goal each year, but does prepare an annual charitable giving budget, which has been increasing each year as the bank has grown into one of the nation's top 20 financial institutions.
The bank has $52.1 billion in assets and operates 677 branches in six Mid-Atlantic states from northern Virginia through upstate New York. Wilmers said the bank tries to give in relationship to its earnings and size in each market.
The bank sometimes provides "challenge grants" that require the recipient to raise a matching or greater amount from other sources before the bank writes its own checks. Such grants are a common way of making charities broaden their fund-raising sources.
"We don't want to be the total support of any institution," Wilmers said. "We like to see that they're making an effort, too."
Locally, M&T provides $800,000 a year in funding for the Westminster school. It's also a supporter of Shea's Performing Arts Center, the Darwin Martin House and Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
Other grant recipients include the Massachusetts Avenue Project, a job creation, job training and economic development project on the West Side, and the St. John's Fruit Belt Community Development Corp.
"We basically try to focus on those institutions that enhance the quality of life in their communities," Wilmers said.