Montecito Bank & Trust’s annual $1 million gift to nonprofits

Sharing the wealth—Members of Montecito Bank & Trust’s board of directors stand with the 15th annual Community Dividends check.

An extraordinary legacy

Fifteen years ago, the late Michael Towbes decided Montecito Bank & Trust should do more to give back to its community. Today, the Community Dividends program he founded gives an annual $1 million to local nonprofits.

By Andrea Lahouze

Back in 2003, on the Monday before Thanksgiving, leaders of 100 nonprofits from California’s Santa Barbara County gathered at Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara. Michael Towbes, the sole shareholder of Montecito Bank & Trust, had invited them to a Thanksgiving meal. What they didn’t know was that Towbes, who helped found the community bank in 1975, had something extraordinary planned.

Months earlier, Towbes had decided that he wanted to give more money away through Montecito Bank & Trust, so he changed the bank’s status from C-corp and took the subchapter S selection to establish the Community Dividends program.

“After lunch, he spoke to the audience,” recalls Janet Garufis, chairman and CEO of the $1.35 billion-asset community bank. “He said, ‘I want you to know that I’ve started this program and I’ve chosen you because of the work that you do in our community. Not everybody can do what we can do, but everybody can do something. It’s my intention to keep this program going for a long time.’ And then he passed out $10,000 checks to every single nonprofit that was in the room.”

Now in its 15th year, the Community Dividends program still gathers nonprofits together for a lunch on the Monday before Thanksgiving, and it still gives away $1 million. The funds are occasionally pre-gifted these days to allow the nonprofits to realize specific projects and goals. The pre-lunch reception is also a bit longer to allow more time for nonprofit leaders to connect with each other. Many of the recipients change from year to year, but a few standouts have received an annual gift since the program’s inception.
“[The repeat recipients] really are the iconic ones in the community, the ones who are doing mostly health and welfare, serving low- to moderate-income families,” Garufis says. “Really, our primary mission is serving the needs of the low- to moderate-income members of our community, education for children and support of the arts.”

Real-world impact
Ernesto Paredes, executive director of local nonprofit Easy Lift Transportation, says Montecito Bank’s donation has allowed Easy Lift to partner with University of California, Santa Barbara’s work-study program in hiring and training students to provide free local transportation to frail seniors and people living with disabilities, maintaining their access to health care and nutrition. “Montecito Bank & Trust’s Community Dividends is one of the most special gestures any business partner can offer,” Paredes says.
Alana Walczak, CEO of Child Abuse Listening Mediation, Inc. (CALM), notes that Community Dividends donations have funded both core support for and specific programs within the nonprofit, which works to prevent childhood trauma, heal children and families, and build resilient communities in Santa Barbara County.

“Community Dividends allows us to help children like 5-year-old Carla, currently enrolled in parent–child interaction therapy with her mother, and 9-year-old Jeremy, who attends our
weekly domestic violence group counseling sessions,” Walczak says.

The bank has also begun leading a training session prior to the lunch on a topic of interest to nonprofits. In 2016, it covered cybersecurity risk mitigation. In 2017, it invited a panel of four significant corporate donors to share insights on effective approaches for corporate fundraising.

In addition to bolstering nonprofits’ efforts, Community Dividends has strengthened the community bank’s resolve to support those efforts, right down to the people it hires.

“We have really begun now to hire for fit,” says Garufis. “It’s important that the people that we hire think as we do, that they have a shared sense of belonging to the community.
“Our whole culture is really built around this idea of being part of and giving back to the community.”

Last year’s Thanksgiving event was the first without Towbes, who passed away in April 2017. Garufis is honored to be a part of carrying forward his legacy of generosity. All together, she estimates Montecito Bank & Trust employees spend about 2,500 hours a year volunteering.

“Our bank was founded on the idea of giving back,” Garufis says. “When I took over responsibility as president of the bank 11 years ago, I built intentionally with my team a culture around that idea.

“We also support our associates in giving time back to communities in ways that they want to,” she adds. “We don’t pick it for them. We encourage our people to sit on boards or volunteer. The associates will tell you what’s important to them, and if it’s important to them, then it should be important to the bank as well.”

Andrea Lahouze is deputy editor of Independent Banker.