Community Spirit: Friendly competition for a cause

Banks come together each year to support a food bank in the quickly growing Bismarck, N.D., area.

By Katie Kuehner-Hebert

Talk about working with your competitors and truly living up to the idea of a community bank.

Several community banks in the Bismarck, N.D., area have been in a friendly annual competition for the past five years to see which financial institution can collect the most donations for the Bismarck Emergency Food Pantry.

The Banking for the Food Bank contest was the brainchild of Heather Heinle, a Bank Secrecy Act officer and security officer at $1.3 billion-asset Starion Bank. Along with the rest of the community bank’s risk management team, she has been volunteering at the food pantry since 2011.

“About six years ago, as western North Dakota was experiencing an oil boom, we began to notice that the shelves of the pantry were getting pretty empty due to an influx of people coming to the community,” Heinle says. “Our team came up with the idea of challenging other banks in town to collect items for the pantry.”

Quick stat


Number of items eight banks raised for the Bismarck Emergency Food Pantry in their 2018 contest

Heinle reached out to other banks in Bismarck and the adjoining city of Mandan. In Banking for the Food Bank’s first year, three institutions collected more than 11,000 items. Since then, the competition has consistently grown in size. In 2018, eight banks participated, amassing more than 62,000 items.

“Even though it’s a friendly competition, it’s still a competition, and banks have come up with creative ways to collect the most items,” Heinle says.

Starion Bank features displays in its branches where employees, customers and community members can drop off items, she says. During the two weeks of Banking for the Food Bank, the team periodically reaches out to employees to keep the enthusiasm going for the food drive between Starion Bank’s Bismarck and Mandan branches.

“We also get the word out to the community through social media and in-branch posters,” Heinle says.

Creative competition

Security First Bank of North Dakota uses Facebook and signs in its lobby to rally customers. The $183 million-asset community bank even incentivized employees with extra days they can wear jeans in the office in exchange for monetary contributions, says CEO Sarah Getzlaff. A member of the team then uses the funds to shop for items to donate.

“As the smallest bank by far in the competition, we knew we wouldn’t collect the most items, so our goal was to buy as many of the higher-quality, higher-cost items off the pantry’s wish list as we could,” Getzlaff says.

David Mason, Bismarck president of the Stenehjem family-owned First International Bank & Trust, says employees and locals who visited the $2.7 billion-asset bank’s lobby were the primary donors.

“This was an ‘all Bismarck’ team drive, so all of our bank, mortgage, trust, investment and corporate employees contributed and challenged each other to participate,” he says.

Stonehome Brewing Co., a brewery in Watford City, N.D., also owned by the Stenehjem family, helped the community bank in gathering items, Mason says. Since the competition is based upon the number of items, participating banks celebrate their success and creativity almost daily as donations pile up throughout the drive. 

“It has been a fun way for our local community banks to interact, compete and do what we do best, which is serving our community’s needs.”
—David Mason, First International Bank & Trust

“Community banks have always been up for competition, and this is an ongoing event that has gained support and participation throughout the past several years,” Mason says. “It has been a fun way for our local community banks to interact, compete and do what we do best, which is serving our community’s needs.”

First Western Bank & Trust, which is based in Minot, N.D., but has a branch in Bismarck, collected food items by placing bins in its Bismarck branch’s lobby and an employee lounge, says First Western president and CEO Brenda Foster.

The $1 billion-asset bank then encouraged employees to bring in donations and tell customers about the cause.

“At the end of the day, banks could not operate without people who live in our communities,” Foster says. “It is important to give back, not only in dollar amounts, but also through volunteering and other types of donations depending on the need, such as the [Bismarck] Emergency Food Pantry.

“If the community is successful, the banks will be successful,” she adds. “Each and every day, we are able to partner with family, friends and neighbors to make a difference and support each other in our community.”

All in the family

Another participant is $990 million-asset BNC National Bank, where Michelle Radke, a personal trust officer—and Heinle’s mother—works. “I just think it’s wonderful that even though we’re competitors in the market, we all come together to help people in need,” Radke says. “It’s really the food pantry that wins.”

Heinle agrees with her mother.

“This isn’t about the banks and their employees. It’s about our communities,” she says. “When you see a need in your community, I encourage you to ask yourself, ‘What solution can we come up with and how can we make that as impactful as possible?’”

If the idea is meaningful and easy to implement, Heinle says, then it’ll be easy for others to support your effort. “Whether you live in North Dakota or Florida or Arizona,” she says, “we all want our communities to be the best they can be.”

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a writer in California.