Bar Harbor Bank & Trust goes casual for a cause

Bar Harbor employees presenting a large check
Bar Harbor Bank & Trust tries to include staff in check presentation ceremonies to further connect employees to the groups they benefit.

Bar Harbor Bank & Trust is swapping donations for denim. Employees who donate through its Casual for a Cause program get to dress down at work, a simple act that has collectively generated thousands of dollars for local charities.

By Eric Best

Wearing jeans used to be a deal breaker at Bar Harbor Bank & Trust. Now, employees are paying not to dress up for work—but it’s for a good cause.

Since 2017, the $3.5 billion-asset community bank in Bar Harbor, Maine, has had a notable benefit for its employees: Casual for a Cause, which allows its nearly 560 employees to make a joint donation to nonprofits in their area in exchange for dressing casually on Fridays. The employee-led program is extremely popular. About seven in every 10 staff members take part, mostly by making regular payroll deductions. Even the president of the bank participates and wears jeans to the office.

“It’s a very noticeable difference on Fridays,” says Jack Frost, vice president and director of community giving. “I typically am the type of person that has never worn jeans much in the work world, [but] I’ve bought jeans since this started.”

The Casual for a Cause program got its start in the wake of the devastating 2017 hurricane season. To do its part to help flood victims, Bar Harbor Bank & Trust offered employees the option of wearing casual clothes to the office in exchange for a contribution to support relief efforts.

“It took off better than we could have expected,” Frost says. “Several thousand dollars were raised in a relatively short amount of time.”

Rather than squander the initiative’s success, the community bank’s executive team made it a permanent feature. Frost and the team improved upon it, too. Only nonprofits in employees’ communities would be eligible to receive donations, and employees would vote quarterly via an online survey for one of four eligible charities selected by the bank.

Bar Harbor Bank & Trust has branches in three states—Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont—and each state is split into several regions, which take turns to direct donations in their respective state. “This was a way to try and connect more with employees across the footprint,” Frost says.

Bar Harbor Bank & Trust focuses its donations on education and workforce development, which has included safe housing nonprofits, community action organizations and post-secondary education programs, among many other areas. As the program’s administrator, Frost has the privilege of reaching out to these groups directly to notify them that employees—not just the bank itself—have selected them.

“It blows me away, every call that I make,” he says. “Overwhelmingly, when I make those calls, the feedback is just amazing. One, because they’re thrilled to get a gift. Two, they then realize the gift is not just from the bank but the employees that work at the bank. And three, it helps them with the additional press that they’re going to get.”

On track to give $100,000

The key to the program is simple: When employees participate—and most do—they can make a bigger impact together.

Employees set their own donation and can start or stop giving whenever they want. If they ask how much to donate, Frost says, managers will suggest they consider the equivalent of one hour of pay per quarter. Individually, these small-dollar donations may not mean a whole lot to nonprofits, but, collectively, they make a big splash, both in terms of the donation and the buzz they generate. Bar Harbor Bank & Trust issues press releases announcing the gifts and often holds check ceremonies with these community groups. These make for engaging social media posts, news stories or simply exciting days in the office.

More employees presenting a large check
Education and workforce development are priorities for the Casual for a Cause program.

“We really like to have our employees be included in the check presentation,” Frost says. “It’s a reminder that the donation is not from the bank, per se, but from the employees giving back.”

If an employee can’t give for whatever reason, the community bank doesn’t go out of its way to enforce the dress code. And to clue customers in on the casual wear, the bank puts signs out letting them know why employees are wearing jeans. “We tried to come up with a method as fair as we could make it,” Frost says.

This quarter, Casual for a Cause is generating more than $11,000 in donations. Frost says staff are on track to give a total of $100,000 through the program by the end of the year. And all of those donations are generated by trading their business attire for more casual wear, including jeans.

“For the culture of the organization, it’s been a positive thing,” Frost says. “It helps people understand that every dollar makes a difference, and these nonprofits treasure every single dollar.”

Eric Best is deputy editor of Independent Banker.