A recent study supports what community bankers often trumpet - per dollar of assets, small banks give more to local causes than big banks do.

Banks in the $50 million to $100 million-asset category, for example, allocated 19% of their marketing budgets to donations in 1994, while banks with $5 billion or more in assets gave just 4%, an analysis by the Bank Marketing Association found. .

"As long as the community continues to grow, our bank continues to grow," said Matthew T. Sebastian, president of $102 million-asset First State Bank of Farmington, Mo. "I think the big banks have similar intentions, but they do not have nearly as much at stake as the smaller ones."

The recently released study, comprising responses from 461 banks across the country, showed that the smallest banks spent $3,700 per $1 million of assets on marketing last year, while the biggest banks spent only $420 per $1 million of assets.

And small banks, the study found, spent much more of those marketing dollars on donations than big banks.

The survey results underscore the warnings of community bankers of the dangers of the rapid consolidation occurring in the industry. As home-town banks become branches of larger regionals, the decision-makers reside further away from their customers, making such charitable efforts less likely, they said.

"Local businesses will always support local projects," said W.J. Blicke, senior vice president of $105 million-asset United Bank in Bucyrus, Ohio. "Someone from 60 miles away just doesn't have the same interest. Consolidation takes that money 60 miles away, and it's our responsibility to pick up the slack."

More of the smaller banks' marketing budgets went to schools, churches, and other local groups than did those of the bigger banks, according to the survey.

AuburnBank, for example, a $220 million-asset bank in Auburn, Ala., gave $40,000 last year to charitable causes, which included the construction of a new cancer center at the local hospital. The bank also gave $5 to youth clubs for each three-point basket the Auburn University basketball teams made last season. That amounted to $2,500.

"The bigger banks might get more out of a big advertising campaign, but we usually bypass those," said Linda D. Fucci, senior vice president at AuburnBank. "The goodwill we can generate in the community will usually help us more."

Others suggested, however, that ultimately it's the residents of a town who decide what sort of banks will exist in the future, by where they take their business. If customers decide that lower loan rates are of more value than donations to the community, then bigger banks probably will predominate, they said. Some also said bigger banks are committed to their communities, but in different ways.

"I think the bigger banks are probably just as involved, but perhaps on a personal, one-to-one basis," said Edward J. Kane, professor of banking and finance at Boston College. "You saw that here at the Bank of Boston with Ira Stepanian. He was very involved in community affairs, and many people wondered what it would mean for the community if the bank were sold."

US Bancorp, a $22 billion-asset bank based in Portland, Ore., said that its employees donated one million hours of their time to community service last year, in various community roles. It also gave $3.7 million in donations last year, or about 1% of its pre-tax earnings.

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