Learn for Life: A Major Southwest Bank Backs Financial Literacy for Youth

Motortion Films/shutterstock

Motortion Films/shutterstock

BOK Financial is a $34 billion regional financial services company and corporate funder that carries out a range of philanthropic and community-building activities. These include direct giving, employee volunteering, grants from the Bank of Oklahoma Foundation (BOKF), and lending programs for affordable housing and nonprofit work. “Learn for Life,” one of its education-centered initiatives, is a financial literacy program that links its employees with local youth. In 2017, hundreds of BOK Financial employees served thousands of kids through this program.

As we’ve reported, in recent years money for financial education has been flowing steadily from the corporate foundations of banks and other financial services companies. Financial lessons learned in childhood tend to sustain into adulthood, and corporate foundations that do asset-building and financial education work are aware of the need to start financial education earlier in a child's life. Not surprisingly, some community foundations also support economic empowerment for local youth. And, as we’ll discuss, this focus for BOK Financial makes sense both in terms of the foundation’s core funding areas and the company chairman’s philanthropic leanings.

Why financial literacy for youth?

Steven Bradshaw, president and chief executive officer of BOK Financial, said: “Philanthropy is rooted in our culture, and is driven from the very top of our organization, as our chairman and majority shareholder, George Kaiser, is one of the original signers of the Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to giving back.” Kaiser has a $7.8 billion fortune. He came to run his family’s Kaiser-Francis Oil Company after his father had a heart attack and made much of his wealth when he bought the Bank of Oklahoma in 1990. BOK Financial is now one of the largest banks based in the United States.


Kaiser is a major supporter of education from preschool through higher education, along with causes that attempt to break the generational cycle of poverty.

BOK Financial and the BOKF give to the United Way and to causes relating to economic development, education, and basic needs. So, the Learn for Life program hits many targets for this philanthropy, both in terms of its overall goals and of Kaiser’s personal interests: education, the health of the future economy, and alleviating poverty.

Leslie Paris, senior vice president and director of community and employee engagement for BOK Financial and a director and manager of the BOKF Foundation, gave us some information about Learn for Life and its most recent sessions. According to Paris, Learn for Life is a companywide initiative that aims to “engage [employees] to promote basic financial skills in the communities we serve to better prepare people to lead successful and productive lives.”

Learn for Life has two main components and volunteer options for employees. The “In the Classroom” route uses a Junior Achievement financial literacy curriculum, and the “In the Community” route involves partnering with a local nonprofit to run an event focused on an “Allowance” board game. This game provides financial education to K-4 children, and Paris says the “In the Community” nonprofit partners typically provides after-school care for low-to-moderate income students; in Tulsa, for example, that local nonprofit is the YMCA.

In 2017, 520 employees volunteered at 43 Learn for Life events, for a total of 2,354 volunteer hours teaching 5,263 children financial literacy. A program goal of increasing employee participation by 10 percent was exceeded with a 13 percent increase. BOK Financial sees several benefits to these undertakings: a positive community impact along with opportunities for employee engagement, and brand and reputation promotion.

What else is BOK Financial up to?

Along with the Bank of Oklahoma, BOK Financial has six other banking divisions: Bank of Albuquerque, Bank of Arizona, Bank of Arkansas, Mobank, Bank of Texas, and Colorado State Bank and Trust. Both BOK Financial and the foundation are headquartered in Tulsa. BOKF accepts online grant applications throughout the year, without deadlines. The foundation makes many grants to groups in Oklahoma, but like many corporate funders, BOK Financial spreads its overall charitable giving throughout all of the communities where its employees work and live.

In 2017, 692 nonprofits received $5.1 million in total contributions from this funder. Also in 2017, BOK Financial employees contributed over 20,000 volunteer hours for various philanthropic and community causes. They filled 711 nonprofits leadership positions with over 550 nonprofits. This company also gives specific physical community donations, like computers to elementary schools and office furniture to shelters.

BOK Financial has a robust community lending initiative as well, largely focused on financing the construction, renovation, and preservation of affordable housing. It also offers not-for-profit lending for community-based nonprofits “in human and social services and special needs populations, as well as houses of worship.”

In recognition of BOK Financial’s efforts to support local communities, particularly its Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) activities, it received in spring 2018 an “Outstanding” rating from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Only 8 percent of U.S. banks rated for CRA in 2017 received this rating level.

“In granting the rating, the OCC cited BOK Financial’s excellent distribution of borrower income levels across the loan portfolio; investment in and responsiveness to assessment area needs; and accessibility of branch offices to low and moderate income individuals and families,” according to a press release.