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Eastern Bank’s latest cause: early childhood development

Bob Rivers is back at it again. The chief executive at Eastern Bank launched an effort two years ago to help foster minority-owned businesses. In 2018, Rivers dialed for dollars to successfully battle a ballot question that would have undone a 2016 transgender rights law.

These days, Rivers has turned his attention to a new cause: early childhood development and education.

Eastern Bank has made this issue the thematic priority for its foundation in 2019 and 2020.

The foundation has committed $2.5 million to the cause for this year. The pledge includes $500,000 for Boston Basics, a charity that helps ensure parents get the information they need to give their infants and toddlers a good head start.


The bank decided to split up another $500,000 by doling out $10,000 grants to 50 early childhood programs across its three-state footprint.

Rivers and his colleagues at Eastern see acting on this issue as a critical way to address the income inequality that plagues this region. They cite academic research you’ve probably heard before: Intervention at an early age can make a huge difference down the line. They also view it as a workforce issue — not necessarily by better preparing the next generation of potential employees (though that is a side benefit), but by helping ensure parents can be more attentive to their day jobs by easing the work for them at home.

Boston Basics exemplifies what Eastern is trying to accomplish. As its name implies, its mission is to circulate and promote five basic education-related tenets of parenthood. Think “Explore through movement and play” or “Read and discuss stories.” They sound simple, but busy parents can often benefit from a road map. This is one of former lead director Wendell Knox’s favorite charities, and the donation, in part, honors his legacy at the bank.


Eastern hired Rahn Dorsey, former education chief for the City of Boston, as a consultant to help get the initiative off the ground. While Boston Basics has expanded to roughly 30 other cities, Eastern’s grant to the nonprofit will be used in Greater Boston, with a focus on community health centers and other health care providers.

So what about the rest of the $2.5 million? A great question, but one the bank is not quite ready to answer. It’s exploring ways to put that $1.5 million to work by partnering with other businesses in this early childhood development effort. Rivers says  hat it’s too early to get into specifics.

Eastern’s ambitions call to mind the “Success by 6” initiative that then-Bank of Boston chief Chad Gifford chaired in the mid-1990s, working with the United Way of Massachusetts Bay.

Inspired by a project in Minneapolis, Gifford aimed to build a similar partnership between business and government leaders in Boston. That project has since faded away. But Pennsylvania launched its own version in 2010, a public-private partnership to help the business community advocate for attention and investments in early-learning programs.

As the nation’s largest mutual bank, Eastern is in an unusual position to use its resources for the greater good. Smaller mutual banks don’t have the same critical mass to make the same kind of impact. And publicly owned companies would probably get into trouble with shareholders if they set aside at least 10 percent of their profits for charitable causes, as Eastern does. That totaled about $13 million last year at Eastern; the foundation’s targeted grant focus area last year was “advancing women.”


The grants can also be good for business, of course. They help build and maintain important relationships in communities with Eastern branches.

But Rivers has a grander goal in mind: finding solutions to pressing problems in society. That can be good for business, too — even if it doesn’t show up right away on the balance sheet.

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.