Doing the Work: Bryan Luke

Building on the Past, Looking towards the future
Bryan Luke, President and CEO, Hawai‘i National Bank

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Philanthropy, defined: Goodwill to fellow members of the human race, active efforts to promote human welfare. An act or gift done or made for humanitarian purposes.

This year has reminded us how many people do good works to help those in our communities, where COVID-19 has laid bare personal and economic insecurities. Philanthropy is about the people, organizations, donors and foundations putting countless hours into the work of making Hawai‘i a better place.  Here is one of the four profiles of those doing good work.

Especially during these times, answering King’s urgent question seems more important than ever.

Bryan Luke laughs when asked about his office, the regal dark shelves filled with memorabilia from his grandfather, who founded Hawai‘i National Bank in 1960, and then his father, who led the bank until Bryan took the reins last year.  “Yeah, half my job is moving things forward, and the other half is not screwing things up,” he says, laughing.

Thinking about philanthropic giving is part of that job—personally, professionally, and through the family’s foundations. Like many of his generation, Luke puts an emphasis on personal time and the impact of the time and money that’s put toward community nonprofits. “It’s not just about giving money for giving money,” he says. “I want to know where it’s going—what project or program. Will it be effective?”

He also reflects on how giving has evolved since he returned home in 2006, a fresh-faced graduate of Harvard Business School. He recalls an endless barrage of requests from all variety of nonprofits, often with hard asks. “It felt like a lot of pressure, almost like bullying rather than inspiring,” he says. “My dad gave me a list of names and said ‘take their calls, listen to them,’ advice I still follow.” Listening to that counsel, Luke found his path beyond the bullying and gravitated to opportunities where he could make a real difference.

Luke points to golf tournaments as a prime example of that evolution. Back in the day, business executives might have a couple of golf tournaments a week. That’s where deals were done and local causes and organizations were supported. “Today, we don’t have the time to spend the day on the golf course,” Luke says, pointing to the endless news cycle, work bleeding into nights and weekends, and working parents juggling kids’ activities. “And our customers don’t either, especially small-business owners. They have businesses to run and families to care for.”

Time is a hot commodity, not just for Luke but for his friends and colleagues. The traditional “rubber chicken dinners,” no matter how important the cause, can mean three to four hours away from family, so filling a table can be tough. Likewise, warming a seat at a board meeting without feeling you’ve made any real difference seems like a waste of time. “I’ve sat on boards where the meetings were exactly the same, month after month, and it seemed we never actually did anything,” he says. He cycled off those boards, choosing to support them financially but investing his time elsewhere.

Now he sits on the board of the Rehab Hospital of the Pacific—two of his grandparents received care at the hospital after joint replacements—as well as the board of the Pacific and Asian Affairs Council and several other carefully chosen organizations. For him, being on the boards, bringing financial, strategic, and organizational counsel to groups that might not otherwise have in-depth knowledge in those areas, is time well-spent. “Nonprofit budgets are tighter these days, so it’s especially important that they can draw on board members’ expertise,” he says.

Bryan Luke, President and CEO, Hawai‘i National Bank
Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino

Luke knows that for many organizations, board seats have traditionally come with an expectation of extensive fundraising, and that in times past, that worked. “I think that’s a lot harder to do these days,” he says. “People are very inquisitive about where it’s going, especially since my generation and friends just don’t have that kind of money to give.”

He’s been tapped to serve on boards as the token “young person” enough that he’s wary of that now, even as he laughs that, being in his late 40s, he might be aging out of that category. Personally, and with his family’s foundations, Luke looks for real need and real impact, rather than narrowing his philanthropic efforts to specific missions, like education or the environment, for example.

“Beyond the mission of the organization and the impact of the money or time, I ask myself if I want to spend time with these people,” he says. “It’s the board members, staff, supporters, and the recipients of the organization’s good work—I look for effectiveness, a plan that can be accomplished. I want to feel like I’m accomplishing something and moving the organization forward.”

Luke says philanthropy in Hawai‘i over the next decade will likely involve more community-based actions than simple check writing. “Having more involvement among donors, supporters, and the people benefiting from the organization’s work, I think that’s important.” He points to Habitat for Humanity as a good model, where donors and eventual homeowners work side by side. “Writing a check is a lot more difficult for people, especially with what we’re going through now.” He says people need to get out in the community, mingle more, and be part of the work that’s being done.

Luke still hangs out with old friends and classmates from his Punahou days, as well as others he’s met along the way. He says they look to find ways to collaborate, to really make a difference in this shared community. “I think the future of giving is going to be a lot less about having your name on a building,” he says. “What I want to do is know I’ve made a positive impact on people.”

He pauses, and kicks back in that leather chair in that storied office and says, “We can do a lot of good in a totally different way than we’ve done it before.” Luke is building on the legacy of his father and grandfather before him, and he knows it’s his kuleana to do right by them.

Categories: Hawai‘i Gives Back, Stories