As Island residents confront increasing economic hardship from the Covid-19 pandemic, the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank has announced a $625,000 charitable initiative for coronavirus relief through the month of April.

Most of the money, $500,000, will come from the bank’s charitable foundation, founded in late 2018, bank president James Anthony said.

The remaining $125,000 will come from the bank itself, to fund a new program called Lift Certificates that will put cash directly into the hands of local businesses. Mr. Anthony said the idea came from seeing that Cape and Vineyard residents have been supporting local businesses that are closed by buying gift certificates for future use.

“We took note of that economic mechanism that people were creating on their own,” to get money into the hands of local businesses so they could survive,” he said, speaking to the Gazette by phone Friday.

The initiative was announced in a full-page ad in today’s print edition.

Under the program, which Mr. Anthony said will go live next week with its own website, merchants will set up their gift certificates online and the bank will match up to 10 per cent of any discounts they offer.

He emphasized that these are merchant-issued gift certificates, not bank-issued gift cards.

“Unlike a gift card, where the bank owns those funds until they’re spent, with gift certificates, the moment they’re sold we can distribute the money,” Mr. Anthony said.

“We’re trying to pull forward, or accelerate, the revenues that wouldn’t happen until the emergency is over to today,” he said.

“The real trouble about how to distribute relief money is who it should go to,” he added. “This puts the answer to that question in the hands of the people who buy (the certificates). It intends to magnify the voice of the community, in terms of where the relief dollars should go.”

Some element of risk is involved in buying gift certificates to a business that is experiencing economic hardship, Mr. Anthony acknowledged.

“You’re betting on a business’s ability to make it through this,” he said.

The $500,000 commitment from the bank’s charitable foundation began with an immediate distribution of $150,000 to 19 nonprofits on the Vineyard and Cape Cod that are directly involved in relief efforts.

“We reached out to a variety of nonprofits in Falmouth and on the Island and asked what they identified their need to be,” Mr. Anthony said. Immediate recipients include Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, Island Grown Initiative, Island Food Pantry, Island Committee on Hunger and Martha’s Vineyard Council on Aging, among others.

An grant application form on the bank’s website allows nonprofits to request funding from the remaining $350,000.

“It’s all going out in the month of April,” Mr. Anthony said.