A paid week off to do volunteer work? First State's good with that

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Not long after Aubree Williams joined First State Bank in Oklahoma City, she ran into an issue: The organization where she wanted to volunteer needed help during business hours.

So Williams, chief marketing officer of the $316 million-asset bank, went to Chief Executive David Durrett and President Christopher Turner with a somewhat radical proposal — to offer employees 40 hours of paid time off per year to volunteer.

Williams acknowledged she was "very pleasantly surprised" when the executives agreed to implement the idea without any changes.

Turner said the timing of her pitch couldn't have been better. He and Durrett had already been thinking about how they could encourage more of their employees to get involved with community organizations. The perk aligns with the bank's emphasis on community and its eagerness to listen to its employees, he said.

"When Aubree approached us about this, it just seemed like a great fit," Turner said. If the bank allowed employees to use paid work hours for volunteering, the two executives figured, "then there would be no excuse not to do so," he said.

The volunteer policy, which has been in place since 2015, is one reason that First State Bank has earned a spot in American Banker's annual Best Banks to Work For ranking for several years. The bank jumped to No. 5 in the ranking this year, up from No. 27 in 2018.

Williams had done her research before making the pitch. While most other banks offered just eight or 10 hours of paid volunteer time, she found at least one that offered up to 40 hours. She also thought that management might counter with an offer of less than 40 hours, which is why she asked for such a generous policy from the start.

"I wanted to make this as significant as possible and just ask for the world if I could," she said.

Turner said he agreed to Williams' suggested 40 hours "because I didn't want to negotiate our employees' passion to serve the communities that we serve as a bank."

Lately First State has been encouraging more employees to take advantage of the policy. Fifteen of its 55 employees volunteered for a total of 210 hours last year, up slightly from the prior year. Turner said some bank employees volunteer after work and on weekends, rather than during the work week – hours that are not counted in the bank tally.

To nudge employees to use the paid time off, First State is including regular reminders in its quarterly newsletter and spotlighting team volunteer days. Williams said those who do use the time also receive extra raffle tickets for prizes at the bank's annual holiday party.

Though not every employee has participated, "the response overall has been tremendous," Turner said. "It has allowed some people who would not have volunteered before to consider volunteering. When you get someone engaged in community service who would not have been otherwise, in my opinion, that's a home run."

Because executives make themselves available to all employees, anyone can bring up ideas, issues and concerns, Turner said. The volunteer program is one example of that.

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Another example is a monthly luncheon the leadership team hosts for the senior management. Executives pick a topic to talk about — whether it's interest rates or a local business concern — and they encourage the participating senior managers to take the discussion back to other employees.

First State has a list of preapproved organizations where employees can use their paid time off, but employees are encouraged to suggest other charities as well.

One particular favorite is Positive Tomorrows, Oklahoma's only school for homeless children. The bank routinely puts together team volunteer days at the school, where employees often help set up for children's birthday parties.

The organization that inspired Williams' idea for the paid volunteer time is CASA, for Court Appointed Special Advocates. The nonprofit trains volunteers to act as court-appointed advocates for children experiencing abuse or neglect at home.

The advocates work with therapists, case workers, foster families and biological parents to collect information and ultimately tell the court an unbiased and comprehensive opinion about what's happening in the child's life.

Because much of that work needs to be done during business hours, it can be hard for someone working an office job to take time away to volunteer for it.

Williams said it made her feel valued when First State's executives accepted her proposal and, by extension, allowed her to stay involved in something that's important to her life. Though she's done different types of volunteer work over the years, she said what she does for CASA is the hardest and most rewarding — because she is helping vulnerable children in a meaningful way.

"Through no fault of their own, they're ripped out of their homes because of abuse and neglect and drugs and other things going on in their parents' lives," Williams said. "I was never in that situation as a child, but it just speaks to me. These kids need a voice, because they don't have that ability."

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