VIPs pump up registration totals and draw TV cameras, but veteran conference-goers know that the real finds are among the low-profile, hands-on practitioners who often speak late in the afternoon when most everyone else has left to preen for the cocktail hour.
So, apologies to Bill Clinton, Andrew Young, Richard Cordray and the other notables at the Hope Global Forum on financial inclusion in Atlanta in January, but the event's most enlightening panelist was Tim Wennes, the West Coast president of MUFG Union Bank in San Francisco.
The lessons he has learned through the bank's projects in blighted parts of the Bay Area and elsewhere are useful for any bankers trying to increase their companies' community involvement or make it more effective.
His No. 1 piece of advice: collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.
Consult elected officials. Use ready-made financial education programs created by experts and available through nonprofits instead of making up your own. Turn to a church or other faith-based organization to build trust in the community, or enlist a local nonprofit to provide technical assistance to entrepreneurs. And consider working with a small business investment corporation that can take bigger risks on credits that banks cannot touch.
"The path forward in these communities is public-private partnerships," and nongovernmental agencies partnering with financial institutions, said Wennes, who is also the chairman of the Consumer Bankers Association.
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"We can only do so much," he added. "But when we've got capital that we want to deploy, and we want to make the greatest impact on a community, we need to go to those organizations that know the community and that also have the skills, competencies and capabilities that we don't have. They are the ones who can have the greatest impact."
The financial crisis distracted many banks from community projects while creating more need, so opportunities to help abound.
Just be sure to choose your partners wisely, Wennes said.
"No matter how many resources you have in terms of philanthropy dollars, it feels like there is not enough to go around. There are so many good organizations and worthy causes," he said.
John Bryant, the chairman and CEO of Operation Hope, said many banks are taking financial literacy more seriously these days, though he is not convinced they all have the right intentions.
"I commend them for doing something. It's not enough," Bryant said. "They have gone beyond talking. But it is still in the area of public affairs. It's still in the area of compliance."
Instead, bankers need to realize the business case for investing in financial literacy and bringing more consumers into the financial mainstream, he said.
"We have an economy that is 70% dependent on people it's consumer spending. And half of those people are making $50,000 a year or less... I call them the teetering class," Bryant said. "They take 90% of every dollar and put it back in the economy because they can't afford not to. The banks are dependent upon these people to be healthy, to make their mortgage payments, their car notes, their credit card payments, to meet their obligations. So they need to understand the language of money."
SunTrust Banks is among the more active banks in sponsoring financial education programs run by the likes of Operation Hope and Junior Achievement, and that commitment largely comes from its chairman and chief executive, Bill Rogers. At the conference he shared a personal story about his own financial education.
"Growing up, we never had a new car or a new house, and I really didn't understand why because other people could have a new house and a new car," said Rogers. That motivated him to work, starting with an after-school job at a grocery story. The new income led him to open an account at a savings and loan.
"My first recollection of money was making that deposit at the savings and loan" and excitedly tracking the deposits and interest accumulation in an old-fashioned passbook, Rogers said.
A good financial education effort starts at home, Rogers said. SunTrust started a program in January to promote its employees' financial well-being that includes incentives for opening savings accounts. The response was immediate.
"We announced this ... and 90 minutes later, we had 1,000 people sign up," Rogers said.
Rewarding a good employee, in turn, can pay dividends. Rogers recounted an illuminating moment from one of his visits to a SunTrust branch.
A man walked in and made two deposits, and a branch employee asked him: "How did that feel?" He replied, "It felt really great, thank you."
Rogers was intrigued by the question and inquired why the employee had asked it. She said that she had noticed on a previous visit by the customer that he had no savings account. She recommended one and helped him open it, and now on every trip after payday he makes a savings deposit and a checking deposit.
Rogers lauded her simple yet powerful insight. "There is nothing in our manual that says you ask a client how they feel," Rogers said.
Kessel Stelling, the chairman and CEO of Synovus Financial, agreed that banks need to show more commitment when it comes to meeting the needs of people with modest means or blemished credit.
Old-school bankers were taught to ban customers who failed to repay their debts, but Stelling said that the financial crisis caused him to reassess his attitude about second chances.
"We as a society can't write anybody off forever," Stelling told the audience. "If I am in a community, I want everybody in that community to be able to participate in what I do."