As the chief executive of HSBC James Capel in London and HSBC Markets Inc. in New York, 36-year-old James J. O'Donnell was clearly a rising star in the world of finance.

So it caught many by surprise when Mr. O'Donnell announced his next career move: the Roman Catholic priesthood.

Mr. O'Donnell is not granting any interviews concerning his decision until summer, but his dramatic shift in career choice has underscored what some feel are the shortcomings of a financial services career.

Most people do not have the money or the strong stomach to just walk away from their jobs. So how do other financial types searching for higher meaning find it in their everyday work? Are there executives in financial services who find spiritual fulfillment on the job?

Further, is it possible that executives do not need to leave their corner offices to feel that they are making the world a better place and not just padding their wallets?

The people who were willing to talk about the spiritual side of banking offered some thoughtful responses. For example, one executive wants to use his religious and financial experience to broaden the outlook of future MBAs.

Other executives choose to work in community development, where they can see the impact of their work right in their own backyards.

Others contribute their time and money to charities for causes about which they feel strongly, or to which they have some personal connection.

And at least one financial executive tries to help others lower on the totem pole by serving as a role model and mentor and encouraging them to pursue their dreams and goals.

The career of Harry Van Buren, formerly an insurance underwriter at the American International Group, has spanned both the spiritual and financial. One could argue that he has left his office to find personal meaning, but not altogether.

He is on a personal crusade to broaden the outlook of future business graduates, to open their eyes to issues of social welfare. Mr. Van Buren is a graduate of the Princeton Theological Seminary School. He is a doctoral candidate in business ethics at the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh.

Once he finishes his doctorate, he hopes to teach business ethics at the graduate level.

Mr. Van Buren met a lot of finance executives and lawyers at the seminary. "Many would tell me that their jobs didn't allow them to express their full selves," said Mr. Van Buren. "My experience at American International was that I was well rewarded financially, but I wasn't contributing anything to the pursuit of social justice."

Mr. Van Buren spoke of the "enclosed chain of logic," an attitude he encountered in the business world, which consists of a singular focus on and pursuit of economic efficiency, financial stability, and efficient financial markets for their own sake at the expense of all else.

This chain of logic left little room to explore core questions, such as what is the good community and how does one address rising economic inequality. Interestingly, Mr. Van Buren does not want to desert the world of business, but wants to try to change it by exerting some influence on future business executives while they are still malleable.

"I hope to teach my students to be ethically reflective," said Mr. Van Buren. "I want them to ask questions about the meaning of their work and the meaning of the good society, to stray from that chain a little."

Kristin Faust, a senior vice president at LaSalle Bank in Chicago, seems to have taken her business ethics courses to heart. She finds spiritual fulfillment in her chosen area of community development lending.

"My work makes real estate affordable to low- and middle-income people. I deal with loans that rehabilitate and revitalize buildings. My department has contributed 5,000 more units of affordable housing in Chicago," said Ms. Faust. "Most of our borrowers are non?profit organizations that take on the challenge of revitalizing neighborhoods," she added.

"Not to sound too much like a cliche, but I feel like we're making the world a better place."

When Ms. Faust attends ribbon cuttings at apartment complexes, she speaks of being inspired.

"At the ceremonies, there are community and church leaders, politicians and tenants in attendance, and they speak about how these developments will change lives," said Ms. Faust. "I see the impact a loan can make."

Looking at the big picture, Ms. Faust said that banking can help a community grow or deteriorate. "You know like in the movie, 'It's a Wonderful Life.' Lending can make a tremendous impact and when that impact improves the quality of life for people, you get that fulfillment that may not be as prevalent in other parts of banking."

Ms. Faust's department consists of several people who once worked in corporate lending, but moved to her department when there were openings. "These people were looking for more hands-on work, more one-on-one with their borrowers," said Ms. Faust.

"In community development, the average loan is $450,000. From a corporate standpoint, that amount is not very sexy, but the other aspects of the work make it far more gratifying."

Larry Marik, senior vice president at First National Bank and Trust Company in Columbus, Neb., believes that there is gratification and fulfillment that goes beyond making profit when a business is successful.

"Sure your business must turn a profit," said Mr. Marik. "But if your business is successful, it's taking care of customers' needs, which in turn benefits the bank and then benefits the community." Mr. Marik knows the community he serves well, having been elected mayor of Columbus in 1984 and 1988.

"I feel very strongly about giving back to the community," said Mr. Marik. "I realize that we all have pressures to earn money, but there has to be something else for you in your work, so that you don't want to blow your brains out at the end of the day." Besides being very active in the church, Mr. Marik also serves on several boards, including the Bethphage Foundation, which serves the mentally handicapped. Mr. Marik's daughter is mentally handicapped.

Bob Donato, a branch manager at Paine Webber in Los Angeles, also finds meaning in his work beyond the dollar sign by being active in causes that hit close to home.

Mr. Donato is involved with several charities, including ones that benefit those afflicted with juvenile diabetes. Mr. Donato's daughter is a diabetic.

Mr. Donato traces his connection to charities to his humble roots. "My grandparents came over from Italy in steerage. I learned from them that you try to leave a place better than how you found it," said Mr. Donato.

He hires and trains his own staff and considers them part of his extended family. "I try to see potential in people and encourage them to pursue their dreams. Many of the support staff are minorities. I urge them to take advantage of the education we offer so that they can get a degree and rise in the company. Some support staff have started out in the mail room and now are brokers."

Mr. Donato sees parts of himself in a lot of the people he has encouraged over the years. "I went to school at night and worked in construction during the day," said Mr. Donato.

"I know what it means to work hard and get someone to encourage you to strive to do your best. I try to do this for those lower on the totem pole."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.