Sunwest Bank in Irvine, Calif., takes a broad view of the mantra "think locally, act globally."
The $830 million-asset Sunwest, like many other banks, is a big supporter of philanthropy. Sunwest differentiates itself from most other banks by sending employees on international missions to tackle issues such as child slavery, abuse and homelessness in countries such as Ghana, Guatemala and Peru.
For Sunwest, the effort makes sense because it fits with the bank's tight-knit culture. It also gets employees involved with the charity work of the bank's chairman, Eric Hovde, chief executive of Hovde Capital Advisors and co-founder of a foundation that builds homes in impoverished nations.
International projects work for Sunwest, but do they make sense for other banks? For some industry experts, such volunteerism could be a great way to engage employees, especially Millennials.
"Volunteering enables a company to make a difference in a community, while also providing employee engagement opportunities," said Linda Gornitsky, president of LBG Associates, a corporate social responsibility consulting firm.
"Employees can get the experience of working as a team and broaden skills, such as communications and project management while volunteering," she said.
Charity work has been a "value-added recruitment tool" for Sunwest, said Chris Walsh, Sunwest's president and chief executive. Millennials usually "get very excited about it."
"Millennials are considering a company's corporate social responsibility as one element in deciding where to work," said Marian Stern, head of Projects in Philanthropy. "They expect their employers to connect to the greater good."
Still, many considerations must be made before a bank takes the plunge. For instance, management should consider whether an international project would appeal to employees.
Employees "should be part of the conversation," Stern said. "This will become more essential as you have more Millennials and Gen-Xers in the workforce" because those employees prefer to be actively involved with decision-making.
"If you choose to do something internationally, make sure you're passionate about it," he said. "Make sure your employees can get behind that cause."
Banks must also clearly communicate to customers why they are spending time and money on international projects.
"Customers might be surprised to learn that a community bank is sending its resources to global communities," Gornitsky said. "Their expectation is probably that the company should play in its own backyard."
Sunwest, a unit of H Bancorp in Columbia, Md., has received a handful of inquiries from customers about the international work, Walsh said. At Sunwest, the cost of the projects is small, relative to its overall giving, and justifiable since it helps children who have so little.
"I believe it's our duty to help," Walsh said. The children "don't have shoes or pencils or toothbrushes."
Sunwest pays for employees' travel costs, while also giving staff time off to go one on the trips. Each trip typically lasts 10 days.
The bank spends roughly $15,000 annually sending volunteers abroad, though the actual amount depends on the destination. Sunwest's foundation has also committed more than $900,000 over the last five years to fund a shelter for children in Ghana.
Sunwest formed a charitable foundation in early 2010, funding it with bank profits and focusing on local and international projects. A year later, the first set of volunteers went on a 10-day trip to Ghana.
Employee interest has steadily increased. Fifteen to 20 employees, or roughly 10% of Sunwest's work force, apply for the program's eight to 10 spots, Walsh said.
Participants are chosen after an application process that includes answering a few questions, including why they want to go, and a review of each applicant's previous charity work.
During the trips, employees help with construction and maintenance projects, such as painting and landscaping, at shelters and homes for vulnerable children. They also get to interact with, and nurture, the children.
"It is much more physical than just teaching financial literacy," Walsh said. "It's incredible to see the sparkle in these kids' eyes when you read to them or you're building them a shelter. We take a lot of that for granted."
Some volunteers continue to send care packages to the children after the trip is over, Walsh said. Employees come back "energized and thankful. It's a win-win."