Today more than ever, corporate social responsibility must be a part of any bank or financial institution's business model. From Wall Street to Main Street, the industry has an obligation to partner with our communities and help meet needs that government or individual philanthropy may not be able to address.

By definition, CSR involves actions that further some societal good and have a positive influence, whether on the environment, consumers, team members or the general public's well-being. In fact, consumers have come to expect it, communities deserve it and, if done correctly, CSR can build bridges between industry, government, consumer advocates and society in general.

When our company was developing its CSR program, we focused on a broad strategy that could provide giving and volunteer alternatives, be agile to fit to changing needs and have the greatest possible impact for the cost. We began by defining a gap or area of need in the military family marketplace (our primary customer base) and designed our strategy to meet a number of those needs as they arose. In the end, we chose to focus our efforts in three areas: volunteerism; donations, grants and scholarships; and financial education.

To increase and promote volunteerism within our organization, we created a paid volunteer time-off program. This benefit provides full-time team members with 16 hours, and part-time team members with eight hours, of paid time off for volunteer service every year, for a total of more than 4,000 hours annually. Our employees love it, and so do the organizations that benefit from our employees' service time.

Because most companies like ours cannot match the high-dollar amounts or volunteer volume given by larger corporations, we learned that we can have a greater impact by diversifying our donations. While we donate significantly, we do it primarily in small increments of $5,000 or less to groups such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Wounded Warrior Project or the Armed Services YMCA.

Finally, while the banking industry has long provided its customers with the financial education resources they need, we've decided to take this to the next level by putting extensive resources into an educational program that utilizes today's technology. While we offer traditional kneecap-to-kneecap counseling, as well as books, newsletters and brochures, we've also created an online Learning Center, a blog and a short series of video and audio podcasts on iTunes and YouTube for a younger, tech-savvy and highly mobile customer base.

Implementing a successful CSR program pays dividends on numerous fronts. Once it becomes part of your corporate culture, CSR can be a powerful force that leads to increased loyalty and satisfaction from customers and employees alike, while improving your reputation and differentiating your brand from others. Studies show that people prefer to do business with those that "invest" back into their community, and we've seen firsthand how empowered our employees feel by being able to give back, while on the job.

As long as your CSR program is a true effort to give back, it can pay huge dividends for everyone involved.

An effective CSR program is both doable and beneficial. That is why I challenge other companies in the financial services industry, regardless of size, to do the same.

You might think that your company is too small, or believe you have a market niche that is too broad or too narrow. You may even wonder if your current corporate culture can withstand such empowerment, or doubt that the benefits will outweigh the costs.

Once you develop a strategy and encourage your employees to help create a culture of giving back, your CSR program really can become a defining part of your company. So find your reason for giving, create a plan and start finding ways to give back to your community. If it turns out anything like ours has, it will come to define the very way you do business each and every day.

Joe Freeman is president of Pioneer Services, a division of MidCountry Bank.