Editor's note: This post originally appeared in the November issue of American Banker Magazine.
More than five years after the start of the financial crisis, public opinion on banks continues to be unfavorable. The industry is still painted as an enemy of Main Street. The story of the economic recovery is marred by negative reports about insider trading, risky behavior and unfriendly banking practices. A June Gallup survey showed that only 26 percent of Americans have confidence in banks. While that's an improvement from 2008, it remains clear that many consumers still approach financial institutions with a fair amount of skepticism.
In this environment, trust is a key differentiator among financial institutions. To regain, or simply maintain, consumers' trust, it is more important than ever for community banks to engage the public through corporate social responsibility initiatives (CSR) and philanthropy efforts.
This idea may be a bit of a difficult sell at some institutions given the current business and regulatory climate. There are so many more pressures on the resources of small and mid-tier institutions now. But if CSR efforts are allowed to fall by the wayside, it will be at the expense of customer trust and future growth.
According to a recent Nielsen study, two-thirds of global consumers prefer to buy products from companies that give back to the community. Financial institutions are no exception, and in fact may have more motivation than most companies to address this, as banking is one of the most important business relationships a consumer has. Being transparent, lending responsibly, supporting local economies via small-business loans, prioritizing volunteerism and environmental stewardship these things strengthen not only the social good but also customer relationships and new business growth.
A good CSR program also can reinforce your bank's human capital. The same Nielsen study on social responsibility showed that 62 percent of people prefer to work for companies that give back to society. This is an important data point for our sector. While the industry's tarnished reputation no doubt has impacted the ability of banks to hire and retain top talent, corporate philanthropy can be a differentiator not only to customers, but to current and prospective employees. Here at Sterling Bank, we increased employee engagement, productivity and morale in the past two years after developing a CSR program that is an extension of our business strategy, with our employees being our primary delivery channel.
Leadership should help model the behavior you want from your teams, which is one of the reasons why I became the campaign chair of the Spokane County (Wash.) United Way this year, and why Carol Mangan, Sterling's Oregon market president, is the 2013 campaign chair of the United Way chapter in Portland, Ore. United Way is one of three nonprofits that Sterling supports in all of our markets, because its key areas of focus align very closely with ours affordable housing, education and financial stability.
At the end of the day, a brand is brought to life by its employees and by the customers who trust them. This trust is earned through hard work and dedication, one customer relationship at a time. Customers need to know that they are doing business with a company that through its business practices, CSR efforts and corporate philanthropy is authentic and stands behind its promise.
Companies can't fake a positive corporate culture; it has to be a natural part of who you are. Successful and respected companies think Nordstrom or Coca-Cola, and for financial services, Wells Fargo have distinct corporate cultures. The customer-facing personalities of these companies align with their corporate goals, which has increased loyalty and provided a key differentiator in a crowded marketplace.
There is no reason that smaller companies, including community banks and mid-tier institutions, can't similarly apply CSR initiatives to reinforce their own culture and generate goodwill across their customer and employee base and with the community at large. And these institutions will find, as we have, that you will likely do well by doing good.
Greg Seibly is CEO of Sterling Bank, which agreed in September to be acquired by Umpqua.