Brand Slam Award winner: First Interstate Bank’s volunteer culture unites employees after a merger

The bank closed the doors at noon and showed up for 400 community projects across 14 states. ‘The same dedication and commitment demonstrated in our philanthropic efforts is exhibited in how we approach our relationships with banking clients.’

By Craig Colgan

The goal of First Interstate Bank’s 2022 volunteer day campaign was twofold: to enhance the culture of giving back among employees and to share that commitment to community in new markets following a merger.

For its efforts across multiple communities, the Billings, Montana-based bank earned the 2023 ABA Brand Slam Award in the Public Relations / Community Engagement category.

Employees of First Interstate Bank’s newly enlarged footprint across 14 states helped hundreds of local organizations.
Volunteer day is an annual event at First Interstate Bank. On the second Wednesday each September, the Bank closes its doors at noon and gives employees the remainder of the day to participate in local service projects at nonprofits of their choice. The philanthropic initiative rallies employees around causes they care about while area nonprofits benefit from much-needed assistance in volunteer labor and in mini grants that cover project costs.

Volunteer day 2022 was the first held following First Interstate’s acquisition of Great Western Bank. The result was First Interstate transforming its geographic footprint from six states to 14. The bank challenged itself to find a way to drive participation among a workforce unfamiliar with the initiative who were still learning the First Interstate culture.

The event was a hit not only with employees, new and old, but with organizations across the bank’s communities, such as food banks and clothing-donation organizations, homeless assistance groups, domestic abuse shelters and local pet rescue groups. Local TV showed up and covered the event widely.

Sara Becker, SVP, director of marketing and communications at First Interstate Bank, provided answers to some questions about the success of the campaign:

How did you come up with this two-objectives-at-once strategy, aiming to combine building awareness in your communities while inspiring unity inside your newly expanded enterprise?

Volunteer day was established in 2018 as both a celebration of First Interstate’s 50th anniversary and a tribute to our longstanding community focus. Since then, volunteer day has grown in participation and impact, and volunteer day 2022 presented a compelling chance to do more than ever before for the communities in which we live and work. First Interstate had just completed its acquisition of Great Western Bank. Volunteer Day 2022 was the perfect opportunity to introduce our new markets and new staff to one of our defining values: commitment to community.

With volunteer day, our employees spend the day donating their time and energy to local nonprofits, and it’s a day that our legacy employees have come to anticipate. For volunteer day 2022, we captured images of our people volunteering—identifiable by their branded T-shirts, bandanas and other swag—and showing that no matter where we are located, we are all working together in giving back. And, for new markets especially, First Interstate provided a very visible demonstration of our intent to be a good neighbor and corporate citizen, a demonstration which helped introduce First Interstate’s people-first culture to those unfamiliar with us.

What does such a massive undertaking of goodwill do you think accomplish for a bank? In ways that are community-related but also business related?

Volunteer day, alongside First interstate’s other philanthropic commitments, demonstrates the bank’s dedication to its local communities. As a community bank, it’s imperative to know and understand the challenges and opportunities unique to each market. Through volunteer day, our people on the ground help determine which local organizations and causes have the most urgent and apparent needs, which allows them to show up prepared to effect positive change. An event with the volume and impact of Volunteer Day shows how our employees will rally behind their clients and community members, using First Interstate’s resources to make a difference in their local neighborhoods. The same dedication and commitment demonstrated in our philanthropic efforts is exhibited in how we approach our relationships with banking clients.

What has First Interstate learned via this PR campaign about ways to make such a large campaign across many communities effective?

With more than 400 service projects across 14 states, it was vital for our team to streamline processes used prior to the merger with Great Western Bank. First Interstate refined our planning processes for Volunteer Day 2022 and created numerous assets that would be ready for employees to access and distribute as the day approached. For instance, we created an internal microsite, detailing all service projects and locations to make participation easy. We also provided consistent messaging and coaching to spokespersons in each market, ensuring that everyone was on the same page about the Bank and Volunteer Day. Meticulous planning and proactive outreach were integral to the success of the day, as was committing to a hyperlocal approach in every aspect.

And what did you learn about how such a campaign can aid in combining two banks and their cultures?

As community banks, both First Interstate and Great Western catered their products, services and philanthropic support to serve hyperlocal needs. As the banks’ fundamental values were well aligned, the transition from Great Western to First Interstate Bank in terms of culture was not that far of a leap. That said, a companywide event like volunteer day gave all employees, legacy and new, the opportunity to unite under one cause with one goal: to give back to the places they call home.

Anything else you would like to add about how this campaign has resonated with your communities?

It’s been an eye-opening experience to see just how much our employees will rally together to support one another and our communities. First Interstate and our teams are grateful for the opportunity to give back to the places we call home not only on volunteer day but throughout the year, whether through monetary donations, volunteerism or both. The unwavering commitment from our employees and First Interstate BancSystem Foundation make it all possible, as does the constant support of our community members and clients.

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