Strategic Philanthropist

Contributing Writer

5 minutes

The most successful credit union executives have lots in common. They are all strong leaders. Many are also great communicators and excellent motivators. CUES member Jimese Harkley, CUDE, who is poised to join their ranks one day, identifies another key trait of top-echelon executives: their tireless efforts in engaging with the community and making a difference in the lives of others.

Harkley’s commitment to community was on full display at CUES’ CEO/Executive Team Network™, which culminated in her selection as the 2015 CUES Next Top Credit Union Exec.

Making her presentation to attendees at the multi-day conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., Harkley explained how she developed a highly successful philanthropic campaign for $1.3 billion America’s First Federal Credit Union, Birmingham, Ala. Philanthropy and community relations manager, Harkley spearheaded the “Community First” campaign, which raised more than $63,000 for three non-profit organizations and demonstrated the effectiveness of the strategic philanthropy model.

“The Community First campaign ... has allowed America’s First to increase our corporate giving and our volunteer time with local organizations,” Harkley explains. “It also has allowed us to engage in financial literacy workshops for members and non-members in the communities we serve.”

Harkley says the campaign has been an effective way to increase employee buy-in to the CU’s philanthropic efforts. “It’s a way for us to connect and do the things that we as a credit union are charged to do.”

Deploying the Program

Formally defined, strategic philanthropy is a plan for deploying a range of organizational resources, including its employees, toward meeting a specific goal.

“Most institutions don’t have a strategy for giving,” Harkley elaborates. “They set aside money in their marketing budget for charitable donations, but it’s often on a first-come, first-served basis. If an organization asks you for money at the right time, you say, ‘Yes, we can do it.’ But not many institutions recognize corporate giving as a branding opportunity.”

Strategic philanthropy emphasizes gaining employee engagement to boost the impact of corporate giving on the community.

“Many of us recognize that we need to do more, but the key question is, “how?’” Harkley says. “What are the things we need to do to get engagement from our employees, rather than just write a check?”

By answering these questions strategically, America’s First FCU was able to achieve phenomenal growth with its Community First campaign over the last two years. In 2014, the campaign reached its $50,000 goal, but America’s First FCU made a $4,000 donation to make that possible.

In 2015, employee engagement propelled the campaign past its $50,000 goal by $13,341 through sale of T-shirts, barbeque, cookies, sheet sets and soft drinks. Community engagement activities included a skeet-shooting tournament, an “all-bacon” cook-off, and a golf outing. Donations also were taken at all of the CU’s branches.

America’s First CU made United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Birmingham, The Bell Center for Early Intervention and the Alabama Kidney Foundation beneficiaries of the campaign.

“Most people think that philanthropy is about money, but it’s more than that,” says Harkley. “It’s also about time and what you give of yourself to the community.”

From Teller to Leader

Harkley joined America’s First FCU after receiving a degree in communications from Jacksonville State University in 2005. Though her desired job in the marketing department had been filled, she accepted an offer to come on board as a teller with a strong prospect for advancement.

“In the meantime I would have the opportunity to serve in the front line and work with our membership face to face,” she says.

As it turned out, she did advance quickly, being named a branch specialist just four months later. In this role, she interacted with marketing by volunteering to serve in booths at community events. She also spent time visiting select employee groups.

When the position of community relations liaison came open in 2012, Harkley was the logical person to fill it. Three years later, she was promoted to philanthropy and community relations manager. The first person to hold this title at America’s First FCU, Harkley has defined the job on her own terms and has done so in a way that truly sparks community involvement, reports President/CEO Bill Connor, CCE.

“Jimese believes that our community charter is far more than a way to define our field of membership,” says Connor, a CUES member. “It’s a responsibility that means more than just being visible. It means being involved.”

Connor praises Harkley for the passion and energy she brings to her position. “She is one of those people who doesn’t seem to have an ‘off’ switch.”

Harkley is positioning herself to have even more impact going forward She has completed her juris doctorate from the Birmingham School of Law, participated in the National Credit Union Foundation’s Credit Union Development Educator program and “crashed” CUNA’s Governmental Affair Conference in Washington, D.C., with other young professionals.

As the 2015 CUES Next Top Credit Union Exec, Harkley receives a $20,000 prize that includes registration and travel for two years of CUES’ CEO Institute.

Harkley values the coaching she and the five other finalists received from CUES strategic provider and challenge sponsor DDJ Myers Ltd., Phoenix.

The experience “took me from the mindset of a doer to a leader,” she enthuses. “It opened up my mind on how to go from a tactical perspective of solving everyday problems to being more strategic.”

All these accomplishments are even more remarkable considering she and husband Alfred are actively involved in the lives of their two children, 13-year-old Zion and 9-year-old Sunni.

Certainly the future is an exciting destination for Harkley, with opportunities for leadership ahead. “I am open to growing,” she observes. “I put myself in front of all of these opportunities with growing in mind.”

Diane Franklin is a freelance writer based in Missouri.

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