The best incentive State Bank & Trust ever dreamed up had nothing to do with putting money in employees' pockets. Instead, it was about raising community awareness and compassion, with an exercise that left many of the 500-plus employees overcome with emotion.

At last December's company party, the Fargo, N.D., bank awarded each of its full-time employees $1,000 ($500 for part-timers) to donate to a company-approved charity. They were prohibited from giving to their families or co-workers, and had a June 30 deadline to pick their recipients. At that point, employees in this Pay It Forward Challenge began documenting their good deeds with a video camera they got to keep. (The program didn't replace other benefits. Employees still received their regular year-end bonuses, and the company contributed 15 percent of their annual salaries to a profit-sharing plan.)

“One of our core values is giving back to the community where we serve, so this was a way of doing that through our employees,” says Julie Peterson Klein, State Bank's human resources manager, who co-organized the Pay It Forward Challenge.

The grateful — and often tearful — employees uncovered a bevy of individual and community needs. One employee offered her check to a struggling young widow. Another gave $1,000 to an Iraqi refugee family. Other checks purchased DVDs and DVD players for a local cancer ward. About 25 employees partnered with a local church and other donors to buy more than 200 beds for the needy. In addition, employees donated more than $35,000 out of their own pockets to their causes.

Never, says Peterson Klein, did State Bank executives discuss how the Challenge would benefit the bank. Still, the institution has been showered with glowing national and even international publicity, and many existing and prospective customers were moved by the bank's gesture. At one branch alone, about 50 people reportedly called wanting to open a State Bank account.

Peterson Klein acknowledges the Challenge boosted esprit de corps, pride, teambuilding, and networking among employees. “I get goose bumps just talking about how it has brought together people from different departments,” she says. “When you watch those videotapes and see all the people our employees helped and the nonprofits they've made a connection with, that's just priceless. It changes your life. You become a little more giving, a little more caring, and a little more compassionate.”

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