Company: Merkle.

Location: Columbia.

Employees: 400 locally; 2,100 worldwide.

Kent Groves always feels like his colleagues have his back. He largely attributes that trust to an experience he shared with them far away from the office: A company-paid opportunity to participate in a nonstop, 600-nautical-mile sailing race off the coast of Antigua.

“Although we all knew each other going into the race, you basically work through some hair-raising experiences together,” Groves said.

Groves is vice president of life sciences at Merkle, a Columbia-based marketing agency. He and his co-workers were able to take the trip thanks to the company’s “Dream Grants,” which are designed to allow staffers to pursue a passion. In addition to getting the funds to cover the costs of the trip, the company allowed Groves and the rest of the group to take time off for the trip without using any of their vacation days.

“Every person on that boat, it was always something that we’ve all dreamt of doing,” Groves said.

Jim Foley, the firm’s chief people officer, said many staffers have used the grants for similarly adventurous excursions such as mountain climbing, swimming with sharks, or surfing in Hawaii. But others have used it for something more personal. For example, one staffer used the grant money to start a foundation in memory of her daughter. Another person applied for a grant to go visit their elderly father and take him to a ball game.

Foley said the Dream Grants are part of a strategy to keep employees engaged and to keep them on a trajectory of constant learning.

“We don’t have a particular product. So when the clients hire us, they’re really hiring the people, and that’s not lost on us,” Foley said.

Employees can apply for grants for individual or group activities. The individual grants are worth $1,000; the group grants come in denominations of $5,000 or $15,000, depending on the scope of the project and the number of people involved.