CSR and diversity: It’s time for banks to get naked

By:
Helen Avery
Published on:

Greater transparency on CSR would save banks from duplicated efforts while learning from each other.

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I may disagree with Lloyd Blankfein’s tongue-in-cheek comment years back that banks are “doing God’s work”, but there is a tremendous amount that banks do around corporate social responsibility that is worthy of praise. 

What struck me most when looking through the pitches for Euromoney’s awards for best banks in CSR, financial inclusion and diversity is how much of that work goes under the radar. Youth employment programmes in Kenya’s cities, standing up for LGBT rights in Hong Kong, committing billions to renewable energy finance in China, tackling financial inclusion in favelas in Brazil – the list goes on and on. 

But we rarely hear about it. Did you know for example that Bank of America worked with Brazilian beverage company Ambev to develop bottled water where 100% of the profits are donated to solving droughts in the eastern region of Brazil? Or did you hear that just in the last month Standard Life and JPMorgan appeared in the top 10 employers in the UK fostering social mobility, according to a report by the Social Mobility Commission? 

Just think, these two banks do more to close Britain’s socio-economic divide than British Airways or British Petroleum (and incidentally, more than UK banks HSBC, RBS and Barclays). 

So, why don’t banks take more credit for their efforts? I cover CSR and diversity, and yet I rarely receive a press release about banks’ achievements. Typically, it is only during awards season that a glimpse is afforded into their CSR initiatives. Many PRs seem to have to be dragged screaming to share the good news. 

Why? The main response seems to be that they never considered it – after all, neither the left- or right-leaning press seem to want to print a ‘Bank does well’ story, so a press release is probably a waste of time.

That is a mistake. Shouting the good news would go a long way to healing some of the reputational damage that banks have suffered, but more importantly it would save hundreds of banks from trying to solve the same problems.  


I may be feeling a lot of love right now for banks, having spent a month bathed in their good works, but there is always plenty of negative news to ensure the glass of Kool Aid remains half empty 

If a bank in southeast Asia, for example, hears how BBVA has managed to transform the micro-finance industry in Latin America, then it may learn of a solution for its own country’s micro-finance challenges. As the adage goes: problems solved and shared are problems halved. We see this in the area of innovative structured deals that are widely publicized and so take off across the industry. 

This is where transparency comes in. If banks were more transparent around their CSR efforts across the board, then sharing their achievements would become part of that transparency – they wouldn’t even need a press release. 

By far the most transparent bank I’ve come across is DNB, which is 34% owned by the Norwegian government. Its CSR key figures read like an annual report on its website – which is not surprising because the annual report and CSR report are combined (something else other banks would do well to copy). 

Staggering

The level of publicly available detail is staggering: the number of men versus women recruited last year; their age; the number of women who left the firm; the volume of loans that went to green energy; the quantity of glass wasted last year. But what is perhaps even more helpful to fellow banks is that DNB also discloses the key performance indicators for its philanthropic endeavours. 

What programmes worked? Was that difference measurable? What were those measures? What is the bank working on to improve the outcomes? The answers are all available on the website. 

It’s hard to know if DNB is ahead of its peers in its CSR efforts because no one else reports with this level of transparency. One would guess, however, that even if it is not, it soon will be, and that is another positive outcome for transparency – if we all had to walk around naked, we would probably visit the gym more often. 

I may be feeling a lot of love right now for banks, having spent a month bathed in their good works, but there is always plenty of negative news to ensure the glass of Kool Aid remains half empty. The valiant efforts of Natasha Lamb of Arjuna Capital to get US financial institutions to sign up to gender pay equality are experiencing shameful pushback, for example. And, in danger of believing that banks are only investing in ‘good’ deals, I was reminded of my foolishness by news of Goldman Sachs and Nomura’s “unintentional” purchase of Venezuelan bonds. 

There is a lot to be done, and being transparent does not prevent mistakes. Last year, DNB found itself implicated in the Panama Papers and the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) debate, for example. But transparency sets a tone whereby one can expect a straight answer from a bank when events such as these occur. DNB investigated DAPL and pulled out. It also instigated and announced an independent investigation into the Panama Papers. 

It turned out the bank had been legally compliant, but that ethics had been breached internally. The board then installed preventive measures. 

The Norwegians were rightly appalled, but onwards and upwards. No one is expecting banks to do God’s work, but they can do good work.