The CSR That’s Not a Customer Service Representative
By Jan A. Miller
Here we are at the start of a new year and it’s a pretty good time to take stock. The year 2005 was a good year for banks. Most of us enjoyed good earnings, strong credit quality and the ability to contribute to charitable organizations throughout the commonwealth.
Much of the general public probably would be surprised to learn, as your MBA did after a recent survey, that Massachusetts banks contribute more than $40 million a year to charitable causes. In an article in this magazine, you will see a feature about the outstanding work of the MBA Charitable Foundation. In December, the foundation awarded $110,000 in 16 separate gifts to nonprofit organizations throughout eight separate regions of our state.
Since its inception nine years ago, the foundation has awarded more than $750,000 in gifts to social service agencies of all kinds, including those focused on youth services, education, the homeless, the hungry, the sick and much more. Your contributions through gifts, charitable golf outings and, this past year, the MBA’s 100th anniversary celebration, have made this largess possible.
When the MBA Charitable Foundation trustees, officers and staff meet with the media and these groups, we are quick to point out that your annual gifts to the foundation are merely the tip of the iceberg. As indicated by the survey, our banks do so much more gifting on their own. And that $40 million figure does not even include other kinds of contributions like staff volunteer hours.
If you haven’t taken the opportunity to go on the gift-giving visits, I encourage you to make a point to do so next December with Dan Forte and Bruce Spitzer (accompanied, of course, by the enormous photographic check) as the real check is handed to each deserving nonprofit. As you have seen through your own generosity, the work of these charities is truly life-affirming and sorely needed. (We found that the gifts were especially well received this year as many local nonprofits reported they were struggling uphill against declining local donations because contributors gave so much to national and international aid organizations serving the victims of the hurricanes and the tsunami.)
What I find most satisfying is that the ceremonies include groups of our bankers, often competitors, who come together to give these small but much-appreciated gifts. It is a nice statement about our industry.
Such visits often offer insight into the unique financial services needs of nonprofits. As bankers, we are in an unparalleled position: We can award gifts in the form of charity which, as we have seen, most of us do, but we can also make a concerted effort to lend and provide services to nonprofits. Granted, it’s harder to do. We’re in the business of managing risk and, on the face of it, nonprofits – as their names insinuate – are not always in the business of being overtly profitable. And their financial statements are often difficult to analyze.
I would argue that keeping people healthier, providing affordable homes, feeding the hungry, educating our youth, creating jobs and a host of other benefits are profitable endeavors for every community. Most of these organizations do, indeed, have a unique set of problems and needs that must be recognized by any bank that serves them. Some of the more obvious include dependence on donations, cash-flow challenges, less-sophisticated staff, little reserves or collateral and so on. But they also need the same banking services as our business clients – checking accounts, loans, cash management, etc.
The intangible metrics or qualitative stuff that many have going on in their favor include enormous community goodwill, a reputation for community service, a pool of volunteers, amazingly dedicated staff and support from everyone, including elected officials and the media. These metrics may not be the assets that bankers would normally consider, but they can be just as valuable to any bank that decides to service nonprofits. Who wouldn’t want to associate with such a wellspring of goodwill?
Of course, the wonderful thing to know about this business strategy for any bank is that it is profitable. In the almost 20-year history of my own institution, which has made a point of serving hundreds of nonprofits, we have never had to write off a bad loan from any of them. The secret to success? It needs to become a top-to-bottom commitment or one of your major institutional goals.
On the British government’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) Web site – yes, there is such a thing – the government states, “Business and society are interdependent. The well-being of one depends on the well-being of the other. Companies engaged in CSR are reporting benefits to their reputation and their bottom line,” (www.societyandbusiness.gov.uk).
I must say also that it needs to be viewed as more than a marketing opportunity for your bank or just a way to meet your CRA requirement. Sure, the good will and publicity may help when you service a nonprofit, but if you don’t have a total commitment to do it well in the very fiber of your organization, the breakdown of such a relationship could put you in a worse position. Too risky, would you say? I would say that it is just another risk we as an industry can manage.
Most banks do, indeed, service nonprofits. Moreover, we all know that our successes within and beyond the CRA framework are something of which to be proud. But we can do more. We can make a commitment to service more nonprofits, we can be more socially responsible – serving environmental causes, women’s groups, minorities of all sorts – and we can encourage our employees to take these attitudes and practices home with them.
Let’s not make this commitment a New Year’s resolution, let’s make it a year-long evolution.
Jan A. Miller is president of Wainwright Bank in Boston. He can be reached at