BANKING: The Virtuous Circle

Patrick McCurry

Co-op staff contribute the equivalent of 1,269 days to community organisations on behalf of the bank and last year a scheme was launched to enable all staff to engage in community volunteering for up to three days a year, where participants are willing to donate equivalent time themselves.


From being a target for anti-apartheid campaigners in the 1980s because of its links to South Africa, Barclays has been attempting to re-position itself at the forefront of social responsibility in the UK banking sector.

In response to the Social Investment Taskforce report of 2001, Barclays was the first bank to publish data on its lending and banking activity in deprived areas of the UK. Some of the other big banks are now following suit.

But Barclays' stated commitment to financial inclusion has been hit in the past by episodes such as its mass closure of branches, many of which were in rural areas, in 2000.

Its CSR report, which is also available online, is verified by consultancy SGS. It shows that last year Barclays' community investment totalled £30m in the UK, of which £11m came from charitable donations. Community investment represents around 1 per cent of pre-tax profits and the bank supports more than 16,000 employees in volunteering and fundraising.

Among the bank's most important charity partnerships are SiteSavers, which is the largest community urban regeneration programme of its kind in the UK and enables local communities to transform derelict land into leisure and recreational facilities. Under its New Futures scheme the bank is contributing £10m over 10 years to support 1,500 schools to run citizenship projects.

The bank has also been active in the community finance sector and provided finance to nine community development finance institutions,which lend to charities and social enterprises.

Last year it lent £1.5m to CDFIs and worked with the New Economics Foundation in a study on how data on bank activity in poor areas can be used to promote economic regeneration.

Corporate responsibility is more than a PR tool for banks - it wins over consumers and forges partnerships with the sector and the community at large.

Corporate social responsibility is a relatively new development for the big high-street banks, but one that they are all now embracing.

A mixture of pressure from government, campaign groups and customers is making CSR a 'must-have' policy and taking it beyond the traditional activity of simply making grants to charities.

But what exactly is CSR and how do you know if your bank is serious about it?

Fundamentally, CSR demonstrates that a company has an understanding of and a commitment to manage its impact on the communities in which it operates and society more generally. This usually includes its impact on the environment, how it treats its employees and suppliers, and whether it engages with local communities or national issues through donations and partnerships with charities.

"In the past three years there's been a significant change in the way banks see CSR," says Paul Scott, director of Next Step Consulting, which advises on CSR.

Scott adds that banks have always had community or environment departments, but their activities were carried out on an ad hoc basis. Unlike oil companies, for example, whose activities have clear environmental and social impacts, banks have not been asked to account for their activities until recently, and have been able to hide behind their somewhat anonymous images.

This started to change in 2001 when campaigners protesting against animal-testing laboratory Huntingdon Life Sciences also began to target the company's financial backers with demonstrations against, among others, Royal Bank of Scotland. While this is an extreme example, banks now realise they are putting themselves in the firing line if they cannot show some commitment to CSR, whether that be screening lending to potentially controversial projects in the developing world, or offering their support to financial inclusion projects that improve low-income individuals' access to banking in the UK.

Supporting charities, although a long-established activity among the big banks, is a key element in the banks' CSR strategies. But today this is less about hand-outs and more about partnerships to benefit both parties.

There is also a growing recognition that having a credible CSR policy helps the banks recruit and retain staff.

"When you're interviewing graduates for jobs these days, they often bring up the subject of the bank's CSR record," says Co-operative Bank spokesman Dave Smith.

Today, banks take a more strategic and coherent approach to CSR because they understand its impact on the bottom line. This change is due to a number of factors. One is the growing pressure banks have come under for funding controversial projects overseas, such as the Ilisu dam scheme in Turkey.

Another is pressure from the authorities. The European Commission will make recommendations by next summer on what legislation should govern CSR. Meanwhile, the UK government has been trying to get banks to disclose their lending records in 'under-invested' communities. This call for better disclosure was recommended by the Social Investment Taskforce in 2001, which was concerned that disadvantaged communities were suffering because of difficulties in accessing banking services.

Barclays was the first of the 'big four' to disclose its record in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. With regard to overseas projects, earlier this year Barclays, HSBC and Royal Bank of Scotland signed up to the 'Equator Principles', a set of social and environmental guidelines drawn up by the World Bank to prevent socially irresponsible lending in the developing world.

The Co-operative Bank, meanwhile, has had an ethical policy since 1992 and has been one of the global pioneers in CSR. It has won awards such as Company of the Year from Business in the Community in 2001, and was ranked as the world's most socially responsible business at the Global Corporate Conscience Awards in New York last year.

"Where the banks offer very similar products and levels of service, we believe our ethical stance gives us a key advantage with customers, particularly charity clients," says Smith.

He adds that at the Co-op, CSR is integrated into the way the bank operates, whereas at the bigger banks it is an corporate affairs department add-on that does not enjoy the same level of support throughout the company.

Sarah McGeehan, information officer at the Community Development Finance Association, disagrees. She acknowledges that a few years ago CSR was often a matter for the public affairs departments of the big banks but argues that today more of the banks' CSR activities are tied to their long-term commercial interests.

She says that banks such as RBS and Barclays have been big supporters of community development finance institutions (CDFIs), which lend to charities, social enterprises and other organisations that find it hard to access mainstream finance.

"Supporting CDFIs achieves social aims and so is part of CSR, but it is also in the long-term interests of the banks because CDFIs can reach markets that the big banks cannot," McGeehan says.

Nurturing future customers

The advantage for the big banks of building links with CDFIs is that the small firms or charity enterprises that they help nurture may grow into bigger companies that will turn to the mainstream banks for finance products in future.

Similarly, when it comes to supporting charities, the big banks are increasingly aware of what they can get out of the relationship. For McGeehan, this is no bad thing because such enlightened self-interest means that the banks are more likely to take the relationship seriously instead of seeing it as something completely separate to their main sphere of business.

"In the past, CSR has often been divorced from the core business of the banks," she says, highlighting the example of the Lloyds-TSB Foundation, which prides itself on acting independently from the bank in its grant giving.

But now the big banks are focusing their community involvement in fields where their expertise can make a difference and where in the long-term they may even benefit commercially.

Royal Bank of Scotland, for example, is providing £10m in cash and kind over three years to the Prince's Trust, to help young people learn new skills, get into work and set up businesses. Some of these future entrepreneurs are likely to turn to the bank for their own banking needs in the future.

The bank also runs a big financial education programme in schools.

"We're educating the customers of the future in financial literacy," says Royal Bank of Scotland community investment manager Stephanie Allison.

As with other banks, it also has a major employee volunteering programme and payroll-giving scheme. Allison says these schemes not only benefit charities but also the company: "They're good for staff motivation and the feel-good factor."

So what are the track records of the big banks in CSR? All of them produce CSR or community reports, detailing their record on charitable support, environmental activity and so on. But not all include the percentage of pre-tax profits going on community investment, such as donations to charity and the value of employee volunteering in their reports. Lloyds TSB invested 1.15 per cent of pre-tax profits and Barclays 1 per cent. Royal Bank of Scotland and HSBC did not include figures, although according to The Guardian, they invested 0.64 per cent and 0.38 per cent respectively. The big four are dwarfed by the Co-op, which invested 2.1 per cent of profits on community activities.

Martin Mosley, director of consumer and community affairs at Barclays, says that the relationship between the banks and charities has changed and has extended "beyond philanthropy".

He says: "It's not just about photo opportunities presenting big cardboard cheques to charities. It is now a business relationship with both sides understanding the others' expectations and where we look at the outcomes and impacts the partnership will lead to."

He denies that CSR is simply a public relations exercise for the bank: "Most corporates now see CSR as simply part of being in business and as something that's non-negotiable."

But he acknowledges that if Barclays' CSR activities can raise its reputation among customers, including charities, then it's a "win-win situation" for the company.


The Co-op is the banking sector's pioneer when it comes to CSR and its Partnership Report runs to a whopping 94 pages.

The report covers its relationship with a variety of stakeholders, including staff, suppliers and local communities. The Co-op's CSR report is audited by social accounting consultant Richard Evans and also includes assessments from environment campaigner Jonathon Porritt and Business in the Community.

The bank has won a number of awards for its reporting on social, environmental and ethical activities. Last year it was the first UK company to be named the World's Most Socially Responsible Business at the Global Corporate Conscience Awards and was also declared as the best sustainability reporter in the world by the United National Environment Programme.

The bank makes "cash" donations to charities and NGOs of £2.58m, equivalent to 2.1 per cent of pre-tax profits.

Its total community investment, including items such as staff time, represents 2.7 per cent of pre-tax profits. Charity support is focused on the themes of ethics and social welfare, ecology, co-operation and education. Organisations helped include the RSPB, Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Tearfund and Save the Children.

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