Reaching out to the community

eFC logo

But bankers are not without souls and consciences and a growing number are using their skills on community projects. Helping school children to read, assisting small businesses and mentoring head teachers are among the most popular activities.

Although financial largesse continues, throughout the financial industry, people are relinquishing something more valuable than money: time.

Potential beneficiaries of bankers' time are not in short supply. The City of London borders some of the poorest boroughs in the UK. Nick Wright, head of public affairs at UBS Warburg, says: 'Twenty or 30 years ago writing a cheque to a charity may have been deemed sufficient.

'But we now believe that if we are serious about helping the wider community, the best way to do that is to effect some kind of knowledge or skills transfer between the bank and those communities that we seek to partner.'

Banks' most obvious skills lie in providing financial advice. Mentoring members of the community enables bankers to disseminate these skills where they are most required. Jonathan Davie, vice-chairman of Credit Suisse First Boston, acts as a mentor to the leader of a local shelter for the disadvantaged. 'It is a very humbling experience, those running the home are very high-quality people,' says Davie.

Benefits from mentoring are mutual. Over the past 18 months, John Comninos, a director in global finance at Dresdner Kleinwort Benson, has mentored two businesses being supported by the Prince's Trust. Comninos provides organisational ability and advice on cashflow to both a designer and a founder of a community cinema. For his part, he has gained a valuable perspective of affairs on the ground. 'It's very easy to get divorced from the issues that these guys face. If you're in a large organisation someone looks after your personnel policy and the cash in your account. It's refreshing to be there at the start-up stage and to go through all the issues.'

But assistance is not only about applying skills learnt in the office. Jon Grussing, a managing director at Credit Suisse First Boston, and some of Credit Suisse's new analysts, recently spent two days building houses for Habitat for Humanity in Peckham, south east London. Grussing is enthusiastic about the results. 'Everyone from analysts to senior management spent a day in jeans and hard hats putting up a dry wall. Before the analysts started their full-time jobs, it was good to get together in a different setting, meet new colleagues and work as teams. Knowing we were helping those in need gave the whole thing a special feel'.

Corporate philanthropy is better advanced across the Atlantic, and US banks are among the most active in London. Support for community initiatives often comes from the highest level. Michael Marks, chairman of Merrill Lynch Europe, hosted a reception to ensure that Merrill's employees were aware of opportunities to work with school children in Tower Hamlets. 'We believe it is important that our staff are given this opportunity to take a step back from their work to address the needs of their community,' says Phyllis Rock, head of HR for Merrill Lynch Europe.

Such initiatives are part of a wider trend towards social responsibility, says Craig Smith, associate professor of marketing and ethics at London Business School. 'Individuals want to feel a greater sense of self worth and that they're doing things that contribute to more than just the bottom line. This is becoming increasingly important as expectations of the involvement of business in social issues expand. Allowing people to go out into the community can also be a strategy for retaining staff. It's a way of responding to people's values and making them feel better about themselves.'

At a larger level, a new campaign aims to make the City feel better about itself. The Heart of the City campaign is being presided over by the Lord Mayor, Eddie George and Howard Davies. Its first action is to be the compilation of an inventory detailing charitable activities undertaken by organisations in the City of London. Results are expected in early 2001. In the past it seems banks may have been overly reticent about their activities. 'We don't want to make a big song and dance about it,' says a spokesman for a leading US bank. 'People think it's banks trying to sate their conscience,' suggests another.

Philip Evans, head of fundraising for Heart of the City and a director of corporate finance at ABN Amro, says that the initiative's principal aim is not to improve the City's PR, but to offer encouragement to those who are already active in the community, and to publicise the opportunities available to those who are not.

But the opportunity to tackle unfavourable perceptions is also relished. As one leading spokesman put it: 'Any occasion where you can see that the City is rolling up its sleeves and getting things going must be good.'