One of the most important – and frankly, challenging but rewarding – parts of my job as head of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at Bank of America involves actively engaging with external stakeholders, a group that includes members of the media, nonprofits, regulators, legislators and other key influencers. Whether that means speaking at a conference, serving on a panel, or attending meetings with consumer and community advocates who fall into the category of critics of our company and industry, each of these engagements provides an opportunity to explore new ideas in the CSR space, address emerging issues and concerns, and give stakeholders a clearer idea of what we’re doing to conduct ourselves as a responsible company.
At two recent events, I had the opportunity to do all the above – and more. Along with Barclays Head of Brand, Reputation and Citizenship David Weldon and Bloomberg reporter Sheela Kolhatkar, I served on a panel at the 2014 Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) Conference in New York City, debating and assessing with each other and a very engaged audience on how the role of the financial industry has evolved since the crisis. The following week, we convened a meeting in Boston of our National Community Advisory Council (NCAC), a committee composed of approximately 30 prominent civil rights and community advocates and sustainability leaders, whom we bring together to engage in two days of honest if occasionally spirited dialogue about what we as a company are doing to reinvigorate local economies and promote the advancement of the many communities, households and individuals still struggling.
At both events, I was struck by how the same issues and concerns kept rising to the top of our conversations. At BSR, my fellow panelists and I were posed a challenging question:
Five years after the crisis, have global financial institutions truly reassessed their degree of responsibility to society and – more importantly – tangibly, measurably and credibly changed their conduct as a result?
Speaking on behalf (I believe) of just about all of us at Bank of America, I felt proud to be able to answer that question credibly and resoundingly in the affirmative. One of the few silver linings or bright spots coming out the crisis was that it provided our company and our industry an opportunity to reexamine not just the role we played in society in the past but the one we want to play in the present and future.
Over the five years that have elapsed since the crisis, our company has spent a great deal of time putting everything we do under a microscope and, as a result of that process of self-examination, become far more proactive at putting the skills, people and resources of our company to work at addressing some of society’s most intractable concerns and problems, ranging from women’s economic empowerment to the global health crisis of AIDS to the urgent need for a higher level of financial literacy across every social and economic strata. Placing the highest priority on putting our own house order, we put policies in place across all our lines of business designed to ensure that all our products and services are fair, transparent and deliver real value for our customers and clients and demonstrate a genuine intent to focus on our relationships with those who do business with us, as opposed to focusing simply on the transactions.
One tangible example of this ongoing commitment to the principles and values that guide our company – and which are reinforced by our CEO Brian Moynihan – is the industry-leading position we took by eliminating overdraft fees at the point of sale for debit card holders. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was made in the knowledge that while some responsible and customer-centric decisions may sacrifice revenue in the short term, they’re in the best long term interests of the company and its shareholders.
At our NCAC meeting in Boston, I was equally impressed by the energy our members brought to a discussion on green bonds, social impact bonds, and other social and environmental financing innovations that are generating enormous enthusiasm among nonprofits hoping to tap huge pools of capital from individual and institutional investors looking to align their investment strategies with their own values and principles.
At each gathering, I closed with the same thought: for companies committed to advancing in the right direction, adopting a governance structure that elevates new and emerging CSR issues, policies, programs and concerns to the highest corporate and organizational level is now a prerequisite – the capital “G” in ESG, as the first initials of the acronym cover a company’s environmental and social impacts. Our Global CSR Committee, chaired by Global Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer Anne Finucane,, reports directly to Brian Moynihan, who in turn reports on these issues to the Governance Committee of our board. Made up of senior business leaders from every line of business, the committee meets quarterly with an agenda focused on tracking, monitoring and conducting oversight over the way we engage with every conceivable CSR or ESG (environmental, social and governance) issue, from human rights to diversity and inclusion, climate risk and opportunity, corporate reputation, and the transparency and credibility of our annual reporting on all the above.
As for overcoming the skepticism and even cynicism so many critics still bring to this debate – reflexively equating CSR with public relations – I’d be the first to admit that as an industry, we’ve still got a long way to go. But I’d also contend that sometimes it takes a crisis to permanently alter a longstanding status quo. Even as the crisis recedes into memory, I’m optimistic that the hard lessons we learned and the real changes we’ve made to our practices and policies are here to stay.