Shortly after the 2007 economic crash, I started getting press releases from a growing number of financial institutions: Swiss private banks, private equity firms, hedge fund managers. A slow drip to start with, then an ever-rising flood. They weren’t about mergers or investment portfolio returns; they were about charity. More specifically, they were about the charity they were doing. Abseiling down The Shard, hiking Kilimanjaro, cycling to Paris.
It was a sea of white middle-aged men in Lycra and giant cheques with lots of zeroes. You know the kind of thing.
So why the sudden show of benevolence? It didn’t take much to figure out that financial services providers were suffering from a massive backlash in public mood. The Masters of the Universe – wealth managers that had held sway over the markets since the 1980s – had gotten too greedy and we were all going to suffer. The icy fingers of recession spread from the smoothie bars of Wall Street, slowing economies across the globe.
I suspect also that individuals in finance genuinely felt bad about themselves, now that they weren’t making such distractingly large amounts of dosh. What better way to show you have a heart than to align yourself with a cause? PR departments went into overdrive and charities (particularly in Tower Hamlets for some reason) got overrun with well-meaning bankers coming to paint their care-centres’ fences.
Truth is though, no matter how cynical I may be about their motivations and the CSR machinery at that time, I covered stories and interviewed people who had raised transformational amounts of money for charities. Hundreds of thousands of pounds from a day of trading; millions raised climbing Everest.
People in finance are generally smart, rich, well connected and incredibly driven. They can unlock enormous reserves of wealth for good causes – as long as they look good in return. The same is broadly true for captains of industry and tech entrepreneurs. To understand that for them it is as much about profit and brand as it is about the cause is in fact intensely powerful.
So, yes CSR is changing in regards to the level of social investment, but it doesn’t mean businesses have swallowed the red pill of unlimited empathy. They still want bang for their buck. And savvy fundraisers can leverage that by speaking the language of impact and return that businesspeople and financiers understand.