Wall Street’s Do-Gooder Summer

The big banks are cleaning cats and helping blind people to ice cream socials

On July 1, eight Goldman Sachs employees will meet outside the bank’s new Manhattan skyscraper and head to the BARC animal shelter on Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg, Va.. They’ll walk, bathe and play with homeless dogs; brush and play with homeless cats; help with cleaning the cat loft; and change litter boxes.

Six days later, according to a schedule for what the bank calls its Community TeamWorks program, there’s an ice cream social at a Jersey City, N.J., home for the blind, where eight more volunteers will decorate a large space with an Americana ice cream parlor theme. A week after that, 25 Goldman volunteers will go fishing with children in Prospect Park: On an outing last year, nothing was caught, an associate said, because of a layer of algae or something covering the pond. One kid fell in.

Just as criticism of the banking system as entirely diabolic gets silly quickly, Wall Street still has an awfully hard time fitting into the role of bighearted community leader. Even as financial reform enters its final round in Washington, D.C., when the big banks talk about their special compassion and generosity, let alone the social usefulness of daily financial services, they mostly sound shallow, pompous or just awkward.

“While consumers provide the fuel for the company, we provide the oil,” said the lobbyist Scott E. Talbott, senior vice president of government affairs at the influential Financial Services Roundtable. “We make lives better. We make dreams happen. I don’t want to wax poetic—there were some abuses, and corrections that are being made and have been made. But we are the oil.” It was pointed out to Talbott that the oil imagery was unfortunate. “Maybe I should say lubricant, but that brings to mind other metaphors.” He chuckled.

According to a BrandIndex chart posted by Reuters last week, Goldman ranks lower than BP when 5,000 interviewees are asked about current buzz. “As an industry, we’ve never done a good job at communicating exactly what we do,” said a senior executive at one of the big banks. “And my personal view is that until there’s not double-digit unemployment, until things get better in the economy and people are not so concerned, as well they should be, about their own livelihood, that’s when we can be more proactive about repairing the damage. But now it would just peeing into a windstorm.”

It is almost summertime in New York City, a season of Wall Street philanthropy, volunteerism and charity all over town. On June 16, JPMorgan has the first day of its Corporate Challenge road race in Central Park, promoting workplace fitness, goodwill, camaraderie and environmentalism.

Earlier that day, Morgan Stanley holds the main event of its second annual Social Enterprise Strategy Challenge, run by a bank wing called the Environment, Social Finance and Community Reinvestment Group. “It’s a terrible name,” said Audrey Choi, the Morgan Stanley managing director who heads it. “We need some branding help, if you have some ideas.”

The participants, associates and vice presidents mostly in their 20s and early 30s, were nominated by their bosses. “We asked if they wanted to be involved, and there were people who said, ‘You know what, I’m too busy in my day job,’ but the vast majority did want to,” Choi said. “What we found more and more, especially with Gen Y, is that people don’t want to just write a check. They’re really interested in engaging.” A dozen teams of four were matched with nonprofit groups eight weeks ago and told to spend five to 10 hours weekly working on analyzing efficiency, growth and financial sustainability. “In some cases we are helping organizations that would never engage the likes of us, an investment bank, to help,” Choi said, “and they probably wouldn’t even be able to afford a boutique firm that specializes in nonprofit consulting.”

Goldman gives a day off for Community TeamWorks, and expects its employees to use it. Every year, a site lists the official options, like next month’s ice cream social decoration for the blind.

A video commemorating the program’s first 10 years is posted online. “When I think of Goldman Sachs, I think of energy, enthusiasm, willingness, teamwork, professionalism, people thinking of how they can do it as a team,” says Emma Turner, a firm charity executive. She left for Barclays last year.

In this week’s Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin asked if Goldman’s reputation for deception and darkness matters if its clients remain steadfast. Does Wall Street have to be adored? “Look, I think it’s a tough environment, people are frustrated with the financial services sector, and some of that is very justified. So I don’t think this is an issue [that] is going to turn around over night with a few grants or a few announcements about volunteerism,” said Andrew Plepler, the global corporate social responsibility and consumer policy executive at Bank of America.

Outside of a Bank of America program to give $2 billion in grants over a decade, and a million-hour volunteer challenge to its employees this year, the idea is to embed benevolence into the bank’s business practices, Plepler said. Its goal is to invest $1.5 trillion in low-to-moderate income communities and finance $20 billion in environmental initiatives over the next decade.

“Wall Street actually produces some valuable benefits for the economy, including allocating capital to the places that really need it,” professor Raghuram G. Rajan at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business said. “I’m one who is suspicious of corporate social responsibility programs. It seems to me that the ones who speak the loudest have the most to hide.” The cover of last year’s sustainability report from BP calls the firm, in large letters, “innovative, efficient and responsible.”

“What’s important is that they do core activities in a way that has value to the customer,” Rajan said, “and is not a tax on society.”

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