Yesterday I interviewed an analyst from the Buenos Aires offices of JPMorgan Chase bank. I was hungry for information about one of the hot areas of social entrepreneurship: Corporate Social Responsibility. The latter essentially refers to private sector companies who put to use their profits, staff, and/or resources to “do good.” Socially responsible activities come in all shapes and sizes: from environmental awareness, to employee service days, to financial donations to non-profit organizations, to more integrative collaborations with non-profits, including professional expertise and operational assistance. The attraction of CSR is in these mutually beneficial partnerships between the for-profit and non-profit sectors, ones in which one can combine the business savvy, financial sustainability, and operational expertise of for-profit enterprises with the social mission drive, staff activism, and relevant expertise on the political/economic/social issue at hand of non-profit organizations.
I met with Ana in the lobby of the Torre Catalina Plaza, one of the few skyscrapers in Buenos Aires and home of the Argentine branch of JPMorgan Chase. Ana is on the bank’s committee for social responsibility, which organizes any and all of the bank’s donations and activities in the Argentine social sector. She gave me a quick peek around the offices (three floors of identical beige cubicles, with an incredible vista of la Plata river) and then proposed we take the interview to Starbucks. On the way to Starbucks – in fact one of the most widely-known examples of CSR with their (debatable) dedication to fair-trade beans –, we passed a protest of the Communist Workers Movement banging on drums and waving signs that read “BANCOS, PAGUEN LO QUE DEBEN” or “BANKS, PAY WHAT YOU OWE.” Ana rolled her eyes. Once seated in the all-too-familiar setting of the American coffeehouse franchise, I asked her about the bank’s activities in the social sector. Her response was disappointingly short.
The Argentine branch gets a slim portion of the total grant money doled out from the central branch in New York for CSR projects. Since the crisis of 2008, that portion has gotten even slimmer. The committee members then decide which local NGOs get some. By her own admittance, the social impact brought about by the banks’ philanthropic investments is fairly minimal. Particularly since last year the committee decided to give smaller donations to more organizations rather than larger donations to fewer, more rigorously selected organizations (I assume in an effort to have more names on the list of NGO-recipients, because otherwise I truly don’t understand the logic) the money is now spread so thinly among the NGOs that the actual impact of the grants on each organization’s efforts is negligible.
I must have had a pretty long face on after that response (expectant as I was of a complete revolution of the traditional for-profit-non-profit boundaries, of a mega-CSR-enterprise applying all the business and operational savoir-faire of the bank to reinvigorate the dynamism, financial sustainability, and scalability of the local NGO sector…), because she quickly assured me that she herself did plenty of volunteerism in civil society organizations in her spare time. Which is nice, but has nothing to do with CSR. So this particular adventure in social entrepreneurship was a bit of a bust. While no one had previously identified JPMorgan Chase to me as a leader in social sector initiatives, for some reason the fact that the bank had a global CSR program, including a foundation in New York (that according to its website dolls out more than $100 million per year in “philanthropic investments” for Community Development, Education, and Arts and Culture around the world) and CSR committees in each international branch dedicated to these philanthropic investments, made me feel this was something worth looking into.
Unfortunately, at least in the case of this company, or this branch of this company, CSR leaves little to be desired. It consists of a well-written blurb on the bank’s website about their foundation’s millions of dollars of global philanthropic investments to the social sector, and of a few committees doling out these millions in the form of scattered, ineffectual grants to local organizations, and no follow-up or collaboration beyond these punctual donations. Oh well. Next week to meet with staff member of the NGO, Incluir, heading projects on self-managed enterprises and social economy. Somewhat more promising.