Giving: The City’s secret hobby

Heart of the City Director, Carolyn Housman, features in City AM and says the public tends not to know about CSR work because “businesses don’t necessarily think it’s something they should be communicating.”

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With hundreds of millions given away each year, the financial services industry is one of the most charitable around.

On the day they call the Notting Hill Carnival of the City, employees of leading brokerage firm ICAP come into work in fancy dress for an afternoon of trading, with all revenues raised going to charity. It’s great PR for ICAP, great for the charities (who this year received £8m) and great fun for all involved, including the many A-listers who also turn up to man the phones. This year, Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, Prince Harry, Gemma Arterton, Damian Lewis and many more took time out of their busy schedules to take to the floor, buying and selling, all in aid of their favourite charities

The ICAP Charity Day couldn’t be further removed from the caricature of the pin-striped City worker playing fast and loose with other people’s money. The reality is that through Corporate Social Responsibility schemes and individuals’ charitable activities, financial services is one of most giving sectors there is.

It’s hard to measure the full extent of altruism in the City as data is scarce and tends to ignore the huge quantities raised by individuals. Still, in the research that has been carried out, the message is clear: the City is giving, and it’s giving a lot. A City of London Corporation survey into “the impact of City business in addressing social disadvantage” found that firms made £519m of community investments in UK-based projects in 2009. This includes everything from funding for arts institutions to helping domestic abuse charities.

Heart of the City, an organization set up to share best practice among companies interested in CSR, lists many examples of big business making a big difference. There’s Aberdeen Asset Management, who collaborated with youth charity Envision in 2012 to launch development programmes in two Tower Hamlets schools (as well as providing funding, volunteers from AAM helped implement the scheme) and law firm Reed Smith, which set up the Create/U-turn project, giving vulnerable, socially excluded women the chance to explore their creativity in workshops with professional artists and volunteer employees from the firm.

These are just two examples of the kinds of projects undertaken by City firms all the time. Heart of the City chief executive Carolyn Housman says the public tends not to know about CSR work because “businesses don’t necessarily think it’s something they should be communicating.”  Why not? “It’s a sensitive issue. Society is divided about whether or not companies exist to return money to their shareholders or whether there’s a larger purpose. There’s also the question of whether or not the amount of money is the right amount of money. Someone may think a large bank should give half of its profits to the community, or they might prefer you to improve your customer service… so you see it’s a very sensitive topic.”

The big banks tend to be a more sophisticated in their approach to communicating CSR, but even then, media coverage is rare because, according to Housman, newspapers “don’t report on good news stories”. There’s also the fact that many CSR schemes have been going for years, and simply aren’t news anymore. Housman cites the fate of the 1 Percent Club as evidence for the lack of awareness of CSR. “The idea was that big companies should be giving at least one per cent of pretax profits to charitable organisations. It was done away with because it was found that a lot of businesses were doing it already.”

So businesses seem to be doing their bit. But what of the individuals who make up those businesses? As the case studies in this supplement show, the City is full of committed people willing to put their bodies on the line for charitable causes. Patron Capital boss Keith Breslauer, who joined several serving and non-serving Royal Marines in a thirty hour, cross-channel kayaking mission that raised over £250,000 for disabled ex-servicemen and women, is a striking example of the kind of charitable acts regularly undertaken by financial services professionals.

Getting people to sponsor your charitable endeavours is one thing, giving up chunks of your own hard-earned cash is another. Many City figures, though, have established a reputation for giving generously. The likes of Arpad Busson and Stanley Fink are as well known for their philanthropy as they are for their careers in finance. Winton Capital CEO David Harding recently gave an unprecedented £5m to the Science Museum. But when it comes to personal giving, there’s room for improvement says Cheryl Chapman, head of philanthropy for the City of London Corporation. Chapman points to the US as an example of a place with a strong philanthropic tradition. “It’s as much to do with their history as their culture. They’ve not had a welfare state. They’ve always relied on themselves to provide. It’s so embedded in their culture. Most high school alumni will give back to the organization in later life, it’s what they do, and that’s the point we’d like to get to.”

We’re getting there, she says: “We’ve seen things grow. New giving networks have started up. The networks that already existed are growing. There’s Beyond Me, an interesting new giving network for young people, which has doubled in size. It now involves 450 young people and gives about half a million and more in pro-bono work. We can see change but we’re just at the start. Culture change is a long term thing but we’re starting to gather numbers and increase scale.”

In order to enact this culture change, Chapman is targeting younger people just setting out in careers in the financial services. “When people arrive in the City, their heads are down for about 18 months doing graduate programmes. Then when they come up for air, it’s about reminding them that philanthropy is an option and getting them early. Because you never meet an ex-philanthropist, ever. It’s addictive.”

With endless screens flickering with numbers and charts, the ICAP trading floor is the very picture of financial modernity, but charity in the City is far from a modern phenomenon. It goes back as far as the days of Dick Whittington, who after his death in 1423 left a sum of £6,000 (many millions in today’s money) to a number of almshouses around London (the trust remains today). The City of London’s hundred or so livery companies have proud philanthropic traditions that have seen them give generously to schools, hospitals, museums and libraries over the years. In 2010 the livery companies gave over £40m to charity, showing that the culture of giving in the City is as strong as it ever was. Here’s to the next 800 years.

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