As the fallout from the 2008-9 financial crisis makes strikingly clear, so much depends on the health of the financial services sector. From economic stability to social development, and even the environment, the actions of financial giants such as Bank of America Merrill Lynch have the ability to influence, develop and change things - for the better.
For Andrea Sullivan, Head of Corporate Responsibility for EMEA and Latin America at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, working with colleagues to share expertise and the potential for positive influence is one of the key ways to ensure that the firm makes a long-term difference with its corporate responsibility (CR) activities.
"It's everybody's role to act responsibly. It's in all our interests to think long-term about the health of our institution and the impact we can have on business, society and the environment," explains Andrea. "Embedding responsible decision-making into everything we do is key; not just at an organisational level, but at a personal one too. We give our employees the tools and information and they take the action."
Corporate responsibility extends beyond pure philanthropy to the ethics and values that are embedded within a company. Bank of America Merrill Lynch focuses on responsible business practices, environmental sustainability, investing in global leadership development, promoting cultural understanding and advancing opportunity in local communities through education and employability programmes. Through these commitments, the firm is offering tools to help achieve stronger economies.
Anyone from analyst to managing director level is encouraged to become involved whether through mentoring, working with a startup social enterprise, or as part of a group in the community. There are also opportunities for employees to dedicate their time to personal charity projects. Personal donations are matched through the firm's charitable foundation, and all volunteer hours are logged as part of an annual global hours target - in 2013 the firm achieved more than 1.8 million volunteer hours.
Bank of America Merrill Lynch's primary focus across Europe, the Middle East and Africa is on community engagement - in particular, education and employability. "We have been assisting the education of our young people for several years. But these issues are even more timely now as the lack of proper skills and training are some of our greatest concerns across Europe," says Andrea. "Youth unemployment is at record highs, and if young people today lack the right skills to do the jobs that are needed it will be a great loss - for the individuals, communities and our economy."
In the UK, the firm supports its flagship Financial Education and Employability (FEE) programme, co-designed and managed with UK charity Tower Hamlets Education Business Partnership that operates across schools in what's recognised as one of London's most deprived boroughs.
The course teaches students about finance and the practical skills needed in the world of work. In the last 10 years, over 2,000 Bank of America Merrill Lynch employees have helped 6,000 students benefit from FEE, and many of them have progressed on to higher education and employment.
Says Andrea: "It's a collaborative effort between our work, the schools and the charity. There are many factors that contribute to individual success and the FEE programme is a part of that package. What FEE has done is create opportunities for young people that they otherwise wouldn't have had."
"Participating in the Bank of America Merrill Lynch FEE programme provided me with a great introduction to the financial sector," says former Bow School pupil Andrew Ben-Salem who completed FEE in 2010. "Even more significant were the many skills the programme taught me such as networking, presentation and entrepreneurial skills, all of which have guided me to where I am now. Overall, the programme helped me from an aspirational perspective. It opened my eyes to the world of finance and provided me with an opportunity that I quickly embraced." Andrew has recently graduated from the London School of Economics with a first class honours BSc Accounting and Finance degree.
Back to school
Most recently, Bank of America Merrill Lynch teamed up with UK charity Education and Employer's Taskforce on a programme called "Inspiring the Future" that aims to encourage individuals from across the UK to visit schools to talk about their careers. The firm is the largest corporate supporter of the programme and decided to become involved after research revealed that while at school, young people who have at least three opportunities to interact with someone in employment are five times less likely to fall out of education, employment or training.
"This month, we're rolling out a campaign which aims to encourage our employees, vendors and clients to sign up and visit a school to talk about their job," explains Andrea. "Individuals simply go online at inspiringthefuture.org, provide a brief job profile, and are then matched with a school near their home or work that's looking for a speaker. "What's great is that the charity's system is user-friendly, the commitment is only one hour once a year, and we know that the programme makes an impact."
Personal investment matters
Employee commitment is at the heart of Bank of America Merrill Lynch's corporate responsibility activities. "The level of engagement we see from our employees is one of our main strengths," says Andrea. The firm has built a culture that allows people to take time out of their work schedules to participate in community projects. There is also, at the highest levels, an expectation that you commit your fair share to the firm's corporate responsibility activities.
"We're not just looking at what you've done this year to reach your numbers," says Andrea, "We're looking for leaders who care about our impact on the world."