January 03, 2013

Big Banks Are Too Stingy, Says Watchdog

While the nation's largest banks have used their charity to deflect criticism in the wake of the financial crisis, their actual philanthropic track record is "lackluster," according to a new report from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

The report says that four banks' corporate foundations -- Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo -- give only modest shares of annual corporate revenues to nonprofits. Bank of America gave a median of 0.15 percent over the last five years, while JPMorgan Chase gave 0.08 percent and Goldman Sachs, 0.03 percent, says the left-leaning watchdog group.

The median giving by corporate foundations in the financial industry, as a percentage of annual revenues, is 0.13 percent, according to data from the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy cited in the report.

The report also faults the banks for lacking transparency by failing to detail which charities receive grants from the companies' corporate coffers. In addition, it says that too little of the banks' giving aims to help the poor and that most of their grants are one-year commitments for specific purposes.

Meanwhile, the banks regularly tout their philanthropy in an effort to bolster their public image, says the report. The report notes a 2009 Congressional hearing to account for how the banks were spending money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, during which the heads of JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America highlighted their banks' "respective philanthropy as proof of their good corporate citizenship."

A Different View

Representatives of the banks disputed the report's claims.

The companies give the bulk of their charity through their foundations, for which they provide grantee information, the banks said. Corporations are not required by law to report on how they spend money through company coffers, and most do not.

The banks' overall giving also compares favorably with many big companies. Goldman Sachs gave 2.6 percent of its pre-tax profits to charity last year, according to Chronicle data. (Many companies aim to give away at least 2 percent of their pre-tax profit). Wells Fargo gave 1.1 percent. Bank of America has contributed roughly $200-million annually in recent years, even as it has posted overall losses.

The banks also disputed the report's claims that they fail to adequately support needy people and provide general support to charities. For example, Goldman Sachs Foundation's biggest philanthropic programs include efforts to help small U.S. businesses and women entrepreneurs overseas.

Bank of America, meanwhile, said that nearly 60 percent of its foundation giving last year was general support.

"It’s always important to assess the role that banks play in creating economically vibrant communities," said T.J. Crawford, a spokesman for Bank of America, in an e-mail to The Chronicle. "That being said, this report inaccurately portrays our commitment to improving the communities we serve, especially those that face greater challenges than others. One of the hallmarks of our corporate social-responsibility program is giving in a transparent, responsive, and consistent manner."

“JPMorgan Chase and its foundation donate over $200-million a year to worthy causes in the U.S. and around the world," said Jennifer H. Kim, a spokeswoman for JPMorgan. "We’re very proud of our innovative approach to charitable giving and the generosity of our company and employees.”


Dig deeper: See The Chronicle's annual study of corporate giving.

Send an e-mail to Caroline Preston.