Society: High time for banks to give something back
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Last November, my charity received a letter from the bank advising us of changes to our charging arrangements. It was not good news as the free banking we had enjoyed for five years was being terminated. This is no mere detail for a small charity, where margins are always tight and a good relationship with a sympathetic bank is essential.
When we set up the Creative Society (or New Deal of the Mind as it was then called), we were lucky that one of our most active supporters negotiated free banking with Coutts. Yes, that's right, the bankers to the Queen. In the early days this felt like something of a coup and hugely helped our credibility. As time went on, we had hoped to develop a deeper relationship with Coutts, which prides itself on its support for the creative sector, but discussions about corporate social responsibility and sponsorship came to nothing. Despite the fact that we were helping young unemployed people back to work in the creative industries, no one within Coutts seemed to see why a bank should be particularly interested. Still, we remained grateful for the free banking.
But the letter told us that from now on we would have to pay full charges of pounds 150 a quarter - small change for Coutts but a significant amount for us. The letter explained that our existing arrangement was established in 2009 because we were a start-up business, but now circumstances had changed. While the Creative Society had been "establishing itself as a successful and sustainable social enterprise, the banking sector has seen a significant amount of change requiring us to review all of our special charging arrangements". I had to read this several times before I realised that the bank was seriously saying that our small, if successful, charity should now pay charges because the bank had been going through a bad time.
I wrote back suggesting that this was precisely the time Coutts should be considering supporting a charity that helped young people affected by the economic downturn. Coutts is part of the RBS group, whose collapse was at the heart of the 2008 banking crisis. Its initial bailout that year cost the UK taxpayer pounds 37bn.
Three trustees of the charity, who happened to bank with Coutts, wrote to express their disappointment and we were given a stay of execution with an extension of our free banking until the end of 2014. After several months we finally had a face-to-face meeting. It was explained that the policy was part of a process of streamlining and that Coutts would no longer dispense its charitable largesse via free banking. Instead, there would be a direct relationship with charities it wished to support. As a result, we were asked to put forward a sponsorship proposal. We suggested Coutts might be prepared to stump up a modest sum to support "This is It!", a series of workshop events we are running around the country to help people eager to enter the creative industries. We waited . . . and waited.
Then, last month we received the final brush-off: "While supporting our community engagement objectives is part of our criteria, our sponsorship strategy tends to be more focused on existing and prospective private client relationships." In a further official statement, a Coutts spokesman made the situation plain: "Our standard practice is to charge fees for our banking services - and these fees are communicated clearly to clients and published on our website."
And still the banks wonder why people hate them. Labour's plans for a windfall tax to pay for a youth employment scheme is a blunt instrument, but it is likely to have widespread public support because people think the banks deserve a kicking and young people deserve a break.
Some in the industry do get it, however. HSBC should be applauded for putting pounds 30m into getting 25,000 young people into work or training over the next three years via the Prince's Trust, Catch 22, St Giles Trust and Tomorrow's People.
Others are still licking their wounds and feeling sorry for themselves. They should realise the time has come to give something back.
Martin Bright is founder of the Creative Society, the creativesociety.co.uk
(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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