Forefront Communications

Philanthropy on Wall Street: How Capital Markets Firms Support Causes from Pandemic Relief to Social Justice

Sam Belden

Sam Belden

The history of philanthropy cannot be told without a lengthy chapter on the financial services industry. As the reform movement of the 19th century increasingly intersected with the growth of American industry, ultra-wealthy individuals began to donate to good causes and support communities on a more systematic level, ushering charitable giving into the modern age.

Wall Street was on the front lines of this movement. Prominent philanthropists during this era ranged from scions like J.P. Morgan to self-made men like Russell Sage, both of whom laid the foundation for giving programs that continue to make an impact today. More recently, boldface names like Bill Ackman, Michael Bloomberg, Ken Griffin and Carl Icahn have taken up that mantle.

Sam Bankman-Fried, a cryptocurrency billionaire and founder and CEO of crypto exchange FTX, is a prolific donor and a member of the effective altruism organization Giving What We Can, representing the next generation of financial services philanthropy.

While individual donors have historically gotten more press for their charitable endeavors, this generosity can also be seen at a corporate level, and Wall Street is no exception. Across the industry, firms have ramped up their philanthropic activities and made big investments in their corporate social responsibility (CSR) teams, both to respond to specific crises and as part of their day-to-day operations.

The causes these firms promote are many, ranging from social justice to education, the environment, pandemic relief, supporting families and more. But the common thread is to make a positive impact in the world. In the words of John Gardner, who served as President of the Carnegie Corporation in the middle of the last century: “Wealth is not new. Neither is charity. But the idea of using private wealth imaginatively, constructively and systematically to attack the fundamental problems of mankind is new.”

That’s a lofty ideal – but Wall Street firms have delivered on it, engaging with their employees and communities to identify key priorities and supporting them with their money, time and amplification. Through these efforts, the industry is well-positioned to continue its robust legacy of philanthropy for years to come.

Philanthropy in Motion

The Greater Good

There are obvious business benefits to giving back. A 2018 report from Mintel found that nearly 75% of Americans account for companies’ charitable giving when making purchasing decisions – and while the institutional nature of Wall Street means there are other considerations at play, there is a clear appetite for giving back through doing business, as evidenced by the rise of ESG investing.

For many industry firms, a sense of responsibility to use their good fortune for the greater good is part of the culture. DASH Financial Technologies, a technology provider to the institutional trading community, is one firm that exemplifies this, with supported charities including Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and Team Rubicon.

“It’s important to give back to your community and those in need,” said Stino Milito, President at DASH. “As a business, and as individuals, we understand people go through difficult times in life and sometimes need help to get through them. Whether it’s support for emotional well-being, mentorship opportunities, advancing the fight against various diseases or any of the unexpected things life can throw at you, we are fortunate to be in a situation to help and happy to do so.”

While choosing to give back is often an easy decision, deciding which causes to support is considerably harder. Each firm must balance between supporting local charities, where they can most easily see their gift’s impact, or national organizations, which have a bigger reach.

Security Traders Association (STA), a trade group comprised of individual traders and industry members, takes a dual approach. Each year, it selects one charity partner at the national level, while its many regional affiliates support local endeavors throughout the year as part of its Grassroots Giving program. This year’s charity partner, Greenwood Project, creates career pathways in financial services for Black and Latinx students, groups that are underrepresented in the industry.

“Our partnerships with selected charities at the national level have been a big success, mainly because our commitment is for an entire year. This provides more time and opportunities to help them out in a variety of ways, and our members and sponsors get a real sense of their stories and impact because they hear from them multiple times throughout the year,” said Jim Toes, President and CEO at STA. “At the same time, our affiliates support a large number of charities in their own backyards. This hybrid approach enables us to support a greater number of causes and maximize our impact.”

Human Welfare

Rising to the Occasion

Philanthropy is business as usual for most industry firms, but in times of crisis, they frequently step up in even more substantial ways. The rise of the COVID-19 pandemic is a timely example. When people and companies come together to support human welfare, it can add true value to people’s lives.

“Recently, we’ve focused on supporting groups affected by the many consequences of the pandemic and lockdowns associated with it,” said Milito. “These include initiatives to support small business owners struggling with COVID-related restrictions, mental health initiatives and more.”

One group that has been particularly impacted by the pandemic is the autism community. Many people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have been unable or limited in their ability to access necessary interventions. Furthermore, restrictions on laboratory facilities caused widespread disruption of autism research projects that had the potential to make a real difference for people with ASD and their families.

“The past 20 months have been incredibly challenging for the families and scientists we serve. We knew we had to recalibrate our usual activities to meet the moment,” said Alison Singer, President and Co-Founder of Autism Science Foundation (ASF), a nonprofit that provides funding and other support to autism researchers and families. “We pivoted quickly once the pandemic took hold, launching a series of COVID Research Grants to help keep autism research moving forward under pandemic conditions, and increasing our efforts to help connect families with the resources they needed most.”

Wall Street has stepped up to support the autism community in the form of Wall Street Rides FAR, an annual charity cycling and walking event that provides direct support to ASF. Employees of numerous exchanges, brokers, HFTs, crypto firms and technology vendors don their company-branded cycling jerseys each year to pedal and walk for a good cause. This past year, the event raised over $800,000 for autism research, a new record.

“The generosity of the Wall Street community has been crucial to our efforts, especially during the pandemic,” said Singer. “We’ve developed great relationships with so many firms throughout the space and could not be more grateful for their support.”

Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace

Social justice is another timely issue in which Wall Street has made its presence felt. Last summer, as protests against racism and police brutality occurred across the country, industry firms were pressed by their own employees and outside voices to increase diversity in their ranks – and, according to Bevon Joseph, Executive Director of Greenwood Project, many have responded.

“The firms that we work with are enhancing their diversity initiatives. By doing so, they’re helping their firms, helping the industry and helping communities of color,” said Joseph. “These firms are realizing this is a win-win situation. Firms want to address the historic lack of diversity in this space, and our laser focus on preparing students for careers in finance means they know exactly what they are getting.”

Per Joseph, the wave of support has been tremendous. Since last summer, Greenwood Project has onboarded over 30 new industry partners, gone from one full-time staff member to six and doubled the number of students it serves, with plans to expand even more in the years to come.

“There has been a big shift in that more firms are now willing to let Greenwood Project drive the conversation,” said Joseph. “They now look at us as subject-matter experts. We’ve proven that our model works, and the industry has increasingly stepped up to provide ongoing support.”

Getting Involved

The concept of giving back goes beyond monetary donations. By providing opportunities for employees to participate directly in fundraising efforts, firms can inspire long-term support for important causes and increase camaraderie among their teams.

Talos, a provider of digital asset trading infrastructure founded in October 2020, is an example of this dynamic. Earlier this year, the firm became a first-time sponsor of Wall Street Rides FAR. As a relatively new company with a distributed workforce, the event was essentially the first time that Talos had gathered as a team.

“Seeing so many of our teammates in person for the first time made Wall Street Rides FAR an especially memorable experience,” said Anton Katz, Founder and CEO at Talos. “Given the prevalence of autism in families with parents who are engineers, this cause hits close to home for a technology firm like ours, and people traveled in from all over to participate. Without a doubt, the experience brought the team closer together, and we’re already looking forward to returning next year.”

It’s not just action-packed weekend events that help industry professionals play an active role in giving back. On charity trading days like the ones held by BTIG, ICAP and IntelligentCross, venues donate the day’s net commissions to worthy charities, enabling traders to further the industry’s philanthropic mission as part of their regular duties. ICAP’s annual Charity Day, which in 2019 played host to celebrity ambassadors like Bradley Cooper and Alex Rodriguez, has raised nearly $200 million since its inception in 1993.

This giving model emphasizes two key ideas: that people will go the extra mile for causes they are personally passionate about, and that industry professionals can maximize their impact by gaining the support of their firms. Both themes were discussed at STA’s 88th Annual Market Structure Conference in October, on a panel entitled “Leverage Your Job to Change the World” during the Morning of Philanthropy & Recognition.

Moderated by Mark Dowd, Managing Partner at Forefront Communications, the panel hosted STA’s individual Big Heart for Charity Award winners: Silvia Davi of InspereX, Kate Faraday of Pinebridge and Marc Wyatt of T. Rowe Price. They discussed ways that industry professionals can become involved in meaningful causes, including through outreach to their local communities and their firms.

Davi, who sits on the board of Tuesday’s Children, became more involved with the organization, which she was first introduced to during her time at Nasdaq, due to her personal experience with 9/11 and after finding out it was based in her hometown of Manhasset, New York.

“The personal connection is so important,” said Davi. “Is there a family member that is impacted by a cause, or an organization that is prominent in your local community? You should also speak to your colleagues. At many firms, there are formal programs that have taken off and become team building exercises, and sometimes it’s just about engaging your coworkers and asking them to pitch in.”

Securing this corporate buy-in to support dearly held causes can feel like a daunting task, especially in a world where CSR teams are stretched thin and the ask could cost professional capital, even internally. But Wyatt stated that industry professionals must set aside these apprehensions, make the request and let the chips fall where they may.

“Probably the biggest challenge for any individual who wants their firm to support their cause is overcoming the ‘no.’ It’s almost never personal – you may have just caught that organization at the wrong time in their cycle,” said Wyatt. “Your next question should be ‘What would it take for you to get involved?’ Keep people on your outreach lists and be persistent in communicating the importance of your cause, and the results will follow.”

Conclusion

The current state of the world means there will continue to be an acute need for philanthropy on Wall Street. While much has changed since March 2020, the pandemic continues to create disruption and hardship around the world, affecting physical and mental health, access to education and services and more. Meanwhile, social justice continues to be an important priority as our society seeks to right the wrongs of the past.

Given these circumstances, it’s fortunate that Wall Street has the well-developed infrastructure in place to support good causes on a systematic level. In an increasingly uncertain world, the industry stands ready to honor its legacy of giving back while improving lives in the here and now.

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