Beneficial State Foundation Perspectives

Our thoughts on changing the banking system for good and building the new economy

From the great recession to triple bottom line banking

A Rigged Economy

If you told me a year ago that I’d work in the banking industry, I  would have laughed. I’d  have said: “I study government, theatre, and Russian. Why would I work in finance?” But as the times change—people do too.

In 2008, I was ten years old. During the Great Recession, I remember the frustrations felt individually and around the country as we collectively watched the financial industry buckle under its own weight. Still in elementary school, I was confronted with the news of big Wall Street banks receiving massive federal bailouts while working class people were suffering.  My nine-year-old mind had little comprehension of the complex economic dynamics at play. But still, for many years, I continued to see banking as a flawed, bloated, and destructive industry. That negative perception did not truly change—until I came across Beneficial State Bank.

After years of shunning the banking industry for the havoc it had wreaked on the country and the world, I realized there are alternative players out there. They are trying to change the rules of the game that feel so broken. As a certified B Corporation with a unique, nonprofit ownership structure, Beneficial State Bank doesn’t look anything like the banks on the news in 2008. It has a triple bottom line: focused on social justice, environmental well-being, and financial sustainability. It’s mission driven: sincerely practicing what it preaches. And its slogan, “Build Something Beautiful”? Well, that right there alone separates it from the rest of the pack. Learning more about Beneficial State Bank—and Beneficial State Foundation, the non-profit that owns its economic assets—has forced me to reconsider my perception of the banking industry. I’ve shaped a new view, inspired by the systems change and leadership of the bank and the foundation. A view that sees the banking industry as a potential force for good.

Spreading the Word About Beneficial Banking

This summer, I joined Beneficial State Foundation as a communications fellow, hoping to help spread  the message of beneficial banking as far and wide as possible. During my first week here, I along with other fellows and Beneficial State employees enjoyed immersion, an orientation program where we learned about the specific ways we’re helping to redefine the banking industry. Like I said, my background is in government, theatre, and Russian, so some of the more technical aspects of banking were new to me. For that reason, the immersion experience was invaluable. I understood how our mission-driven lending practices advance affordable housing, how we enforce radical transparency about our social and environmental impact, and how we mandate that the distributed profits of the bank are redistributed back to the community. Immersion not only gave me insight into the “how” of beneficial banking, but also the “why.” We do not adhere to a strict set of fair and equitable banking principles simply because it is socially responsible,  we do so because it is sustainable—it works.

Building a New Economy

One of the last events during immersion was a visit to Beneficial State Bank client Civicorps. Civicorps is an Oakland-based organization that provides formal education and vocational programs to young adults in the local area. We met with Civicorps graduates who received their high school diploma through the program and individuals who worked with the organization’s conservation corps. Having returned to the center from their work sites, team members were joking around with one other, sharing hugs and high-fives, catching up. I realized then that the true strength of beneficial banking is its hope. Building lasting relationships with community-minded organizations like Civicorps is the type of banking that empowers individuals to be successful and fosters vibrant hope for the future. The immersion program cemented in my mind the idea that banking doesn’t need to be a cold, profits-only-driven industry. It can be a locally-focused, service-oriented effort to help all of us move forward, together, with a brighter outlook for the future.

Hope is the last word I would have used to describe the banking industry ten years ago. But when I look at the little orange acorn on the sign above the bank, it’s the first thing on my mind.

Ben was a 2019 Beneficial Banking Fellow based in Oakland, CA.

This blog post reflects the author’s personal views and opinions. It does not represent the views and opinions of Beneficial State Bank and/or Beneficial State Foundation.