One of the largest financial-services institutions in the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago’s Republic Bank is a bank with a social-conscience bigger than most. Through a range of initiatives aimed at boosting the welfare, education and prosperity of local communities in the region, the lender has rightfully earned acclaim for its commitment towards corporate social responsibility (CSR). Indeed, with United Nations agencies among its list of esteemed partners, Republic Bank provides a model for other banks aspiring to do more for their communities.
Ms. Michelle Palmer-Keizer is Republic Bank’s General Manager, Group Marketing and Communications, and she joins us today to provide insight into the bank’s highly regarded CSR policies.
I’d like to begin by first briefly addressing the bank’s digital strategy. What have been some of the main areas of focus as far as this strategy is concerned?
Our customers are the main focus of our digital strategy. The world has gone digital, so it is important for us to communicate with our customers via the channels they have grown accustomed to, including mobile networks, social media and other electronic channels.
We recognised this need to embrace digital technology early on. We developed the mantra of meeting the customers where they are most comfortable in response to the changing customer trends and behaviours that we observed.
And with that customer-centric strategy in mind, it seems that the bank’s approach to customer service is primarily based on its strategic pillar of engaging the “Right Customers via the Right Channels and at the Right Cost”. Can you briefly explain this in more depth?
Engaging the right customers via the right channels and at the right cost involves managing the services we provide through both our brick-and-mortar branches and electronic channels so that we deliver the products our customers want, through the channels they prefer, while improving the efficiency of our service. This can mean anything from making modifications to our branch network, where necessary, to also expanding our range of electronic services to suit the needs of our increasingly tech-savvy customers.
One of the major initiatives that we have undertaken as part of this approach is the enhancement of our banking-by-appointment process. In addition to the various manual processes that customers can use to set up an appointment, such as making an appointment in-person or via phone call or email, we’ve also introduced a convenient self-service option for online scheduling of appointments, which is very attractive to those of our customers who prefer to access our services using digital channels.
The result has been a digital strategy that is primarily driven by a desire to improve the ease and speed with which our customers can reach us. Digital technology has played a significant role in ensuring that our communication with our customers is open, reliable and consistent. It allows us to not only provide them with relevant and timely financial information and services but also interact with them on a personal level.
As I understand, your flagship CSR programme Power to Make A Difference is built on four pillars: the Power to Care, the Power to Help, the Power to Learn and the Power to Succeed. Can you please briefly outline the main aim/purpose of each of these pillars?
Our Power to Make A Difference programme is the main vehicle through which we achieve our vision of building successful communities. Each of the programme’s four pillars adopts a different approach towards achieving this goal.
Through the Power to Care, we support healthcare, with special focus on care for the elderly and the needs of the “differently-abled”. The Power to Learn is focused on empowering our youth through education and culture. The Power to Succeed supports business development, sports and the preservation of our environment, via the promotion of environmental awareness and sustainable practices. Through the Power to Help, we work towards the alleviation of poverty and the creation of opportunities for socially marginalised persons to grow and achieve.
And as I understand, under one of those pillars you have managed to develop a thriving relationship with Habitat for Humanity. How has working with this organisation helped to better serve local communities in Trinidad and Tobago?
Our collaboration with Habitat for Humanity started back in 2012 as part of our commitment to alleviating the plight of the less fortunate under the Power to Help pillar of our Power to Make A Difference programme. As a result of this partnership, over 60 families now have safe and secure homes to live in.
A home is a basic necessity that everyone ought to have, and providing a home to individuals is something that affects their lives in profound and deeply personal ways. What often strikes me is that in many cases, having a home means that families who were previously broken apart are given an opportunity to finally live under one roof. That is something that affects not just the stability of the family itself but also that of the community and the entire nation.
Sometimes, we have the opportunity to take our partnership with Habitat for Humanity beyond just the basic construction of the homes, particularly in Tobago where we have also been able to assist with the development of proper water management and stabilisation methods, which prevent slippage and destruction to the homes.
Some of the bank’s most impressive feats have been achieved through its partnership with the Trinidad and Tobago National Commission for UNESCO, and its Leading for Literacy Now! programme, which, if I’m not mistaken, has assisted more than 1,500 students, parents, teachers and principals in Trinidad and Tobago. In what specific ways has this partnership helped these people?
In keeping with our national priorities for education, the Leading for Literacy Now! programme seeks to improve the literary skills of students in their first and second years of primary school. We know that children are more likely to succeed if they are supported at school and at home; the project adopts a three-pronged approach to advancing literacy: leadership skills for the principal, instructional skills for the teachers and parenting for literacy skills in the home.
Over the past three years, we have reached 40 schools, 40 principals, 80 teachers, 1,000 parents and approximately 1,500 students, annually. When you multiply those figures by three, it’s clear to see that the impact of this programme has been far-reaching and significant. It has also been overwhelmingly positive, and each area of focus has benefitted in its own way.
As the core focus of this programme, students reap direct benefits through their improved ability to read and phonetically sound out the sounds of the alphabet. This allows them to confidently break apart any word and work through it, which is a major accomplishment for children of the age group to which the programme is targeted.
Principals have benefitted from increased leadership capacities and a more cohesive, better functioning team, while teachers feel more confident in teaching children how to read. They also find it easier to plan lessons, using the special training and resources they receive from the programme.
Additionally, parents learn skills and techniques to engage their children and create sustainable reading environments for them. It was discovered that some parents experienced difficulty with reading as well. These parents are encouraged to join the Adult Literacy Tutors Association (ALTA), another one of our partners, to improve their skills. Parents are also encouraged to come in, weekly, to read to the children and play a greater part in their development.
The benefits of the programme do not stop with those directly involved, however. All students within the school system benefit from the impact of the programme. Teachers of older students are also better able to focus on teaching the material rather than having to cope with the reading deficiencies of the students.
As an added benefit, the programme gets the wider community together and involved when the children do public reading sessions. Officers of the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force and the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service also volunteer to take the children to and from these outings.
Turning now towards internal CSR policies, does the bank undergo a specific process when deciding to become involved with a new project? If so, what does this process briefly entail—are there specific criteria that must be satisfied before the project can be approved, for example?
Yes, we do. Before becoming involved with a new project, we review the proposed programme to see whether it is aligned with our overall vision and mission as an organisation and the four pillars of our Power to Make A Difference programme. We then identify the potential benefits, determine if they are sustainable and estimate the impact that the intervention will have. We also have a tiered structure of internal approvals that allow for various individuals to provide input and feedback, and we seek expert opinion to determine the viability of the project when necessary.
Transparency and accountability are of paramount importance to us, and so we require proper documentation for all of the initiatives that we partner with. It is generally preferred that potential projects have charitable status or can establish a pattern of proper management of funds before becoming a Power to Make A Difference partner.
Is there a mandatory requirement for staff to participate in the bank’s CSR programmes, or is it more on the basis of volunteerism?
Our staff’s engagement in our Power to Make A Difference initiatives is driven purely by their incredible enthusiasm, commitment and talent. We purposefully recruit individuals who identify strongly with our core values and demonstrate a commitment to serving others and building strong societies. It is no surprise, therefore, that our staff embrace these initiatives with enthusiasm.
We provide guidelines for engagement and give branches and units the freedom to select their own activities and charities. We also support both companywide projects that bring all of our teams together in a coordinated effort and leadership volunteer projects that engage our management team specifically. All of this is done in an effort to provide meaningful opportunities for our staff to give back and enjoy a holistic working experience with our company.
Do you think having such an extensive, highly regarded and impactful CSR policy has had much of a positive effect on the internal working culture of the bank?
Yes, we believe that it has. It has allowed us to reach out and be part of our customers’ lives in more than a financial way. We believe that when we are intimate with the challenges our communities face, we are better able to guide and shape our people and provide opportunities that allow them to grow and ultimately to build successful societies.
Well, it sounds as though you have managed to develop a highly successful model that’s materially benefiting those communities—and long may it continue. Ms. Palmer-Keizer, thank you for your time today.