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COMPANY OF GOOD

Working towards a double bottom line

In doing so, companies can achieve shareholder return and value from driving both a profit and purpose-driven agenda.

THE quarterly Good Pulse Survey by consumer insights company Toluna and the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) found that the top five concerns that people in Singapore have are the rising cost of living, increasing threats to national security, the slowing economy, cyber security and digital threats, and the worsening climate and environmental condition. Respondents were subsequently asked who can contribute to addressing these issues - individuals, corporates, non-profits or the government.

Not unexpectedly, the bulk of respondents said that the government should play a lead role in addressing all these concerns. Interestingly too, there was a heavy expectation for corporates to do their part in mitigating societal concerns. Indeed, in four of the five issues raised, the burden of responsibility was on the government first and foremost, followed by corporates.

A FOUNDATION OF DOING WHAT IS RIGHT

As the former Development Bank of Singapore, we take the idea of responsibility to society seriously. In fact, because we were created for the development of industry in a fledging Singapore, one could argue that it is even rooted in our DNA. From the early days, our guiding ethos has always been "if it is good for the country, then it is the right thing for us to do", and that ethos continues to guide our actions today.

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Our belief is also that as a bank, we hold two licences; one comes from the regulator, and the other comes from civil society. To remain relevant, it is important that we not only take care of shareholder interests, but also the needs of multiple stakeholders, not just for this present generation but for generations to come. Our approach to business is guided by this sense of purpose: to create value for the long term, by managing our business in a balanced and responsible way.

With this foundation in place, the board and senior management set the tone for the rest of the organisation, ensuring that a strong sense of purpose and sustainability is a cornerstone of our culture and undergirds all that we do.

In some quarters, there is a view that responsibility to shareholders (as measured by return on investment) is in conflict with responsibility to other stakeholder groups. Those who subscribe to this view may have some sympathy for stakeholders such as customers and employees - however, for them, the discord is particularly evident when thinking about obligations to society or communities at large. This viewpoint was famously supported by Milton Friedman when he said that the only responsibility of a company is to make a profit for its shareholders. This led to a long period where shareholder value was the principal mantra of the corporate world.

We think differently - our view is that companies can achieve shareholder return and value from driving both a profit and purpose-driven agenda through a double bottom line.

The reason is that the conundrum between short and long-term trade-offs disappears as soon as one changes the time horizon under consideration. Long-term, the focus shifts to considering other activities one does as investments and not expenses. When the time horizon is long, businesses are better invested to ensure that they are relevant to society and therefore able to operate for the longer term.

An increasing number of forward- thinking for-profit companies are coming to this realisation.

Many of the biggest companies - the top Fortune 500 companies of the past - no longer exist. One can argue that because of change in technology, some were disrupted. But another reason may be that the current shareholding pattern and the way that the investor universe works drives companies to be too short-term oriented. When we start being too short-term oriented, over the long term, one tends to lose out. While it is important to have an economic model that keeps you viable from quarter to quarter, there is need for another model that allows you to be there for the long term; one that considers social outcomes but may compromise some economics in the short term.

What is encouraging is that there is a growing number of socially conscious investors who see environmental, social and governance issues as criteria for investing, in addition to meeting financial performance goals. Today, investors are not only avoiding putting their money into industries that do not align with their values but are also using their investment positions to push for what they see as positive corporate change with broader societal impact.

Companies should seize the opportunity to partner investors willing to reward them for creating long-term value for society as a whole.

BLURRING THE LINES OF PROFIT AND PURPOSE-DRIVEN

At DBS, we decided that apart from our corporate responsibility as a bank, we should focus on building a cadre of companies that understand the need for a double bottom line.

Firstly, we believe that social enterprises (SEs) should be commercially viable businesses that are able to do good and do well in the long term. Over the years, we have been heartened to see a marked growth in the number of innovative entrepreneurs that are focused on finding ways to address many social issues in a rapidly developing Asia.

To help these businesses scale and grow their impact, in addition to grant funding, we provide them with capacity building incubation programmes, bespoke mentoring and access to a broader network. Further, to support the growth of social entrepreneurship in Singapore, we launched a banking package 10 years ago specially tailored to their financial needs. It offers SEs preferential rates on business loans and unsecured overdrafts, and fee waivers for a slew of services, among other benefits.

The DBS Foundation was set up five years ago with a focus on building a better and more inclusive Asia by championing social entrepreneurship and encouraging the development of businesses for good. It has since nurtured over 300 SEs around the region and has awarded about S$5 million to them in grants. 

Secondly, with growing awareness of the importance of sustainability, for-profit companies must integrate the social and sustainability agenda into their corporate strategy and business practices for long term value creation in order to survive.

SUSTAINABILITY AGENDA

Playing to our strengths as a bank, we integrated responsible financing principles into our credit assessment processes and lending activities to incentivise and reward companies to advance their sustainability agenda. We expect sustainability-linked financing to increase, driven by growing recognition that sustainability practices bode well for businesses, as well as the wider environment and society.

In 2018, DBS provided a total of S$2.4 billion in sustainable financing, including green loans, sustainability- linked loans and renewable financing. This year, we continue to see a good mix of sustainable financing deals across the markets in which we operate. The reason for the good momentum is because clients increasingly want to incorporate sustainable business practices into their overall business strategy. When it comes to sustainability financing, customers are attracted to both the reduced interest loan and the ability to demonstrate responsible behaviour.

As we help others in their sustainability journey, we also ensure that our people are given opportunities to demonstrate that same commitment. Through our People of Purpose volunteerism programmes, our employees invest their time, make donations and use their skills to serve communities. Our staff are also involved in skills-based volunteering, using their expertise to solve business challenges faced by SEs.

Today, companies are no longer judged strictly on their financial performance but also on what they do for employees, customers and their contributions to the communities they operate in. For companies that want to survive the long term, their need for a double bottom line approach that balances doing good for the wider society and business profits must become a competitive differentiator. Making a difference and making a profit must go hand- in-hand. It will now be difficult to have one without the other.

  • The writer is group head of institutional banking, DBS
  • The Company of Good by the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) aims to empower organisations to give back strategically, sustainably and impactfully. Find out how your organisation can do good better at www.companyofgood.sg