The process, once it got started, took about two to three weeks. Once completed in spring 2017, Washington, D.C.’s City First Bank became the eighth bank in the United States to become a Certified B Corporation, or B Corp for short.
There are 2,200 B Corps around the world, including recognizable names like Etsy, Patagonia and Warby Parker. Pennsylvania-based nonprofit B Lab created and grants the certification. Broadly speaking, B Corps commit to embedding social and environmental goals into their core business models, and to measuring outcomes on a regular basis.
Of the eight U.S. banks that are B Corps, four in addition to City First Bank have gained certification since April 2016: Spring Bank in the South Bronx, New York City; Albina Community Bank in Portland, Oregon; Amalgamated Bank in NYC; and First Green Bank in Orlando.
Amid a growing push for divestment from banks engaged in questionable business or lending practices, cities are looking for new options. There’s Seattle, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago — and the list continues to grow. Could the B Corp movement help City Hall to evaluate the broader impact of banks in a transparent, externally validated way?
There’s a lot to filter. There are more than 5,000 community banks in the country. But B Corp certification means a bank has jumped through some critical hoops.
First, a company must fill out the B Impact Assessment. (Any business can answer this series of questions online and get a score, free of charge.)
“It was very informative. It’s a 200-question assessment, and it looks at how you serve the community, your customers, the environment, what your governance is like and how you serve your workers,” says Cynthia Newell, who spearheaded City First Bank’s B Corp certification as director for impact and strategic partnerships.
Aimed at measuring a company’s full contribution to society, the questions get very specific. What percentage of the company is owned by non-executive full-time workers, or women, minorities, low-income communities, or nonprofit organizations? What percentage of your board members come from historically underrepresented groups? What percentage of your suppliers come from underrepresented groups? What percentage above minimum wage did your lowest-paid worker receive during the past year?
For credit providers, like a bank, there’s an addendum with sector-specific questions. Is your company a CDFI (community development financial institution)? Does your company have a formal written process to review potential loans according to social and environmental impact criteria? For a credit-impaired individual, does your company consider factors beyond conventional credit scoring to assess a borrower’s willingness to repay? What percentage of loans, shares, bonds and other assets of your company are devoted to activities that generate goods and services as opposed to purely financial market activities?
A company needs 80 out of a possible 200 points to become a certified B Corp. After evaluating the completed assessment, B Lab does additional due diligence and examination of the applicant. (B Lab charges a fee, on a sliding scale based on revenue.) In the end, City First in D.C. scored 147.
Since any company can take the assessment, with or without certification, cities could ask potential new banking services providers to take it and to share their results, providing a broader, consistent and more transparent standard for choosing a new bank.
“The social goods they look at are perhaps broader than we would,” writes Kevin Stein, deputy director at the California Reinvestment Coalition (CRC), a bank watchdog group.
Watchdog groups like CRC have long been frustrated by the ease with which banks can obtain satisfactory ratings on Community Reinvestment Act examinations. OneWest Bank, currently under federal investigation for racial discrimination in its lending and real estate activities that occurred under former chair Steven Mnuchin (President Donald Trump’s Treasury secretary), released its most recent CRA rating in June: satisfactory. (See my article “Banks Were Held Accountable to More Neighborhoods in 2016” for more on the Community Reinvestment Act exams and the bank ratings.)
Stein is also encouraged to see the B Impact Assessment asking about targeting responsible lending products to those with barriers to credit from mainstream sources, like people without a social security number or homeowners in need of “rescue products” as an alternative to payday lenders.
In NYC, Jaime Weisberg leads bank watchdog efforts at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD), which puts out annual state of bank reinvestment reports. Her priority these days: getting banks to stop lending to landlords who are known to harass tenants of rent-stabilized buildings until they leave, allowing landlords to eventually flip the buildings into market-rate rentals or condos.
“We need capital to maintain rent-regulated buildings but it must be done responsibility,” says Weisberg.
The B Lab assessment doesn’t quite have any questions for banks focused on the area of lending to good versus band landlords, but that could change soon. B Lab re-evaluates its assessment questions every few years. It’s a roughly 18-month process, overseen by B Lab’s Standards Advisory Council consisting of external industry experts.
“We’ll spend about a year and half gathering feedback and iterating on drafts for how to make improvements,” says Dan Osusky, director of standards at B Lab. There are public comment periods, alpha tests and beta tests.
The time to speak up is now. B Lab is just beginning a re-evaluation cycle for its assessment, due to wrap up in January 2019.
Oscar is Next City's senior economics correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha, and Fast Company.