Wall Street’s Do-Gooder Summer

UNTIL RECENTLY, A charming oversize photograph of Goldman president and COO Gary D. Cohn adorned a lobby column in the bank’s headquarters, a promotion for the bank’s volunteerism program. It’s just one wing of what Goldman calls corporate engagement, which includes a foundation, projects to promote women and small businesses around the world and an employee donation program.

Goldman gives a day off for Community TeamWorks, and expects its employees to use it. Every year, a site lists the official options, like next month’s ice cream social decoration for the blind. “People, before it goes live, go in advance to see what’s available. Because there are some that are really good, like taking kids to a Mets game,” an associate said. “They have them listed-you can’t register for them until the one day. Then you get an email saying, ‘The page is live, go sign up.’ It’s funny; people are like, ‘Shit, I missed the Mets game. Well, there’s a New York Liberty game.’”

A video commemorating the program’s first 10 years is posted online. “When I think of Goldman Sachs, I think of energy, enthusiasm, willingness, teamwork, professionalism, people thinking of how they can do it as a team,” says Emma Turner, a firm charity executive. She left for Barclays last year.

There’s footage of Thomas K. Montag at the Special Olympics in Japan. “Of all the projects that I’ve liked, it’s when I interact with the kids,” he says, launching up a basketball that bounces crisply off the glass and swishes in. He is the executive who sent the iconic “Boy, that Timberwolf was one shitty deal” email, referring to a billion-dollar subprime package that Goldman made and sold to clients, similar to the one the S.E.C. is investigating.

In this week’s Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin asked if Goldman’s reputation for deception and darkness matters if its clients remain steadfast. Does Wall Street have to be adored?

“Look, I think it’s a tough environment, people are frustrated with the financial services sector, and some of that is very justified. So I don’t think this is an issue [that] is going to turn around over night with a few grants or a few announcements about volunteerism,” said Andrew Plepler, the global corporate social responsibility and consumer policy executive at Bank of America. Mr. Montag is now the president of global banking and markets there. “People, in order to trust us and our efforts, are going to need to see a sustained effort over time.”

Outside of a Bank of America program to give $2 billion in grants over a decade, and a million-hour volunteer challenge to its employees this year, the idea is to embed benevolence into the bank’s business practices, Mr. Plepler said. Its goal is to invest $1.5 trillion in low-to-moderate income communities and finance $20 billion in environmental initiatives over the next decade.

“Wall Street actually produces some valuable benefits for the economy, including allocating capital to the places that really need it,” Professor Raghuram G. Rajan at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business said. “I’m one who is suspicious of corporate social responsibility programs. It seems to me that the ones who speak the loudest have the most to hide.” The cover of last year’s sustainability report from BP calls the firm, in large letters, “innovative, efficient and responsible.”

“What’s important is that they do core activities in a way that has value to the customer,” Professor Rajan said, “and is not a tax on society.”

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mabelson@observer.com