The following is a conversation between Brandee McHale, President of the Citi Foundation and the Head of Corporate Citizenship at Citigroup, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.


Denver: Financial institutions play a particularly important role in society. Their ability to leverage capital, both in the country where they’re based and around the world, can help accelerate real and lasting change. That also holds true for their philanthropy and the investments they make in purpose-driven businesses. And it’s a pleasure to have with us someone who plays a pivotal role in one of the most influential and significant of these financial institutions. She is Brandee McHale, the President of the Citi Foundation and the Head of Corporate Citizenship at Citigroup. Good evening Brandee, and welcome to The Business of Giving.

Brandee McHale

 Brandee: Thank you. It’s nice to be here. Thank you for having me.

Denver: It sounds like just one of those jobs would be more than enough for me. But it’s interesting that you carry both titles. So, let’s begin with that. How does the mission and purpose of the Citi Foundation intersect, overlap, reinforce what’s going on at Citigroup to be a good corporate citizen.

Brandee: I think this is an incredibly innovative and interesting time to be in a role like this at a private sector company. I was named the President of the Citi Foundation in 2015, and along with it came the title to be the Head of Corporate Citizenship. I will tell you, I started as a summer intern in the Citi Foundation in 1991. I never dreamed that one day, I would actually be the president, but here I am! The interesting thing about that is I got the job I always wanted and just at that time, I began to recognize that if we were really going to drive and maximize positive social impact, our philanthropy was important. But really what was going to make the difference was how we leverage the additional resources of our company.

What we do best is to be a bank. So, how do we leverage all the assets of this global financial institution to drive economic progress? The philanthropy is important. And I view it almost like the icing on the cake. In this role, I both work across our businesses to both catalyze and capture how we are making a positive impact and try to incent them to do more.  And then we use our philanthropy to really spark innovative ideas.

There are many good initiatives that you can launch. But how do you launch things that are both good for the world and good for the company?

Denver: They really mutually reinforce one another. How does an international financial institution make these kinds of decisions and determinations– what your philanthropic focus is going to be, what are your signature programs… And I’m sure you need to listen and provide some autonomy to all your offices throughout the world. How do you bring that all together to decide what you’re going to do?

Brandee: I think that you’ve hit on one of the hidden challenges in a role like this, which is there are many good things that you can fund. There are many good initiatives that you can launch. But how do you launch things that are both good for the world and good for the company? So, we really sat back and said, “What matters to our employees? What matters to our clients? What challenges are they facing? What matters to the public officials and citizens and the communities that we work with?

So taking all of those things into account, and looking overall at the mission of Citigroup– and our mission is to drive economic progress– How do we then align our philanthropy and our citizenship initiatives with that overall mission?” It’s not easy. You can’t be everything to everyone. But I do think that our focus in particular on investing in young people and helping to drive economic opportunity for them is one that is universal around the world.

Denver: Let’s talk a little bit about that one then. And you have made a significant commitment to reduce youth unemployment. You have a number of programs in that area. But Pathways to Progress – that initiative is a big one. You announced a $100 million dollar commitment just last year, over the next three years. Tell me what you’re doing there.

Brandee: We actually started in 2014 with a US commitment. At that time, the unemployment rate was high. The nature of the jobs available were changing, and young people – their unemployment rates were continuing to skyrocket. So, when we first began this pilot in 2014, it was $50 million here in the US across 10 cities. Then, the economy began to change, and the global challenge of youth unemployment was continuing to rise.

In many countries, youth unemployment levels are three times that of adults. So this was a persistent challenge. We completed the US pilot and then doubled down and made this global commitment in 2017. And we’re trying to do a few things through this initiative. One, is to connect young people actually to jobs and to internships that are going to give them real-life experience. Two, is to connect them to mentors and to help them make connections and build their own networks that are so critical to getting jobs. Three, the piece that I find most personally inspiring is really helping young people to see themselves as an asset in their community and to give back and to build the problem-solving skills that they’re going to need in the workplace through community service and volunteerism.

We know that not every young person is going to go on to be a business owner. But helping them to cultivate that entrepreneurial mindset and the ability to sell themselves and their ideas is so important. And our employees play an important role in giving them that feedback and that guidance.

Denver: Speaking about that mentoring, this is far more than just a financial commitment. You’re mobilizing 10,000 volunteers as part of this. What are they going to be doing along with that mentoring?  And what organizations are they working through?

Brandee: I think that this is the secret ingredient in this whole program. Pathways to Progress, there are big numbers. It’s $100 million over three years to reach 500,000 young people around the world. But this addition of committing that we will engage 10,000 of our employees to roll up their sleeves and get directly involved with a young person, I think that’s what actually makes the difference. They’re doing a variety of things. We have employees that have committed through programs such as iMentor here in the US to mentor a young person for over a three- to four-year period to establish a long-term relationship with a young person.

We have partnerships with Nifty and JA. The engagement is to serve as a judge and a coach and help young people as they develop their business ideas. We know that not every young person is going to go on to be a business owner. But helping them to cultivate that entrepreneurial mindset and the ability to sell themselves and their ideas is so important. And our employees play an important role in giving them that feedback and that guidance. Then we have employees that are doing more limited engagements with the young people. One of my favorite programs that we’re funding is the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues, helping young people again to stand up, to have strength, and find their voice. Our employees are working as judges and coaches in that program as well.

I think one of the universal features of all the programs that we fund, through Pathways to Progress, is really understanding the power of a caring adult in the life of a young person. Sometimes, it’s about just sharing the unspoken secret facts. How do you show up in the workplace? What do you do when you have a problem? Who do you call? When you’re the first person in your family that’s taking on some of these roles, these mentors play a very, very powerful role.

Denver: You just didn’t dive into this issue. You’ve really studied it a lot. Part of that is that you did this extensive survey with ISBOS to find out what young people around the world are thinking. Are they optimistic despite some of these high unemployment rates?  And what are some of the other particular interesting findings you had from that study?

Brandee: More than three-quarters of the young people that we surveyed, we found are optimistic about their economic future. But when you unpack that data; because we did do a multi-country survey – we covered 40 countries – you discover some very interesting differences, and actually levels of optimism are higher in developing countries than in developed countries. And as we began to unpack that data, I think what we found is that when young people see growth happening around them, they have a sense that that growth is inclusive, and there’s a sense of excitement and building towards the future.

Young people that were coming from countries that had experienced an economic downturn were less optimistic about their own future prospects. But I think overall, we’re in an exciting time where technology is making the world a smaller place. In fact, information is more readily available. But universally, the other finding that really stood out for me was the importance of mentors and networks. These young people recognize that it’s not just about what you know, but who you know. I think one of the universal features of all the programs that we fund, through Pathways to Progress, is really understanding the power of a caring adult in the life of a young person. Sometimes, it’s about just sharing the unspoken secret facts. How do you show up in the workplace? What do you do when you have a problem? Who do you call? When you’re the first person in your family that’s taking on some of these roles, these mentors play a very, very powerful role.

Denver: I think with all young people, some soft skills will come in very handy. A lot of time is spent on tablets and other devices. So, knowing how to look somebody in the eye and use a telephone and shake somebody’s hand. It’s also interesting what you talked about in terms of the developing world versus the developed world. It just seems that people’s mindset and their sense of optimism has nothing to do with where they are absolutely. It’s the direction in which they’re headed, and in those developing countries as you say, that direction… even if it’s absolutely a lot less, it’s pointing in a better direction. So, that optimism will come.

About half of the world’s population lives in urban areas – about 55%. That’s going to be 70% by 2050. In the US today, it’s 80%. So it only makes sense that sustainable cities would be another area of focus for you guys. One of your partners has been Living Cities, and you launched with them a number of years ago the Citi Accelerator initiative. Tell us about that.

Brandee: You’re absolutely right. The urbanization trend is continuing, and it’s growing, and we don’t see it abating. You think back – 20, 30, 40 years ago – cities were places that residents were fleeing; the middle class was fleeing. You think about now what’s happened from a development and growth standpoint, and cities now are the epicenter of economic growth and development. So, there’s been a big shift particularly here the US in how we view cities. They’re not places to flee.

But that development has not always meant economic opportunity for everyone. Unfortunately, our lowest income residents in cities may not be benefiting from that development and growth. And you can see it in places.  Even look at the high cost of housing in places such as the Bay area. Jobs are growing faster than they can get people there, but people can’t afford to live there. That’s just one example.

You have cities also that are experiencing the impacts of social challenges. You have people returning from prison that need to be reintegrated back into communities. So, a host of challenges exist. But there are a lot of really positive assets as well. And that is really what the Citi Accelerator is about. It’s to say: How do we infuse and influence the positive development activity to ensure that there’s an intentional focus on low-income communities and communities of color, so everybody can benefit from this growth.

Denver: And you’re going to be the incoming Chair at Living Cities, right?

Brandee: Yes, I am. Thank you very much.

Denver: Congratulations. Big assignment.

Brandee: Thank you very much. I think the other piece about Living Cities and the Citi Accelerator work that was really groundbreaking  when we began..and. I think now becoming a trend in philanthropy is seeing municipalities as agents of change… That funding community-based organizations, that’s an incredibly important piece of the development puzzle. Municipalities really control the level of resources and touch our lives in so many ways.

So, how do we support the municipalities to be change agents themselves and leverage mayors and influence their agendas? Funding through Citi Accelerator, we’re actually making these small grants to cities directly so that they have resources. They don’t have to use public funds to test and try some new things. But if we’re successful, we hope that we’ll infuse this culture of inclusivity and innovation throughout a municipality.

Denver: We just had Jim Anderson who was Head of Government Innovation for Bloomberg Philanthropies on the show a couple of weeks ago, and he would certainly echo what you just said.

Final area of focus is financial inclusion. And it’s hard for me to believe, Brandee, sometimes that 2 billion people are currently locked out of any form of the financial system around the world. The world only has 7 billion people, and you’ve got another 2 billion who are sort of in and out of that formal and informal economy. What are the foundation’s efforts regarding this?

Brandee: We’ve had a long history in the financial inclusion space. Actually, one of our core pillars  we actually started back in the 1970s funding microfinance institutions, and we’re very proud of the history that we’ve played in helping to grow the microfinance sector, which then evolved into the financial inclusion sector– looking more broadly, not just at:  How do you makes small loans to individuals, so they can start enterprises and increase their income. But again, as you’ve said, how do you connect them to the broader financial system so that their funds are safe? They have an ability to save. They have an ability to borrow. And it really is the catalyst for allowing them to think about their financial future.

For us, the interesting piece of this… and this is how I view success with philanthropy. If we’re successful, we will actually put ourselves out of business from a philanthropic standpoint. What we want to do is to test ideas, and in our case, really demonstrate that there’s  potential market opportunities so you can bring ideas to scale.

At Citi, we’ve actually moved our work in financial inclusion primarily from the foundation. We’ve created a dedicated, inclusive finance business. What is unique about it is we may not be directly banking those 2 billion individuals. We are banking the institutions that are in place to serve them. So, I view the financial inclusion mark as: we’ve helped to bring this into the financial system sector. What’s successful is that, this is no longer just about philanthropy, but we’ve actually figured out how to make the market work for people that are left out of the market system.

…climate change isn’t just about the environment broadly. But it’s really about how people live, and there’s a threat to the way we live in communities. There’s a threat to our businesses. There’s a threat to our clients and the ability to do business in the future. So, we really see this as an economic issue as well as an environmental issue.

Denver: Right. They are 2 billion potential customers as well, which is fabulous.

Let me ask you to put on your other hat for a minute and as the Head of Corporate Citizenship for Citigroup; let’s start with climate change. I would think that as a financial institution, you’re probably leveraging some capital somewhere in there. What is your work looking like?

Brandee: Let me first say, we’re very proud to say that we are still in. There’ve been a lot of political discussions that have been happening and a lot of decisions that have been made from a policy standpoint about climate change here in the US. We believe the private sector has an incredibly important role in addressing what I think is one of the biggest challenges facing our planet and our communities today.

For us, climate change isn’t just about the environment broadly. But it’s really about how people live, and there’s a threat to the way we live in communities. There’s a threat to our businesses. There’s a threat to our clients and their ability to do business in the future. So, we really see this as an economic issues as well as an environmental issue.

We made a groundbreaking commitment in 2015 to lend, invest, and facilitate $100 billion in climate-positive activity. I’m very proud to say that we’re ahead of schedule. It’s a 10-year goal. We are more than halfway through that goal only three years in; and what’s important about that– as many of the deals that we’re involved in, they’re first. They’re the first of their kind. We’re working with our clients. We’re working with public sector entities, with private sector clients to figure out: how do they adapt what they do today to meet the demands that they need from an environmental standpoint tomorrow?

Because many of these deals are a first of their kind, we’re helping to create a climate change marketplace. It’s very exciting. It’s not easy. It’s as much about capital as it is perception and risk. And we have the entire company working on all cylinders to identify those opportunities. Again, it’s not just because we see this as a leadership area for ourselves. But this is really what our clients need. They need to figure out how to adapt and evolve their businesses and their organizations, so that they reduce the risks that they are facing.

Brandee McHale Denver Frederick inside the studio

Denver: Which is also a part of your job. What’s interesting about it is that I initially think of you as sort of an external spokesperson about Citi being a good corporate citizen. But when you stop and think about it, you really need to be an internal change agent because you have to change the way Citi does business to become a better and better citizen. That could be a tricky proposition. How do you go about doing that?

Brandee: Citi is a company that’s been around for more than 200 years. There is recognition at all levels of the company– from our board, our senior leadership, all the employees. If we want to be around for another 200 years, it’s really about responsible finance. I’m very lucky because I’m not a lone voice out there talking about how do we do things that drive social impact. It’s actually embedded now and part of our mission. Again, we recognize it’s about our own bottom line and sustainable future as much as it is about doing the right things in the world.

But how do you get from a mission statement to the actually making things happen? You’re right. It’s being an internal change agent and exciting people about the opportunity and the possibilities. It’s also just as much about: What are the things that we were not going to do anymore?  While we have this industry-leading, sustainable finance commitment, we also have made some changes to say there are things that we are not going to engage in anymore. An example of this is: we passed a policy related to coal finance. We were one of the largest sources of financing for coal companies around the world. If you think about all the countries you do business in, and we are working to help countries and our clients to transition to cleaner forms of energy.

In a company with 200,000 employees scattered at all four corners of the world, it’s not always easy to determine what issues you should get involved in, and we’re very careful and thoughtful about how we use our corporate voice.

But our employees want to come to work every day and feel good that they’re not only contributing to the financial bottom line, but that they want to see how the company is making a difference in the world.

Denver: Let me ask you about employee advocacy and some of the things that an individual’s own company is doing. A couple of examples have been in the news lately. Google employees obviously have been concerned about the censored version of its search engine for China that was being built in secret. I know that Salesforce employees signed a petition and took it to the CEO asking him to reexamine the contracts they have with US Customs and Border Protection Agency. It’s very difficult for companies to sort of sit on the sidelines around a lot of these issues. We certainly have seen what Nike has done now with Colin Kaepernick. I’m not going to ask you to comment on any of those. But I know you’ve given this issue a lot of thought. Tell me what your thinking about it has been.

Brandee: I think one of the most important trends that we’ve seen in the corporate social responsibility space is the power of a company to use its corporate voice. Sometimes that comes in the form of a signing onto something and standing up for something and having your CEO make a statement. Sometimes it comes in the form of your own policies and practices. In a company with 200,000 employees scattered at all four corners of the world, it’s not always easy to determine what issues you should get involved in, and we’re very careful and thoughtful about how we use our corporate voice.

But our employees want to come to work every day and feel good that they’re not only contributing to the financial bottom line, but that they want to see how the company is making a difference in the world. And while they may not always agree sometimes with all of the positions that are taken– or may not fully understand, they want to see that their company is engaged and listening and wants to have a seat at the table. An example I can give you, the most recent example of this here in the US, we passed for the first time a US commercial firearms policy that is focused on retail practices in the firearm space.

So that we are only going to do business with retailers who agree to only make firearms sales if the consumer has passed a background check. That there are some restrictions in place for consumers under the age of 21, we want to see that they’ve had some form of firearm education and training and that we won’t do business with retailers who sell high-capacity magazines or bump stocks. This does not impact any individual consumer’s ability to use a Citi credit card or product to make a legal firearms purchase at any retailer of their choice. But what we wanted to do was to use our influence to support retailers, many of whom– including the country’s largest retailer who already adopted these common sense sales practices.

…experience has shown me that being engaged and being involved and being part of the dialogue and saying these issues matter is just as important as what you’re actually funding on the ground.

Denver: Standing on the sidelines is no longer an option around a lot of these issues. Nonprofits are always being asked to make a case on how their organizations or programs are making a difference– the long-term impact that they’re having on the people that they serve… and now funders are asking themselves the same question. How does the Citi Foundation gauge the kind of social impact it is having?  And you also look at the economic impact it is having for the company as well.

Brandee: This is a question that I wake up to every morning, and I go to sleep to every night. How do you know that you’re making a difference? Maybe I’ve rationalized it for myself to make it a little bit easier to sleep at night. But I think experience has shown me that being engaged and being involved and being part of the dialogue and saying these issues matter is just as important as what you’re actually funding on the ground.

So I would say the first level of impact is it makes a statement that these things matter and being an advocate to these issue areas. The second piece is, I think making an impact as a funder is not just necessarily about, again, what you give, but how you give. One of the things we’re very proud of at the Citi Foundation is we do not want to be in the business of torturing our grantees. Data is absolutely important, and we live in a data-informed society, but you can also go too far over the line.  And what we want to do is make investments in our grantees that they have an ability to be change agents. They have an ability to innovate. We don’t want to be funding them just only to deliver services and report on those services.

Denver: It seems that if you have confidence in an organization, enough confidence that you’re going to fund them, then you should trust them to know what to do with that money. And so much of it changes in midstream when people have made these restrictive program grants, that many organizations are just stuck seeing them through because they have signed an agreement. So you’ve really moved a little bit more, it sounds like, to unrestricted giving.

Brandee: We have. In fact, here in the US, we have invested to-date $40 million in unrestricted giving. We have an initiative called Community Progress Makers to the six city challenge. Select 40 organizations to provide core, unrestricted support.

Denver: We’ve had a number of them on the show: Hot Bread Kitchen, LISC.

Brandee: I think fundamentally what that reflects is what is at the core of our culture as a foundation, which is that we actually don’t have the answers. I wish we did, but the reality is that in the grantee-grant-maker relationship, there’s also this power dynamic where there’s an assumption that the grant maker has all the answers because they’ve got all of the resources. The reality is, we don’t have the answers. What we want to do is find people and visionary leaders that we believe in and give them flexible dollars and support their vision. Because they have the answers, they have the experience, they have the track record. Hopefully, work together to elevate their results to the next level.

Denver: That’s great to hear. It’s amazing how a little humility really does go a long way, doesn’t it? We’re pretty obsessed with workplace culture on The Business of Giving. Tell us about yours at the Citi Foundation– an interesting situation there in the middle of this capitalistic financial institution– and one thing that you think makes it special and different from other financial institutions.

Brandee: A couple of things. I think you hit the nail on the head about when you’re in a corporate philanthropy role, you are sitting within a larger company. I interview people and say:  Why are you interested in this position? And they say, “I’d like to dedicate my life to doing good in the world.” I put them in the B pile immediately. It’s not that those aren’t important goals and important values to have. But what you really need to do is find that sweet spot to say:  How do we do things and design initiatives again that are good in the world, and good for our company, good for our brand, good for our employees? It takes a skill set where you need to be versatile, and you need to be able to balance competing stakeholder interests.

The second thing at the Citi Foundation that I think is really core to our culture is a willingness to try things. And sometimes they don’t always work, and that is absolutely you can see that mirrored in our approach with our grantees. Our work and our engagement with our grantees… nobody wants to see your grantees fail. We’re also not going to spend our energy tracking. If they fail, we’re not going to penalize them. Actually, that’s the whole point of philanthropy. Flexible dollars. You don’t have to pay them back. So, let’s be innovative. Let’s be entrepreneurial. And if it doesn’t work, let’s not throw good money at that. But let’s revisit what we do together. So, real willingness to course-correct and to change direction if we need to, and a culture and an environment of collective learning together.

And then the final piece would be to have some fun. I know that fun may seem a little light and fluffy here, but this is hard work. It’s very serious. But at the heart of all of these initiatives, it doesn’t really matter what your focus area is –are people. You’re really trying to influence the lives of people and help them to generate positive outcomes for themselves. So you have to be human yourself, and you have to be able to laugh. You have to be able to cry a little bit. But the final piece of our culture is that when we need to make that hard decision, we make it.

Denver: Let me close with this Brandee. Have you ever been able to quantify or measure in any way, and if not… maybe just anecdotally, the impact that all these initiatives have had on recruitment, have had on retention, have had on the overall pride and morale of the workforce at Citigroup.

Brandee: One of the things that we do that’s unique at Citi, and we run through our foundation work… we have an annual day of service called Global Community Day. This year we had more than 115,000 employees, friends, and family turn out to volunteer and to give back to communities. It’s a big undertaking. It reflects over 500 events around the world. We’re very, very proud of it. There is no other company that does something like this at this level and this scale.

I cite this because I think one of the areas of impact that we look to track is this issue of scale. You can do lots of things, and there many good organizations doing good work. But how do we do some things at scale, so that we get attention? We get people to see that these types of efforts are not just about giving back; one of the things that I’m most proud of at Citi is the recognition that this is also about investing in our company and about investing in our people. Our people feel so good.

We do voice-of- the-employee surveys. We know that this type of work matters to our employees. But I think we’ve hit a real turning point in our recognition we’ve built into our leadership standards and our performance review for our employees– what role they play in giving back to society, what type of leader they are. There’s lots of data out there, but I think we’re on the cusp of this,  and we’re at a time where we’re reinventing how we’re looking at that work.

Denver: Brandee McHale, the President of the Citi Foundation and Head of Corporate Citizenship at Citigroup, I want thank you so much for being here this evening. What’s on that website of yours for people looking to find out more?

Brandee: You can visit citigroup.com and go to our Corporate Citizenship page where we have our annual report that details all the ways across our company we’re making a positive social impact, both through our philanthropy and our core businesses and by leveraging our employees.  And for more real time updates, I just encourage you, please follow me. My Twitter address is @BrandeeMcHale. We’re out there all the time showcasing our programs and our grantees and our ideas, and we love to have you be part of that conversation.

Denver: Thanks Brandee. It was real pleasure to have you on the show.

Brandee: Thank you.

Brandee McHale and Denver Frederick


The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.

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