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FirstBank employees making a difference in their communities through SPARK initiative

Every other day, social media shows us a picture or video of a dilapidated school somewhere in Nigeria, or it shows us images of a distraught widow, a struggling roadside trader or street hawker, or some other hapless victims of Nigeria’s extremely harsh realities. Suddenly, as if on cue or programmed, viewers launch venomous attacks on the government, public officials, the privileged class, and even Nigeria itself. The attacking mob wastes no time in demanding the head of the government or the heads of public officials with responsibilities in the jurisdiction or sector from which the unfortunate sights emerged.
 
The online mob appears unconcerned that, while its eyes and ears, aided and locked in by the binoculars and headsets of social media,  are completely focused on distressing situations that it may not be able to help other than rant about, countless situations that it can help are calling for attention in its immediate vicinity every single day. Focusing on things far away while ignoring or pretending not to see things in one’s immediate vicinity is a well-known human tendency. Journalists even have a term for this type of behaviour among themselves. “Afghanistanism” refers to the media’s tendency to focus on news and events in distant places and other parts of the world to the exclusion or neglect of covering events and problems in the media’s local environment. It’s like the psychological or emotional equivalent of the eye condition known as hyperopia or farsightedness. Sufferers can see objects far away but have difficulty focusing on objects that are up close.
 
By focusing on faraway objects people do not have to offer to give a helping hand but can offer their finger to point at others and their tongue to criticise and pontificate. Everyone can criticise and pontificate online or become an “e-warrior”, like Nigerians like to call it, fighting government and whoever and whatever in society they are unhappy with from the comfort and safety of their bedroom and behind their keyboard. It is the easiest of things to do but not the noblest or kindest. It is a well-trodden path but should never be confused with taking the high road in reaching out with compassion to people around whose lives and circumstances could do with some kindness. 
 
The method used by First Bank of Nigeria Limited, the premier bank in West Africa with its impact woven into the fabric of society, is to take the high road rather than practising Afghanistanism or psychological hyperopia. This philosophy has helped FirstBank maintain its position as the region’s leading provider of financial inclusion services for more than 127 years. It’s a driving force behind the bank’s operations. FirstBank always examines the impact of all of its operations and actions on customers and other stakeholders, including the environment, to ensure it is making a net positive difference in the end. And this orientation has attracted the bank people who share a similar outlook –whether as employees, partners or other stakeholders. They look forward every year to an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the bank and make a net positive difference in their immediate environments. These men and women do not pretend that they can solve or intervene in all the challenging situations confronting people in their immediate environments but they do not refrain whenever they can lend a helping hand and make a difference.
 
Employees of FirstBank have a ready platform to fully identify with the bank’s compassionate disposition through an Employee Giving and Volunteering program, which also offers numerous initiatives that allow employees to express this identification. One such project is the Start Performing Acts of Random Kindness (SPARK) Initiative. SPARK aspires to integrate and institutionalize random acts of kindness in society in order to increase and deepen FirstBank’s commitment within the communities of its many stakeholders. SPARK has inspired and encouraged kindness, empathy, and regard for others among its employees. It has also contributed to employee bonding and teamwork, which have been critical to enhancing work performance. Employees of FirstBank have a ready platform to fully identify with the bank’s compassionate disposition through an Employee Giving and Volunteering program, which also offers numerous initiatives that allow employees to express this identification. One such project is the Start Performing Acts of Random Kindness (SPARK) Initiative. SPARK aspires to integrate and institutionalize random acts of kindness in society in order to increase and deepen FirstBank’s commitment within the communities of its many stakeholders. SPARK has inspired and encouraged kindness, empathy, and regard for others among its employees. 
 
During this year’s SPARK Initiative implementation, employees under the banner of their various departments made decisions about the specific nature of intervention they would like to undertake and the specific group of people or institutions within their immediate communities to whom they would like to extend the milk of human kindness. Employees and departments could choose from one of four corporate responsibility and sustainability (CR&S) pillars: education, entrepreneurship, health and welfare, and the environment. They have had the option of providing support for infrastructural facilities in schools, such as the renovation of dilapidated buildings, painting of school buildings, and provision of laptops and desktops; or donating items such as classroom chairs and tables, books and stationery; or providing scholarships for best students, feeding school students per day or week, funding of a school initiative such as JETS club, Bootcamp, space club, etc. If employees and their departments were interested in supporting entrepreneurship, then they had the chance to empower through entrepreneurship programmes of their choosing such as sponsoring youth and women to acquire skills like fashion designing, baking, hair styling, make-up artistry, electrical repairs, event decoration and planning, catering, etc., or enabling entrepreneurs with tools and equipment to work or supporting SMEs and start-ups. 
 
Where the health and welfare area was their preferred area of intervention, employees and their departments could choose from: donations to orphanages (selected from an approved list of orphanages); support to a good cause, for example lending a helping hand to the Down Syndrome Foundation; support to widows; support to people with health-related issues; and off-setting medical bills. And if employees and their departments were to decide to go for the environment, then they could choose from: support to environmental issues, such as support to Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF) initiatives; donation of garbage cans to a community; partnership with a recycling firm to recycle waste; support to LAWMA such as donating cleaning tools (brooms, dustbin parkers), etc.
 
While several departments at FirstBank did things worth highlighting for good citizens of Nigeria (individual and corporate) this piece only has enough space to accommodate the activities of three departments: Human Capital Management and Development (HCMD), Compliance, and Marketing and Corporate Communications (M&CC). Employees in these departments appeared to be competing to outdo each other in acts of kindness, which made more sense and would make a real difference on the ground than criticizing and pontificating on faraway issues online.
 
The Human Capital Management and Development department resolved that reaching out to one of Nigeria’s most vulnerable groups – underprivileged widows and their underfed children – was the best way to stay true to the “Human” in their name. And department employees went beyond their Marina location to the nearest environment where some of the most vulnerable widows could be found to show kindness. The Makoko community, which is located on the Lagos Mainland and was once described by CNN as “Nigeria’s floating slum,” was overwhelmed to receive the august visitors from HCMD bearing so much foodstuff for their widows and children. What they didn’t realize was the overwhelming gratitude felt by their donors for the opportunity to give back.
 
The “Feed a Widow Initiative” was HCMD employees’ way of putting a smile back on the faces of widows in impoverished communities, and they got more than they could have imagined. Their hosts greeted them with the broadest of smiles and said goodbye with the greatest of gratitude, and they left with very broad smiles on their faces. Who between the hosts and their guests had the broadest smiles on the day is still up for debate. And, given the “fierce competition” to outdo the other in smiling, one is forced to wonder why people labelled e-warriors would choose to forego this kind of genuine joy for the joyless world they have created by clinging to Afghanistanism and psychological hyperopia.
 
Employees in the Compliance department, however, do not share this sentiment. Not to be outdone, Compliance employees chose to focus on the education needs of their beneficiary community, as though moving up the hierarchy of human demands. Without the fundamental “stomach infrastructure” provided by HCMD, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get any of the beneficiaries interested in discussing more lofty topics like education and mental development. So, in order to encourage students to continue their education, employees from the Compliance department purchased Mathematics and English Language textbooks for 617 students who will be in senior secondary (SS) 1 and 2 classes at Gbara Community Secondary School in Jakande, Ajah, in the coming academic session. The visit to the school and book donation occurred during the third term preceding the start of the new academic session. 
 
The gesture was Compliance employees’ way of giving back in such a way that it relieved students at this public school, particularly those from low-income families, and their parents or guardians of the financial burden associated with providing textbooks for the two core subjects. It was also, in an uncanny way, an attempt by the employees to ensure the pupils were fully compliant with the requirements for taking on the two most important subjects in the secondary school curriculum, putting the pupils in a position to excel in these two essential subjects. There were other benefits of the engagement that the employees noted. They observed that their presence in the school inspired the children, giving them “hope that a better life was within reach and could be achieved.” The employees thus expressed optimism that the engagement boosted the children’s interest in succeeding in life through the pursuit of education.
 
For employees of the Marketing and Corporate Communications department (M&CC), entrepreneurship was the area they decided to focus on, to make a difference in their own immediate environment. Every day they came to their office on Broad Street or the bank’s head office in Marina, they passed by several roadside traders around the various office buildings in the locations. They noticed that some of these traders were exposed to the elements or were having difficulties in their business and struggling to make ends meet, and they decided to take action. And, true to their word, they took action that made a significant difference in the traders’ businesses and circumstances. They provided the traders with the following: branded umbrellas to provide shade from both the sun and rain, improving their working conditions and quality of life; branded chairs and tables to accommodate more customers in their corner, as well as grants to boost their business capital. 
 
Anyone who has met with employees in the corporate communications department of any major bank in Nigeria will readily admit that these professionals include some of the most skilled digital marketers in the industry. M&CC employees chose to extend the milk of human kindness flowing in them to roadside traders around their office rather than practice Afghanistanism due to a lack of skills to be e-warriors. They could have chosen to concentrate all their time and resources on attacking the government online and blaming public officials for all the challenges in the economy and the spate of insecurity all over the nation and whatever else would make M&CC employees true champions of Afghanistanism and psychological hyperopia. But would that make any difference to a lot of the roadside traders around them and lessen their burden? So, M&CC employees chose the road less travelled but one that could deliver the desired impact, and it did.
 
There are so many lessons to draw and feelings to take away from the examples demonstrated by employees of these three departments in Nigeria’s foremost lender. Besides committing their time and resources to their chosen humanitarian initiatives using the platform of the SPARK Initiative that places FirstBank at the forefront of the social impact space through employee advocacy, the employees have shown that they have the milk of human kindness flowing through their veins. They have demonstrated that they would rather consider how they could extend kindness to people around them and make a difference than pretend not to see the situations affecting those around them while playing Afghanistanism and psychological hyperopia online.
 
For those of us who aren’t FirstBank employees, the message is clear: the next time we feel compelled to share distressing images on social media in order to provoke government-bashing or we feel constrained to make stinging comments on such images that are shared to criticize Nigeria, we should first pause and look around us. We should look to see if we can identify situations where we, not the government of Nigeria, can make a difference. Then we should take our fingers off the keyboard and go out there or make that call that will make a difference in some other person’s life and circumstances. We should be like FirstBank and its employees. We should follow their example of trying to outdo themselves in showing kindness to others. We should start where we are with what we have, to make a difference right now – yes, this very minute and not some future time.
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