Corporate Social Responsibility: A Look at Northern Trust’s Commitment to Giving Back

For more than a century, global financial services firm Northern Trust has been giving back to the communities in which its employees live and work. Headquartered in Chicago, the company currently has more than 20 international locations and 16,000 employees.

Guided by a longtime commitment to corporate social responsibility, Northern Trust has become a leader in adopting inclusive workplace policies — for instance, launching domestic partner benefits for employees in 1998, 15 years before the U.S. government recognized same-sex marriage.

INSIGHT recently spoke with Northern Trust’s head of corporate social responsibility and

Connie Lindsey
Connie Lindsey

global diversity and inclusion, Connie Lindsey, about the importance of businesses contributing to society. She also discussed the critical role diversity and inclusion play in giving back to both Northern Trust employees and the communities they serve.

Q: Tell me about the history of Northern Trust’s commitment to social responsibility. How has its focus on giving back shaped the company and influenced its culture? How have company leaders’ focus on these efforts evolved over the years?

A: Since our founding in 1889, Northern Trust has always had a commitment to the communities in which [its employees] live and work. In our long 127-year history, our core values of service, expertise, and integrity mean that we are acutely aware of what I call the interconnectedness of society and business. Giving back to our communities means that we are investing in ways that allow us to have assurance that there’s talent available, that we are providing the kinds of jobs and opportunities for individuals to have great careers at our firm.

On the community side, from a corporate responsibility perspective, we know that as we are able to support communities, as we are involved and engaged in helping society overall, we’re doing our part to be good corporate citizens. But our clients and key stakeholders also have the expectation that we are, as a firm, doing the first thing that we have to do, [which is] increasing or enhancing shareholder value. Equally important is that we are the kind of corporation that understands how important it is to make positive contributions to society.

… There is an expectation at very senior levels of the corporation that each of us, certainly as executives, [should] be engaged in some volunteer activity. We serve on various nonprofit boards; we are on boards where our clients are as well, so we are able to engage with our clients as part of our key stakeholder group on issues that matter to them but also those that are very important to us — whether it’s education, the arts, or so on. It’s an expectation for us as leaders.

At Northern Trust, we give our employees, whom we call partners, two paid days off every year to participate in a volunteer activity of their choice. … That’s so important to us to be able to give back in that way, and in 2015, our employees contributed over 150,000 volunteer hours, which is about a 20 percent increase over the number of hours volunteered the year before. We call it our “culture of caring” here at Northern Trust. … Anyone who joins the firm, and those who know us, know that that is at the core of who we are.

Q: As both the chief diversity officer and the head of corporate social responsibility at Northern Trust, what role do you believe diversity and inclusion play in social responsibility, and how have you taken on the job of advocating for both? 

A: … The two, I think, are more linked than people would believe. I think about diversity and inclusion as a way to enhance engagement, and we all know that engagement drives productivity. … For me, it’s important to have diversity and inclusion as a part of our corporate responsibility work.

We work very closely with human resources in talent development and acquisition, and … [that] allows us to ensure that as we are attracting talent to our corporation — as we seek to train and develop that talent — we are then [able] to grow that through promotion and retention. That is a core part of employee engagement, which leads to higher productivity and people staying with the firm longer. So corporate social responsibility and diversity and inclusion, to me, are very tightly woven together.

Q: According to Northern Trust’s website, much of the company’s charitable giving has been directed at organizations that work to ensure individuals’ full participation in society and that foster opportunities for communities to interact and celebrate diversity. Why did you choose this focus?

A: … In 2015, our giving was over $18 million across our 16,000 employees, which was equated to 1.26 percent of our pretax profit.

Our giving is generally around education, and we look to fund organizations that provide supportive services. If you think about diversity and inclusion, it is diversity of thought; the inclusion piece is access to opportunity. Our contributions and investments in our communities and in society allow us to, number one, articulate in a meaningful, tangible, and measurable way our commitment to the communities where we live and work. Second, it is a way for us to think about shared value. I define shared value as not only is a corporation required as a publicly traded company, and has as a goal, to increase shareholder value to provide profit, but shared value also says, “How do we contribute to society to mitigate some of the societal issues that we all face?”  Those, in my opinion, are not mutually exclusive.

We look primarily at early childhood through high school [education], and we really look at the services to students in neighborhoods with the greatest need — if the services aim to eliminate barriers to academic success. Programs can include tutoring, mentoring, college readiness, social and emotional support, and so on. That is something that’s vitally important to us, and [through our] corporate social responsibility view, the way we look at it at Northern Trust is, “How do we help facilitate empowering others in society through what we produce at Northern Trust?” We believe that as we empower communities, as we try to alleviate some of the challenges — and we know we can’t address all of them — we believe that education is a fundamental platform from which peoples’ lives can be transformed, thus allowing them to make different choices about their lives.

Someone once said, “A mind once expanded by a new idea can never go back to its original shape.”  We believe that as we are investing in education and in communities, we are really helping stretch the minds of those individuals, and then they can see different ways of looking at their lives and the world.

Shared value then allows us to … think about the diverse ways in which we can address education issues, disparities in various communities. If we are enhancing education and opportunities for all communities, we are then able to think about better ways [of] increasing talent. If we are able to help with wealth creation, education, and better ways for people to live, I think society benefits as a whole and Northern Trust does as well.

Q: How do your clients benefit from your focus on corporate social responsibility?

A: … We want to be able to serve our clients with a level of excellence. … [An example of this is] our socially responsible investments, or ESG — environmental, social, and governance.— investing.  As our clients’ values shift and change, we’ve grown our socially responsible investments portfolio, or the assets that we manage on behalf of our clients, in the past five years from $5 billion in assets under management to over $60 billion in assets under management. What that suggests is that our clients, and society overall, want to invest in companies that share their sustainability views. They want to have portfolios that might exclude certain types of industries. This notion of values-based investing — we are asking our clients, and they are telling us, “These are the kinds of things that we’re interested in” — comports very nicely with our strategy and capabilities as a firm.

We are giving back by [listening to] our clients, what they want and what is important to them as they grow and manage their wealth and seek to pass it on to future generations.

Q: How does Northern Trust select educational organizations to give to, and what role does a commitment to diversity and inclusion play in that decision?

A: In our community affairs group, we have a committee [that] … looks at grant proposals, all of those requests that come in, as well as [considers] our goal as a firm to ensure that we are looking at the greatest need and where we can have a measurable impact on the lives of [people] in our communities. For example, one goal of an organization that we support … is to close the college divide by enlisting and training our nation’s best educators to teach historically underserved high school students on how to enroll in and complete college. The Posse Foundation is another example.

One other thing that we’ve done from a community development perspective is we have invested in what is known as a social innovation bond. We did one here in Chicago that sought to address early childhood education. … The program provides early childhood education to students over the life of the project through a half-day child-parent center model — that works with both students and their parents to improve educational outcomes. Access to quality early educational programs directly impacts the success of students in elementary school and beyond.

That investment is starting early on, and that is another way we are helping and benefiting the lives of the people in the communities where we live and work.

Q: Northern Trust tends to address educational disparities at earlier stages. Why is it important to the organization to begin closing gaps at the early childhood and high school levels?

A: We don’t stop there. We certainly think that is one of the most important places to be because we know, and research shows, that if we are able to engage with young people early on, the hope and intention is that they will develop the patterns of behaviors and skills that will allow them to complete high school and perhaps [move] on to college. That is important. But it doesn’t mean we aren’t offering other kinds of opportunities.

There are a few examples that we have at the college level. In order to increase the amount of diverse candidates in environmental fields, we funded a scholarship program at Loyola University of Chicago’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability. It prioritized women of color to provide experiential learning opportunities for first-generation, low-income students who wouldn’t otherwise have access. We were very intentional about that. We also have the William and Cathy Osborn Scholarship. That was created to honor William Osborn, Northern Trust’s former chairman and CEO. It is a partnership with The Noble Network of Charter Schools that selects one high school graduate each year to receive a scholarship to cover incidental expenses. All scholars selected for that have been minorities and the first in their family to attend college.

We are selective in our focus. We understand that [education] is a continuum, and we want to have high impact. We’re not doing things randomly; it’s a very focused approach so we can stay engaged in a way that allows for a level of intimacy that conveys to recipients and donors that we are not just here to write checks. We expect outcomes; we are interested in how [our efforts] benefit society and the organizations that we fund.

Q: You mentioned earlier that employees are provided paid volunteer time to work with partner organizations during work hours. In addition, the annual Chairman’s Diversity Advocate Award Program honors employees who champion the company’s diversity efforts. Why is it important to Northern Trust that its employees share its same commitment to serving their communities and promoting diversity and inclusion?

A: I think the culture of our corporation attracts people who share those values. When you come to work at Northern Trust, you feel it, you understand it; it is behavior that is modeled from our CEO, Frederick Waddell, throughout the organization, and it is important to us. Diversity and inclusion is a direct driver of engagement. Engagement then is a direct driver of employee retention, of productivity. The way we are treated pours over into how we treat our clients, our communities, and so on.

The Chairman’s Diversity Award event is quite an amazing thing. It is a global award [and] a wonderful way to highlight specific behaviors or projects [employees have] done to ensure diversity and inclusion — that everyone in this inclusive environment knows they can bring their whole self to work, that they are valued for who they are and what they bring. We set a rigorous standard for excellence and how we serve our clients, our communities, and one another. That is an important recognition for those individuals that [allows us to] model their behavior.

We have 10 business resource councils here at Northern Trust that serve our employees. [Those include] Advancing Professionals (the focus is on partners who are in the early stages of their career), Asian Leadership, Black Business, Disability Business, Experienced Professionals, Latin Heritage, LGBT Business, Military Appreciation and Assistance, Women in Leadership, and Working Families.

… In doing this role of corporate social responsibility and diversity and inclusion, I often jokingly say, “This is where I get to connect my soul to my role,” because I’m able to take the technical skills, and certainly the great value that Northern Trust brings, and tell what I think is an outstanding story [about] how we are connecting society and business for the benefit of all of our stakeholders.●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. For more information about Northern Trust, visit