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For a bank that always seeks opportunities to make a difference in the communities where it operates, it must have been painfully disappointing in 2020 to be unable to use one of its biggest platforms for such purpose – FirstBank’s Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Week (CR&S Week) – due to government-imposed lockdown and restrictions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That the year 2020 came and went without the annual CR&S Week, which people have become so accustomed to, is not something for which some may easily forgive COVID-19. And they cannot be blamed or held to account for this lack of forgiveness.

It was not as though FirstBank did not create other opportunities to make a difference even with the overwhelming challenges of 2020. The bank did and did so spectacularly.

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From joining the Nigerian private sector-led initiative CACOVID (Coalition Against COVID-19), which pooled resources and embarked on social and health interventions on a scale that is unmatched by any previous efforts undertaken by private-sector organisations, to its own initiatives, FirstBank never shied away from its recognised path of “uncommon responsiveness and compassion towards customers and communities”. This exact phrase was borrowed from BusinessDay’s 2020 Banks and other Financial Institutions (BAFI) Awards ceremony where FirstBank got recognised as the CSR Bank of the Year.

The recognition followed an earlier award of the 2020 Philanthropic Financial Institution of the Year by CSR Reporters in recognition of FirstBank’s social responsibility in the areas of e-Learning and empowerment of SMEs in Nigeria.

Both awards were largely based on FirstBank’s own CSR initiatives, which included the unique e-Learning Initiative designed to move one million students to safe online learning platforms following government-ordered lockdown and the closure of educational institutions for the greater part of 2020.

The Initiative, a partnership between FirstBank, IBM (with its Digital-Nation Africa program), Curious Learning, Roberts & John (with its Roducate platform) and the Lagos State Government, spared no resource or expense in minimising the disruption of the education of our school children that the COVID-19 crises created and ensured that they continued to learn and remain fully engaged in order to be able to compete favourably with their peers in other parts of the world.

It was FirstBank’s way of responding in kindness to a situation our children did not cause but were likely going to suffer from the most as a vulnerable group that risked being forgotten at a time when parents and the authorities were dealing with far too many crises.

So, while 2020 did not come and go without the characteristic kindness of FirstBank being expressed and seen through various CR&S initiatives, the absence of the annual CR&S Week was something people would have missed in the past year. From 2017 when it had its humble beginnings as a largely staff-focused initiative, the FirstBank Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Week has evolved into one of the biggest CR&S events that staff, customers and the general public look forward to every year.

Steeped in the kindness narrative, it has become a veritable tool and platform for FirstBank to steer people towards a return to societal values and the age-long virtue of kindness. This year, FirstBank as though seeking to make up for the CR&S Week’s absence in 2020, is taking it several notches higher with a line-up of activities designed to entrench a culture of kindness, based on the 2021 CR&S Week’s theme of “Kindness…A Way of Life”.

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Scheduled to run from 26 to 30 July 2021, FirstBank’s 2021 Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Week opens with Kind Comments Days that will run all through the Week – Monday 26 to Friday 30.

Designed to inspire and encourage staff, customers, the general public and all stakeholders to say kind things about others, the Kind Comments Days has its foundation in the understanding that words play an essential role in the “kindness ecosystem”.

Kind people naturally speak kind words. Thus, “[one] of the truest reflections of how kind we are is our choice of words,” according to a statement by the committee in the bank that planned and implemented the last edition of CR&S Week, which was held in 2019. It is hoped that this year’s CR&S Week’s Kind Comment Days will inspire in everyone a consciousness of kind choice of words and consideration for others.

Within FirstBank and among its staff the Kind Comments Days and other activities of the 2021 CR&S Week will be preceded by an internal eLearning training webinar for all staff. Titled “SPARK Initiative e-Learning Training” would be hosted on Monday, 26 July 2021, the practical-oriented webinar will aim to help all FirstBank staff to imbibe kindness as a way of life in order to make the workplace kinder, happier and more productive, leading to markets and communities that are happier and better places.

It will seek to ensure that all staff have a shared understanding of the meaning of kindness and the essence of the SPARK (Start Performing Acts of Random Kindness) initiative, its rich values and the important role they play in shaping both the lives of staff and their interactions with customers and other stakeholders of the bank thus exemplifying the Bank’s values -EPIC (Entrepreneurship Professionalism Integrity and Customer Centricity).

In addition, the internal webinar will be geared towards embedding a culture of kindness in the bank by driving the understanding of how kindness (or the lack of it) can impact the workplace, the marketplace and the communities in which the bank’s staff live and work. It will teach staff how they can become better brand ambassadors by leading value-centred lives through performing acts of random kindness, and help them to recognise opportunities for engaging others so they consistently take ethical actions as part of a global movement that is fostering good in their communities.

On Tuesday, 27 July 2021, FirstBank will step up its drive to institutionalise SPARK through a dedicated programme in schools as part of this year’s activities of the CR&S Week. Part of the programme will involve using school SPARK champions (including students and teachers) to drive the activities in the schools. The presentation is expected to give a fillip to the new drive that has been structured to inculcate in students the SPARK values that play an important role in shaping their lives.

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To be delivered in partnership with various stakeholders, including education ministries and NGOs, the programme will run in phases, with the first phase being kick-started in Lagos in partnership with Junior Achievement Nigeria (JAN) and Lagos State Government. The programme, captioned SPARK School Engagement, introduced in the 2019 edition of the CR&S Week, will see the launch of SPARK in secondary schools in an effort to embed SPARK in schools across the country.

Promoted to ensure the youth of our nation grow to be responsible adults that are financially independent through fulfilling careers, SPARK School Engagement will help students to imbibe the right values from inception; enable them to understand the role that SPARK values play in shaping their lives and learning outcomes; help them recognise opportunities for engaging others to ethical action; provide them with the support needed in leading value-centred lives, including performing acts of kindness; and help them develop critical thinking, speaking and leadership skills.

Same Tuesday, 27 July 2021, the groundbreaking ceremony for the One Community At A Time (OCAAT) project will hold. This maiden groundbreaking ceremony is for the construction of a Primary Health Care Centre at the Ijedodo community in Alimosho LGA of Lagos State. OCAAT is an initiative that gives expression to FirstBank’s commitment to improving the health and welfare of the members of various communities in Lagos State. It is the bank’s contribution to global efforts to meet some specific Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

On Wednesday, 28 July 2021, a general webinar aimed at promoting the SPARK values with the goal of institutionalising them, will be hosted with the sub-theme: “Education: Does Kindness have a Role?” This will be the first among other webinars intended for staff, customers, the general public and other stakeholders across the various regions in Nigeria, which will draw their sub-themes from the three pillars of SPARK – Compassion, Civility and Charity. The webinars will focus on different audiences and reflect speakers from varied backgrounds, including academics and NGOs, among others.

Visits to orphanages and homes caring for the underprivileged in the society will follow on Thursday, 29 July 2021, to practically demonstrate FirstBank’s acts of random kindness. The visits and giving/donations to the orphanages and homes for the less fortunate will be led by management staff and supported by FirstBank staff volunteers wearing branded T-shirts and face caps. Due to COVID-19 protocols, which FirstBank strictly observes as a responsible corporate citizen, visiting volunteers will be limited in number. But there will be opportunities via Zoom for other staff to join virtually and be part of this immensely kind and compassionate activity.

Two orphanages or homes for the care of the underprivileged will be selected from each of the 24 states across Nigeria that have been chosen for the 2021 CR&S Week. Four states each have been chosen from each of the six geopolitical zones. For the North-East zone, the preference is IDP (internally displaced people) camps rather than orphanages. Subsidiaries of FirstBank in Africa and the UK will adopt a similar framework and implement it in their markets.

The last webinar will hold on Friday, 30 July 2021 – the last day of the CR&S Week. It will be a millennial webinar hosted to address a subject that has become increasingly important given the ubiquitous nature and ever-rising use and popularity of social media. It will seek to proffer a solution to the question of how we can become kinder on social media platforms.

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With the sub-theme: “Making the Cyber World a Kinder Place”, this webinar, targeting youths and millennials, will be a round-table discussion by four youth-centric celebrities, who will each talk about their personal experiences as victims of unkindness by people using social media platforms and how they have handled their victimisation and reciprocated in kindness. They will also offer suggestions on how to make the cyber world a kinder place. The round-table webinar will also feature questions/quizzes and experimental activities in order to drive full participation.

All FirstBank’s 2021 Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Week’s activities are expected to hold across Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones from where four states each per zone have been selected. In the South-South, Cross River, Bayelsa, Delta and Edo States will host CR&S Week activities.

Yobe, Adamawa, Gombe and Taraba States will host activities in the North-East. The North-Central, Abuja, Kogi, Benue and Plateau States are the states chosen. North-West is represented by Kaduna, Kano, Katsina and Sokoto States. Imo, Anambra, Abia and Ebonyi States represent the South-East. And the South-West has Lagos, Osun, Oyo and Ogun States. Similarly, activities flavoured with the culture, priorities and preferences of the host countries will be held outside Nigeria by subsidiaries of FirstBank based in the UK, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Guinea, Senegal, Sierra Leone and The Gambia.

Undoubtedly, all the 2021 CR&S Week’s activities and their distribution represent a bumper package for all the specific groups that regularly participate in the annual CR&S Week either in performing or benefitting from acts of random kindness which is the essence of the Week. While this bumper package may make up for some groups and people for the non-staging of the CR&S Week in 2020 due to the COVID-19 crises, it will likely remind others of what they missed and the acts of kindness that could have made a difference in their lives from a year ago.

Such people who were looking forward to some luck coming their way through the CR&S Week, like it did for Baby Ijeoma who received corrective heart surgery in India through the CR&S Week in 2017; like it did for 10,000 low-income earners who were provided vision screening and affordable eyeglasses through the CR&S Week in 2018; and like it did for the over 20,000 underprivileged people, including widows, whose lives were impacted through the CR&S Week in 2019.

For such people, COVID-19 made 2020 a year of missed opportunity and missed kindness for them. This is why COVID-19 may never be forgiven and why no one will hold such people, who choose not to forgive it, guilty for their lack of forgiveness towards the pandemic, in spite of the bumper package loading in the forthcoming 2021 CR&S Week.