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Corporate social responsibility has many shapes and forms today. Some organizations continue to use philanthropy as the crutch while others are adopting more expansive and strategic measures to improve their relationship with society and the environment.

For Discover, a financial institution with a history of catering to an elite consumer group with high credit scores and deep pockets, the business model is simple: Provide credit to low-risk consumers while ensuring quality customer service.

However, social responsibility for a financial services provider is a complex debate. I’m a big proponent of context and financial literacy falls perfectly in line with Discover’s core audience and social footprint. But should Discover be educating all consumers on the viability and risks of financial products or simply restrict its outreach to its customer base? Considering that a wide swath of their consumer base is educated and high potential, where should Discover focus its consumer engagement efforts?

A couple of weeks ago, Discover announced a new five-year $10 million program designed to help get financial education into the classroom. Their target: high school students. But this latest initiative, called Pathway to Financial Success, isn’t going to be just about conversations in the classroom.

Financial_LiteracyLeslie Sutton, director of external affairs and head of CSR for Discover, spoke to CSRwire about the initiative. “Not only will the initiative provide grants to public high schools to cover the costs of implementing a course on personal finance and give them access to a standards-based curriculum, it will also emphasize teacher training,” she said.

Further, “through a public service announcement [called Awkward Conversations] and a website, we want to raise awareness of the need for financial education and to encourage parents to talk to schools about incorporating it into the school curriculum.”

Discover wants to activate parents this time in a meaningful way. And in true Discover fashion, they’re doing this in a funny and intuitively intelligent manner.

I caught up with Sutton for more insights:

Why the emphasis on financial education at such an early stage [high school] when most Discover’s customers are elite professionals?

This is one of the ways we give back to customers and our community.

Discover has been involved in financial education for over 15 years. Helping people achieve brighter financial futures is our company’s mission. And getting financial education into classrooms is one of the ways we can help achieve that. It’s critical that kids develop the skills they need to manage their finances to make informed decisions.

Discover sees a clear need for financial education in schools. Statistics show that a majority of Americans lack the knowledge to make good financial decisions. A Sallie Mae study showed that 84 percent of students said they needed more education on financial management topics, yet only 12 states require a personal finance course before graduation, according to the Survey of the States by The Council for Economic Education. That’s opportunity for us to use our resources and platform to compel change.

With an economy built on consumer demand and credit availability, only 12 states?

The problem is multifold. First, many states are not requiring students to learn about money basics at school. And many schools lack the resources to add curriculum. Both teachers and parents say they are uncomfortable talking to kids about money.

We know that we need to get financial education into the school curriculum. It is the only way to get them thinking early. That’s why Discover is awarding grants to public high schools to cover related costs and give them access to a standards-based curriculum with one of the requirements being that the school measure curriculum results, so that we can ensure this information is being retained – not just provided.

How do you plan on engaging parents considering some of them might not be Discover customers – and might not have the tools to activate their school districts?

Talking to kids about money can be awkward and we want parents to know that Pathway to Financial Success can help by providing the tools and resources to begin the conversation at home and in schools. We created a public service announcement to get parents’ attention on this issue. It directs parents to Pathway to Financial Success, where they can find financial education resources developed by independent organizations.

Discover: Pathway to Financial Success

It also contains information to help them become more comfortable talking about finances. And if they want to join us in addressing the inclusion of financial education in schools, the website also provides parents with the tools needed to address that with local school administrators.

How does Pathway to Financial Success align with Discover’s business model?

We have always believed in providing our customers with the tools and resources they need to make informed decisions about money. Through Pathway to Financial Success, we’re helping to ensure that the next generation develops the skills they need before they make decisions that will affect their futures. That’s in everyone’s interest, not just our customer base.

By working with parents and schools to get financial education incorporated into the school curriculum, we want to reach thousands of classrooms and over a half-million students with the hope that by raising awareness of the need for financial education, more parents, schools and corporations will get involved in the effort.

That is in everyone’s interest as well. Financial education and independence is a critical tool in our personal and professional happiness. At Discover, this is much more than consumer education. It is about long-term financial empowerment.

Originally written for and published on CSRwire’s Commentary sectionTalkback on February 23, 2012.