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A Conversation with James Alva, SCG’s New Board Chair

Friday, January 31, 2020

By Eddy Gonzalez


On January 1, 2020, James Alva, Senior Vice President & Southern California Market Manager at Citi Community Development, began his term as Chair of Southern California Grantmakers’ Board of Directors. Since joining the Board in 2017, James has been a dedicated advocate for our most vulnerable communities and has been committed to creating a more inclusive future for all Californians.

We sat with James to learn more about his work and achievements at Citi, the CSR trends energizing him in 2020, his priorities for SCG, and his current book recommendations! 

Throughout your professional trajectory you’ve worked across a variety of sectors on a number of community-focused initiatives. How has this cross-sector experience shaped your work and your approach to collaboration?

J: My experiences in the corporate, small business, nonprofit, education, and philanthropic sectors have been critical in shaping the perspective I bring to my work. When I design a new initiative or a philanthropic endeavor, I'm able to examine it from a variety of different lenses at the same time. This allows me to move fluidly within those different organizations and build partnerships that resonate with different audiences.

You’ve spent the last 5 years focusing Citi’s philanthropic efforts on building public-private partnerships. Can you elaborate on this priority and the long-term impact you’re hoping to realize through these partnerships?

J: Citi's community development work focuses on three areas: financial empowerment, small businesses, and inclusive housing. As the #1 affordable housing lender in the United States for the last nine consecutive years, Citi is particularly proud of our role in expanding access to housing. We work with local and national organizations to increase housing that is affordable and welcoming for some of the most vulnerable populations in Los Angeles, like LGBT+ youth, seniors, and veterans who are experiencing homelessness. 

Across all of our investment areas, we look for opportunities to act as an “angel investor” to test, build and scale public-private partnerships. By working with elected officials, we are able to learn more about the challenges a community is facing and identify the root causes beneath them. We then collaborate with elected officials to design solutions that can achieve systems-level impact, with the aim to grow and bring in additional support from public and private sectors. Through these partnerships, we are of the mindset that we are helping to address our community’s most pressing issues through program development and long-term impact, scale, and sustainability. 

What trends in corporate social responsibility are giving you the most energy in 2020?

J: I’m energized by the Business RoundTable’s new “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation,” which was signed by 181 CEOs. At a high-level, the statement declares that companies need to think about the triple bottom line, which includes how we think about our place in the world and our overall benefit to society. I believe this is the first time that the corporate sector has collectively acknowledged that community impact and community engagement is as important as profit. I am proud that Mike Corbat, Citi’s CEO, joined peer corporate CEOs to sign the Business RoundTable’s statement and take stances on critical social issues.

It’s great to see the broader corporate sector put community engagement and impact at the forefront of their work. However, this is not new a new endeavor for Citi. Can you discuss the issues that Citi has actively addressed? 

J: Citi has taken big stances on prominent social issues of our time. In response to an epidemic of gun violence in this country, Citi was the first bank to issue a U.S. Commercial Firearms Policy that requires new retail sector clients or partners to adhere to common sense best practices such as background checks and age limits. Through this, we used our business strategy to do our part to keep guns out of the hands of those who wish to do harm. 

We were the first financial institution to publicly release the results of our pay equity review, which compared adjusted compensation of women to men. This basically means that we compared the pay of one female vice president to the pay of a male vice president. Last year, we went further and started digging into raw data to highlight the difference between the median pay of all women at Citi and median pay of all men at Citi when we don’t adjust for factors such as job function, level and geography. Of course we have work to do, but our decision to be transparent on a global scale and our active commitment to closing this gap has earned us recognition as one of the leading companies selected for the 2019 Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index (GEI). 

In addition, Citi has continued to strengthen our commitment to sustainability. In 2019, we met our goal to provide $100 billion globally to environmentally sustainable projects, four years early. Over the summer, we announced the co-development and partnership with our clients on the Poseidon Principles, designed to help the shipping sector decarbonize. And, we recently named a Chief Sustainability Officer who is responsible for these efforts and supporting our client’s sustainability goals.

What are you proud of during your time at Citi? 

J: When I started with Citi five years ago, we had several community development programs in Southern California, but not many people knew about them. However, on January 30th Citi was awarded its third Corporation of the Year award during a six-month period for our philanthropic and community work in Los Angeles. We were recognized in September of last year by the United Nations Association for our work to help immigrants and refugees and by the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC) in November of 2018 for our work to promote economic and community development. Now we have been by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce for our work to benefit low-income communities in Los Angeles. I am proud of my team for achieving these three awards, and these three examples are evidence that doing good work in the community can actually have accolades that translate to tangible business benefits. Our initiatives are having a triple bottom line effect that simultaneously support our communities, help us achieve our corporate business objectives, and are responsible for our environment.

As SCG’s new Board Chair, what do you hope to prioritize during your two-year term? 

J: In terms of priorities, we have a number of board members who will be reaching their term limits this year. We’re going to spend a substantial amount of time this year cultivating new board members. I’m looking forward to using my experience in organizational change and management to facilitate the onboarding of new board members and to ensuring that we have a board that represents both our membership and the communities we serve. I will also prioritize working with the Board to optimize and refresh SCG’s vision and mission statements in 2020. I hope to ensure that SCG continues to be a place in which all members feel like there is something for them. As part of the corporate giving community, I hope to find ways to strengthen SCG as a place for corporate members as much as other types of members.

What book or article would you recommend to our members?

J: I'm currently reading The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker. This book tackles the seemingly endless cycle of meetings in everyday professional life. This book asks us to rethink the purpose of meetings by asking “why are we having this meeting” and “who really needs to be in the room?” This has completely transformed my approach to meetings. I’ve become much more intentional about what warrants an actual meeting, the goals I set for each meeting, and why it’s important to have certain people in the room. Because of the amount of meetings I have in one day, this book is top of mind for me now!

Where was the last vacation you took?

J: I am not sure if I would call it a vacation, but in October, I went to Puerto Rico for my own wedding! In 2018 my then fiancé, Edward, and I traveled to Puerto Rico during what was six months after Hurricane Maria for vacation. We fell in love with the warmth and resilience of the people there. We were in the middle of planning for a wedding in Los Angeles, but we felt compelled to bring our friends and family to Puerto Rico instead.  Eddie and I were honored to be married in front of 155 of our loved ones. And here is a fun fact: While we were on the flight to Puerto Rico for our wedding, the SCG Board voted me in as Chair of the Board.  I came back from Puerto Rico with a new husband and a new role at SCG!

Read SCG’s Press Release announcing James Alva’s appointment as new Board Chair, effective January 1, 2020. 


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