Every day brings news of human struggle and environmental crisis. Reports of wildfires, dying lakes, children without access to education, and tent cities of the working homeless spur the urge to help—but the problems are complex and often thousands of miles away. This combination can leave us feeling powerless.
Yet for many of the most challenging problems we face, there are proven solutions that we can support in a tangible way.
None of us wants to think about the possibility of losing our ability to make sound financial decisions, but many of us eventually will, owing to an accident or illness, especially some form of dementia. What would happen, for example, if in a period of impaired judgment you started taking large amounts of money from your accounts or were enticed to fund a get-rich-quick scheme? Is there anything that can be done to help protect you and your assets?
An easy first-line defense is the NI Sharing of Information Consent Form, which you can file with your advisor. The form gives your advisor and Natural Investments permission to contact designated people if your advisor perceives that a request or behavior is uncharacteristic of you and your goals. An unusual request does not necessarily signal a loss of capacity to make decisions, and in all likelihood the form would never be needed. But should the situation occur, a quick double-check by your adviser with someone whom you trust could prevent a potentially significant mistake. Your advisor can help you choose the best person for this role.
After cooking breakfast at a homeless shelter recently, I left knowing what I hoped for those women and men: good shoes, dental care, and a warm, dry place to sleep that night. After talking to a client about her pending retirement, I hung up the phone knowing what I hoped for her: a sense of satisfaction with her well-done work and a sense of adventure for her years ahead.
But in late November as I was leaving the village of Ma, in rural Southeastern Haiti, I didn’t have a clue what to hope for its people.
By “rural,” I mean really rural. Our two-hour drive from Jacmel up (pretty much straight up) drought-parched, rutted, rocky roads ended at a small group of houses and businesses, where our 11-person travel group from Faith and Money Network was met by a gracious group of people from Ma who had walked to meet us. They mercifully carried our luggage up (again, “up” means seriously up) a loose-rock path that took us to the village, where each of us was greeted with a fresh coconut to restore our energy and celebrate our arrival.
What a stunningly beautiful place. My home in Kentucky is also gorgeous—rolling hills, wide rivers, and the world’s largest cave systems—but it is an ancient, quiet beauty. Southern Haiti is more dramatic. Layers of mountains ripple up and down between coasts on the sparkling, turquoise Caribbean Sea. It’s the quintessential postcard image.
If lava were flowing toward your financial advisor’s neighborhood, would you still be able to talk to her about your IRA distribution? If a tornado splintered your advisor’s office, could you get money from your account? If a failed power grid shut off communications in your advisor’s region, could you get the advice you need immediately?
These particular scenarios may be highly improbable, but life happens, and NI works to ensure that clients won’t be affected when it does.
The document that outlines NI’s preparation for potential business interruptions is called the Business Continuity Plan. NI’s compliance officer, Christopher Peck, oversees the plan, which he explained in a recent interview.
Q: Christopher, what is the Business Continuity Plan?
A: The idea is to demonstrate that we can continue our work despite various disruptions. “Disruption” is construed quite generally: disaster, hurricane, superstorm, terrorist attack, lava flow, power outage, earthquake—anything that could interrupt service to your clients. The Business Continuity Plan asks and answers, “What’s your plan for that not happening?”
Q: Why does it matter?
A: Clients have their own plans and deadlines. If we are off the grid and unavailable for a week, we could create serious issues for the client.
We’ve never had an incident where we had to implement our Business Continuity Plan. There was recently a pretty severe hurricane over Hawaii. Neighbors around [NI advisor] Malaika [Muphalala] had outages, but with her preparations, she was able to continue working without disruption.
Q: Sounds like a good business practice.
A: And a good people practice. Most people have responsibilities—people they take care of like older family members or children, or pets—so we need to be there for them even when we’ve had a life disruption. It’s just good people practice.
We had an earthquake in California a month or so ago.
Each week, the radio announcer invited people to listen. “Are you seeking meaning beyond work and consumption?” she asked. “Does it sometimes seem that money rules the world and runs your life? Listen to ‘Faith and Money: Making the Connection,’ with host Mike Little.” And people listened—more than 2,000 people each month from DC to Oregon, from Brazil to Indonesia, tuned in to interviews with people sharing their spiritual, holistic perspective on life’s money issues.
Our relationship to money and material possessions helps to define who we are, what we value, how we live, and even what we believe. Yet we often go on auto-pilot, embedded in our money-obsessed culture, and go about life not connecting the material with the spiritual. That disconnect can leave us feeling trapped in our money choices and separates us from our dearest values and from the wider human community. The radio programs were developed to remind us of the ways we already connect our money and our values and to explore new ways we can create those connections.
As made explicit in the name, the programs were designed for faith-based listeners, but most socially and environmentally responsive investors would resonate with the guests who probed the questions we face in our everyday lives.
We know our stress levels are related to our money choices, but can we escape the work-more-spend-more cycle?
Are our relationships distorted by money’s power dynamics?
How do we give and invest our money to make a difference in the world?
One of today’s interesting economic and political shifts is the growing momentum to raise the minimum wage. Roughly 2.5 million low-wage U.S. workers saw at least a small minimum wage hike go into effect Jan. 1 this year, bringing to 21 the number of states with a minimum wage above the federal level of $7.25 per hour. Though many of those minimums are only modestly above the federal wage floor, other areas are making bigger changes. Washington, DC, and two adjacent Maryland counties have already voted to raise their minimum wage to $11.50 per hour, effective in 2016. In his first week in office, Seattle’s new mayor began developing plans to pay all city workers at least $15 per hour.
Growing wage inequality has been the focus of recent speeches by people ranging from representatives of fast food workers’ groups to President Obama and Pope Francis. Sensing the swing in momentum, Congressional Democrats have floated a proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 and index it to inflation going forward.
Many news sources outline the various data and economic arguments for or against a higher minimum wage. Social investors probably have a range of opinions on any particular piece of legislation, but it seems we have already expressed our support for a higher minimum wage in some quite tangible ways.
A little bit more. That’s how much most people say they need in order to feel financially secure. No matter how much we have, most of us think we need just a little bit more. This perception of scarcity—of never quite having enough—drives an economy that depends on consumption. It drives us to hoard resources for ever-darker potential emergencies. For example, does this sound familiar? “We have to make more money. What if we need a new car?” “What if we need a new car and one of us loses our job at the same time?” “What if we need a new car, one of us loses our job, AND your parents come to live with us?” “What if …?”
That perception of scarcity also drives our reluctance to share what we have. As my daughter launches off to college this fall and my small-business health insurance premiums leap toward my city’s median income, I’m losing sight of what “enough” even means. Is there any way to save enough? Not until my clone can pitch in. Waiting for that.
When my children were little, I received a catalog from a company called “Perfectly Safe.” “Really?” I laughed. “Perfect safety? If only I could buy that in a catalog.” But that’s what we’re saving for, isn’t it? Striving for, in the most painful sense of that word? A climate of perfect safety. What we need is climate change! No, not that kind of climate change. We need the kind Mary Cosby, a spiritual leader in Washington, DC, wrote about twenty years ago as she described several principles that were key to her, both personally and in the adventurous ministry of the Church of the Saviour, which Mary and her husband Gordon Cosby founded. The first of those principles was “the importance of climate.”
How do you quantify pollution prevented or people treated fairly? How do you measure the economic benefits that ripple outward from energy-efficient, low-income housing that wouldn’t even exist without people who invest for impact in the world? Such issues can’t be quantified as easily as financial performance, yet these are the metrics of the social and environmental investor.
Twenty years ago, NI developed the NI Social Rating to evaluate and compare sustainable and responsible mutual funds. Funds are ranked on a scale of one to five hearts – an apt symbol for social investing – based on screening for environmental, social, and corporate governance factors and for shareholder advocacy and community investing. The hearts tell a story of the focus and mission of the respective mutual funds. And embedded within those hearts are the stories of the people for whom social investing makes all the difference.
One of the five-heart rated mutual funds held by many NI investors is Domini Social Bond Fund. Its holdings include such community development investments as a “Job Builder” CD with Hope Federal Credit Union of Jackson, MS, an investment designed to support small businesses in economically distressed communities in areas still suffering the effects of Hurricane Katrina.
Portfolio 21, another mutual fund held by many NI investors, focuses on environmental impact, actively looking for companies that are positioning their products and their operating methods to adapt to our planet’s future of resource constraints. For example, Portfolio 21 holds shares in Potlatch, a timber and wood products company whose 1.4 million acres are certified to Forest Stewardship Council® standards of sustainably grown and harvested forests.
Where you bank is first on the list of ten things we can do as consumers to make a difference to people and planet, according to The Better World Shopping Guide, a well-known primer that rates the sustainability of companies and specific products. Number one? Really?
How can where you bank make so much difference? U.S. banks have more than $7 trillion in loans circulating in the domestic economy. That’s a lot of capital and a lot of power to decide who has access to that capital. Because banks seem so generic, we tend to choose our bank by convenience – can I stop by its ATM during lunch hour? – or by services we want, such as online bill paying or free checking. But banks are far from generic.
Since the bank bailouts of 2008, the “Move Your Money” campaign has called for taking capital, and therefore power, away from multinational banks and moving it to local banks and credit unions. The campaign has focused attention on the impact of where we bank, emphasizing that local banks lend to local small business and create local jobs.
It’s not as easy as just going local, though. The deeper question is how your bank or credit union contributes to the quality of life for everyone in the community. By that criterion, some local institutions may not measure up. For example, a local bank in our area (Louisville, KY) has loaned enormous sums to payday lending companies and tax preparation companies that promote refund anticipation loans; these predatory lending practices exploit people on the financial edge and undermine our community.
If you have children in your life, you have probably thought a lot about how they will handle their finances as they grow. Few schools help, as most teach little to nothing about personal finance. How, then, are our children to learn about money matters? From us, of course—which may be a daunting prospect for us, and possibly quite unfortunate for them.
Many parents think they need to have all of their own money issues worked out before they can begin teaching any skills, but face it—if we wait until that point, our children will never learn a thing and may in fact never leave home!
Financial advisors see parents and children deal with money issues in a remarkably wide range of ways. One technique seems to be silence: the “if we ignore it, it will go away” school of parenting. Some of our clients with the deepest sense of anxiety about money are those who were brought up in households where money was never discussed.
Talking about money with the children in your life doesn’t have to be painful. A North Carolina family put dollar amounts on a dart board and had a raucous dart competition to decide how much money to give away to a favorite cause. “All financial decisions should be this much fun,” the mother reported.