When I boarded the El on January 20, I felt encouraged by the bits of pink I saw throughout the packed train car. “Please, let us look at least close to the size of last year’s Chicago Women’s March,” I remember thinking. I tempered my hope by reminding myself that the anger over the 2016 election might have subsided—and that many who marched in the unprecedented global display of resistance in 2017 could be burned out after a year-long assault by the new administration.
I met a friend at our appointed spot, Hero Coffee Bar on South Dearborn, and we joined the stream of pink plumage coursing down Michigan Ave. Even if we were only half of the quarter-million demonstrators counted on the frigid Chicago streets last year, it would be enough. The signs and the speeches buoyed me. On this unusually warm, sunlit January day, we chanted and marched, riding an electrifying surge of energy.
The stamina and strength of organized resistance to the destructive policies of the current administration has manifested not just in the streets, but also in a marked rise in interest for women-led investments within the finance world over the last year. We have seen encouraging growth in women-centric investment funds operating in the impact investment field. What’s more exciting is that the trend for more equitable treatment in finance is not only relegated to the US. A recently issued gender equality bond in Australia was 20x oversubscribed upon release.
In the decades leading up to the 2016 election, SRI investors had labored for years on gender parity issues without gaining much traction. Although numerous studies have shown that companies with more equitable gender representation, at the board level and in management, perform better financially, only 2% of venture capital dollars went to women entrepreneurs in 2017.
Natural Investments has long advocated for gender equity and more diverse boards through shareholder dialogue. Indeed, one long-standing and important aspect of the Natural Investments Heart Rating is a company’s diversity and inclusion policy. We have also always believed in the promise of gender-lens investing, based on research showing that investing in women has a 50% greater positive impact on primary drivers of long-term, intergenerational change, as well as the reduction of hunger and poverty.
Although investment that directs capital into women-led enterprises is certainly not new, we are thrilled to see the increase in interest and demand. Natural Investments advisors have developed specialized expertise in mutual funds, notes, and microenterprises in developing countries that bolster female-driven businesses and initiatives. We have also hosted a Women Invested interview series, highlighting professional women in the SRI field championing these causes.
As an SRI professional who rarely marched before the 2016 election, I am still riding high off the energy of the 2018 Women’s March. Whereas I once thought of civic protests as largely symbolic as compared to the more tangible work of socially responsible investing, I now understand that hitting the streets is an important way to motivate ourselves and others to undertake more substantive actions like moving our money, divesting from fossil fuel, and engaging with companies and elected officials to advocate for a sustainable future.
After my day on the streets of Chicago, I returned home after the march feeling tired yet accomplished, and of course, eager to see the numbers. So, how did we do? News outlets reported the next day that Chicago’s turnout saw 300,000 attendees—a 20% increase over the 2017 march in our city and indicative of huge and boisterous rallies across the country. Even more inspiring was the news that more than 20,000 women have contacted Emily’s List about running for political office as of 2017, up from only 920 women who contacted the group in 2016. These are all positive indicators of a new body politic fueled by “sheros” ready to change the world.
For the past few years, the term “resilience” has been the buzzword du jour in economics, climate science, leadership, online security, and community planning. Surprisingly, it has managed to span the ideological spectrum even in these partisan times. The Post-Carbon Institute recently re-branded their website as resilience.org, while the World Economic Forum in Davos jumped on the bandwagon by focusing its 2013 conference on “Resilient Dynamism.” If resilience science speaks simultaneously to re-localization activists in their transition towns, as well as the 1% gathered in their enclaves, it’s clearly an idea whose time has come.
Let’s take a look at what is meant by resilience and why it has arisen from so many quarters as a concept that is truly emblematic of our times. In Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, authors Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy frame resilience as “the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.” They see resilience as “an essential skill in an age of unforeseeable disruption and volatility.” A unifying and powerful lens, resilience can focus our awareness and actions at all levels—for individuals, businesses, communities, nations, and the entire planet.
Many people become aware of the importance of resilience only after a disaster. Do a search for “Hurricane Sandy & Resilience” and you’ll find numerous articles and conferences convened as decision-makers tried to figure out what we could learn from this super-storm and how we might rebuild in ways that will leave people less vulnerable. But the time to focus on resilience is before disaster strikes; in 2014, President Obama proposed a $1 billion “resilience fund” to help communities protect themselves from climate change impacts such as floods, drought, and wildfires.
Futurists and systems theorists are having a heyday, creating a menagerie of frameworks describing resilience, but it really doesn’t need to be a difficult concept; we see it all around us. Anyone who’s over 40 knows that they’re not as physically resilient as they used to be; injured children recover more quickly than injured grandparents. Healthy ecosystems bounce back from fires or storms better than degraded ecosystems. Technology companies become irrelevant if they fail to respond decisively when circumstances change: perhaps the most striking example is Kodak, once synonymous with the very idea of photography, but left in the dust by the shift to digital imaging.
For those with a strong bent on assuring that we maintain the viability of the biosphere, it’s worth taking a moment to see why resilience is starting to displace sustainability as an organizing concept. Zolli points out that sustainability tries to come up with an “equilibrium point” in which a system stays in balance but this is counter to how many natural and human systems operate. As architect and systems thinker William McDonough wryly asks, “Who simply wants a sustainable marriage?” Resilience does rely on the principles of sustainability (unsustainable investments weaken the capacity of a system to maintain integrity), but it strives for a healthy dynamism rather than stasis.
The lens of resilience makes us more cognizant that for better or worse, we have entered the age of the Anthropocene—a new term for a geological age in which humans have become the dominant factor shaping the world. Natural systems have been damaged to such a degree that we need to be prepared for random, extreme disruptions, according to Zolli and Healy. At the same time, resilience points out that we should be designing our systems, and our lives, so that we do more than survive such disruptions. We’ll want to “capture the upside,” thriving and growing when exposed to volatility and disorder, while also seizing emerging new opportunities as they come into view.
For some, resilience has a flavor of hunkering down, waiting for disaster to hit, and coming out unscathed. That’s not a very juicy way to live, and it’s not what we mean by resilience. Our goal as investors is to make things better, for ourselves, and for the world. We are using “resilience” in its most flexible and optimistic form, still loyal to the goals of sustainability (providing for the needs of the present without harming the future), and with eyes staying sharp for emerging prospects. Here’s our new and improved definition:
Resilience helps us to thrive by anticipating and preparing for disturbance, improving the capacity to withstand shocks, rebuilding as necessary, and adapting and evolving when possible.
Resilience is a powerful remedy for our uncertain times. It helps us learn to live with the fundamental complexity of modern life, rather than trying to simplify our way out of it in order to make decisions. When the inevitable disruptions do hit the system, resilient investors will have the best possible shock absorbers to minimize being rattled, and be positioned to bounce back even better than before. Our favorite one-liner comes from Harvard business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who wrote, “When surprises are the new normal, resilience is the new skill.”
In early November, 2017, my Natural Investments colleagues and I attended the 28th annual SRI (Sustainable, Responsible, Impact Investing) Conference in San Diego. I always get excited about this conference because it is the premier educational and networking event for financial advisors, fund managers, and others connected to our industry. It has become a touchstone for me—not just because of the wonderful people I meet, or the inspiring investment opportunities—but because it helps me reconnect with why we do this work.
When I arrived, I heard that the conference had set a new attendance record, with many of the 800+ attendees being newcomers from Wall Street looking to break into SRI. There were some grumblings that big corporate interests have identified SRI as a growing, profitable business and have been moving in on the SRI space, and the speakers seemed to recognize this. They made it clear that all were welcome, but that we are united by a common purpose: to use the power of our investments for the good of people and planet. It isn’t about financial returns, they said (because we know research has established that SRI performance is competitive), but what we are able to accomplish on the ground, in the real world.
To that end, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) emerged as a major theme of the conference. World leaders adopted the SDGs in 2015, calling for all sectors of society to work toward gender and racial equity, clean power and water for all, a sustainable economy, and the end of poverty and hunger, among other ambitious goals. For SRI professionals, the SDGs can provide more clarity of purpose than the more nebulous phrase “positive impact,” which can easily be misunderstood or misused by newcomers.
In another area of the conference, dozens of companies staffed booths where attendees could learn more about their services. I saw several of the fund managers I’ve come to know over the years, and received personal updates on how they are investing and what they expect going forward. One of them was a regenerative agriculture fund that invests in conventional farmland and leases it on favorable terms to local farmers, who then convert it to organic production. This fund creates local jobs, improves soils, and fights climate change—while investors can benefit from rent payments and the improving value of the farmland. Although this fund is unique, it’s a great indication of the real world impact our industry is having.
I was struck by how many new funds were represented at the conference. Our industry is indeed growing! One fund occupies a new niche—global real estate investments that have been screened for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues. It’s important for investors to own both domestic and international real estate for diversification purposes, yet socially responsible investors have never had a fund dedicated to doing this in a sustainable way. I got the opportunity to meet the fund manager right there in person and learn about how this investment works. Our team will certainly be following up with more research on this new option. I ended up visiting nearly all of the other new funds as well, taking notes and asking friendly yet probing questions to help me get a sense of whether these new products could add value to our clients’ portfolios.
During the conference, my Natural Investments colleagues and I arranged private meetings with several managers to delve deeper into their offerings. We learned about the financial details, but more importantly, we got to know the people behind these investments. That’s why it’s so important to attend this event—it’s the best way to get a real sense of the expertise and integrity of the people we work with. I came away from the conference thoroughly inspired, filled with new information and insights and a renewed sense of purpose for the job I do.
In nature, pioneer species are often the first to become established in a barren or disturbed landscape. With great tolerance for poor conditions, erratic weather, and isolation, these tough and hardy species manage to put down roots in cracks and rocks amid inhospitable, barren landscapes. They germinate and grow in these edges, eventually creating enough surrounding fertility to allow for new species to take hold, natural succession to occur, and a thriving ecosystem to emerge over time.
Permaculture principles like this guided Natural Investments founders Hal Brill, Christopher Peck, and I when in 2007 we decided to become co-owners of this firm dedicated to socially responsible investing. We decided to operate like a guild in nature, honoring the diverse skills, gifts, and traits of each person while focusing on cultivating beneficial relationships—thereby creating an adaptable, strong, and healthy organism through which we could thrive as people and as a company.
In 1990, there were just about a dozen pioneers of socially responsible investing (SRI)—mutual funds with about $200 billion engaged in responsible investing, the bulk of which were categorized as such for excluding tobacco or companies operating in South Africa from their portfolios. As this approach slowly gained steam, more businesses started to follow suit. We were among the first to attain B Corp certification 10 years ago, which recognizes the positive environmental, social, and governance policies and practices of companies.
We have intentionally designed and fostered our operations to be in alignment with the same principles of nature, including human nature. Our approach to decision-making is inclusive and consensual. We are organized as an autonomous collective, emphasizing freedom for each member within a collaborative framework of systems, protocols, and initiatives that benefit the whole. Christopher Peck and I oversee all operations of the firm, but we invite the entire group to discuss major decisions, including our investments, strategy, policies, procedures, and overall direction. Rather than micromanage our exceptionally capable advisors, we delegate and monitor, offering support as warranted. We are transparent about company operations, invite feedback and suggestions to help us course correct if needed, and invest time and energy into building a sense of community among us.
Our advisors share leadership by taking on initiatives and performing tasks for the whole. It’s clear that they do so out of a sense of responsibility for the firm’s overall success. A horizontal approach to organizational leadership isn’t always easy, but when people are regularly and actively involved, they are engaged and empowered. For those rare instances when we cannot reach consensus, we’ve introduced a voting process.
How we communicate with each other is also an important aspect of bringing our whole selves to our work. We make time to talk on an emotional level and connect our personal lives to our work. This creates a safe container through which people can not only share life’s joys but also feel comfortable bringing up sensitive topics or personal situations, building a support system in the spirit of community.
This year, we also saw a shift in ownership of the company. After 10 years of Hal, Christopher, and I owning and managing the company equally, Hal sold some of his stake to longtime advisors Malaika Maphalala, James Frazier, and Greg Pitts. They have stepped up with new ideas, energy, responsibilities, and perspectives, reflecting our company’s plan to cultivate leadership among all its members.
Our organizational experiment as an autonomous collective has been fascinating since the outset, and 10 years after forming our first ownership triad, it’s clear that this experiment is working well enough to warrant the next plateau of expansion. For when you plant a few trees and nourish their growth, it’s not possible to know what will happen to them. As we have witnessed their healthy roots and felt their strong trunks, and as we have branched out, the bountiful foliage and fruits of our labor are now being harvested. And this year, we began to truly grow a forest.
Releasing my “noble poverty” mindset has been an exhilarating journey.
When I first heard the term “noble poverty,” I had a visceral reaction of relief at finally having a name for a condition I had lived with since I was a child.
Mikelann Valterra, founder of the Women’s Earning Institute, has defined noble poverty as “the belief that there is virtue in not having money and that good people do not have it.” People with this mindset live by the phrase “It is better to be good and poor than rich and evil.”
The roots of the noble poverty mindset I used to carry run deep. I was raised in a devout Catholic family in a small rural town in Kentucky. My parents had me when they were both nineteen and worked hard to make a sweet little home for my siblings and me, but they struggled over money. The conflicts over power and control were exacerbated during their divorce, when I was a teen.
My experience of church teachings gave me clear messages about money: “You cannot serve both God and money,” “The love of money is the root of all evil,” and the most memorable to me as a child, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
I first started earning money through small jobs: brushing my grandmother’s hair for ten cents and later babysitting. At sixteen, I worked at a local video and record store and did my own tax returns. I worked two to three jobs at once to put myself through college, and even still, I took out as much in student loans as I could to pay my tuition; I was part of the first generation of students to incur unprecedented educational loan debt without fully grasping the consequences.
I went on to get an M.S.S.W. in social work and worked for nonprofit organizations with refugee and immigrant families and affordable housing. In my early thirties, when I began teaching financial literacy, I realized that I needed to start a retirement account and found an SRI mutual fund for my first IRA.
Even then, by age forty, I was still living with a mindset of noble poverty. I realized that I wanted to retire from this way of thinking and living. I came to understand that my calling was socially responsible investing, and I began doing deeper personal money work to liberate myself from the noble poverty mindset as I helped people align their money with their values.
As they say, when the student is ready the teacher will appear. Lynne Twist, author of The Soul of Money, taught me that we live in a world of abundance, not one of scarcity. From her work with Buckminster Fuller, she saw that our systems that are still catching up with the reality of abundance. I now work with my clients to leverage their investments to transform these systems, so that fair trade, gender equity, inclusion, and economic justice become integral to our economy.
Barbara Stanny, in her book Sacred Success, taught me about women and our relationship to both money and power. She says that women’s challenges with money are often really challenges in their relationship with power. I continue to explore this for myself and help my clients in their own challenges with power.
There are many other teachers, of course, who have helped shaped the unique path I find myself on today. I am thankful to have defined my own “brand of joy,” an idea coined by Tanya Geisler that emphasizes the WHY of my work. As we begin a new year, I am thrilled to be continuing this journey with my clients and colleagues.
Added profits are likely to benefit executives more than workers.
The fourth quarter was positive for stocks, topping off another year of growth for the markets. Large company stocks in the US rose 6.6% for the quarter and 21.8% for the year. Small US company stocks were up 3.3% for the quarter and 14.6% for the year, while foreign stocks rose 4.2% for the quarter and 25% on the year. Bonds were up 0.4% for the quarter and 3.5% for the year.
The drivers that have moved markets all year continued during the fourth quarter: optimism among traders about anticipated tax cuts and deregulation, which they believe will stimulate the economy, at least in the short-term. Positive US and global economic data have also further supported market gains.
Massive tax-cut legislation was passed in the waning days of 2017. The lion’s share of the benefits will accrue to corporations and high-income Americans in the form of lower tax rates. This comes at a time when corporations already have robust profitability; the disparity in US incomes has never favored top earners so much. The story being sold in Washington is that the tax cuts will spur dramatic economic growth, which will benefit the middle and lower economic classes as prosperity spreads, raising the financial boats for all, as it were.
Worker wages have remained stubbornly low throughout the economic recovery that began in 2008, even though unemployment has declined and is now lower than it was prior to the recession. Research shows that primary reasons for lack of meaningful wage growth include ever-growing automation, applications of technology, and foreign outsourcing—not immigrant labor, as many anti-immigrant leaders proclaim. Corporations did not raise wages meaningfully in 2017 because they were not compelled to do so, although minimum wage increases in 18 states have just gone into effect as of January 1.
Economic growth has been running at around 2% since the 2008 recession, below the rate for some prior recovery periods and below the long-term average of about 3.2%. (It is important to note that the long-term rate was accompanied by jarring boom-and-bust cycles that included growth rates as high as 16% and as low as -10% between 1947 and 2017.)
The Fed is projecting a growth rate for 2018 of 2.5%, reflecting the economic momentum coming out of 2017 and possibly some incremental rise from tax cuts Interestingly however, the Fed’s long-term growth rate estimate remained unchanged at 1.8%, suggesting a belief that potential growth from the tax cut will be temporary in nature. The widely forecasted ballooning federal debt generated by the tax cuts will likely be longer lasting.
As we look forward into 2018, leading economic indicators are generally viewed as relatively strong and forecasts support the expectation of continued growth for the year. Among the risks we are considering is the possibility that growth spurred by tax cuts and deregulation will create an overheated economy, a situation which is likely to end in an abrupt and possibly harsh recession, and may well be accompanied by a decline in the stock market. On the other hand, it is also certainly possible that the tax cuts fail to produce the economic growth promised by the legislation’s sponsors.
Finally, we acknowledge the conclusion of Janet Yellen’s four-year term in February as the first woman Fed Chief. During her tenure, she oversaw the first interest rate hike in seven years as the Fed sought to normalize its rate policy following the tumultuous 2008 recession. She has led the Fed with dignity and poise, and history will likely judge her work at the Fed favorably.
The Oceti Sakowin Camp in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, where the Standing Rock Sioux and other water protectors lived as they fought to stop the Energy Transfer Company from routing the Dakota Access Pipeline through sovereign Sioux land.
How Socially Responsible Investors Supported the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests
The Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) starts in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota and runs nearly 1,200 miles to its terminus in Illinois, where it connects to additional pipeline infrastructure that carries the oil to refineries as far south as Texas. Along the way it crosses hundreds of streams, rivers, and other waterways, including the Missouri River less than a half-mile upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation.
The project was completed and oil started flowing in June of 2017, after a prolonged protest by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who were joined by water protectors from more than 100 indigenous tribal nations from across the Americas, as well as non-native allies from around the world. As the water protectors decried the violation of tribal sovereignty, the desecration of sacred sites, and the imminent threat to their only source of clean drinking water, they faced attack dogs, tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures. These protests and concurrent lawsuits were documented by citizen journalists and eventually picked up by major news outlets.
One aspect of the stand-off that did not receive much media coverage was the role that socially responsible investors played in supporting the Standing Rock Sioux in their fight against the pipeline. At the November 2017 SRI conference, remarks by Rebecca Adamson, founder of First Peoples Worldwide (an indigenous-led grant-making organization that focuses on funding local development projects in indigenous communities while creating bridges between their communities and corporations, governments, academics, NGOs and investors in their regions) were presented by Susan White, co-chair of the Investors and Indigenous Peoples Working Group (a coalition of socially-responsible investors and others dedicated to supporting indigenous peoples rights) and Sydney Morris, chair of the Calvert Advisory Council. They provided a compelling account of the behind-the-scenes support socially responsible investors lent to the cause and the results of subsequent advocacy efforts undertaken by SRI groups:
In August 2016, the tribe asked First Peoples Worldwide and the Investors and Indigenous Peoples Working Group to lead an investor strategy aimed at diverting financing from DAPL. Investors worth more than $1.7 trillion signed a statement supporting the tribe’s request for a reroute.
Shareholder resolutions requesting better disclosure of environmental and social risks (from companies invested in the pipeline project) received record-breaking vote counts: Marathon Petroleum (38%), Enbridge (30%), and Wells Fargo (19%).
Energy Transfer Partners (the lead developer of the Dakota Access Pipeline project) stock is down more than 60% since its 2014 highs.
More than 500 NGOs and over 700,000 signatures catalyzed consumer bank account closures worth over $4 billion. Three banks divested from DAPL (BNP Paribas, DNB and ING), twelve of seventeen banks met with the tribe, and ten banks signed a statement requesting changes to the Equator Principle, (an ESG risk management framework used by ninety banks worldwide) in response to investor and civil society pressure. The fight against the DAPL has placed the costs of social risk front and center on the financial industry’s radar.
In response, First Peoples Worldwide created a seminal research effort now underway with the University of Colorado’s Leeds Business School and the American Indian Law Clinic. The first case study will be titled DAPL: Social Costs and Material Loss. Leeds Business School and the American Indian Law Clinic have formed a collaborative: First Peoples Investor Engagement Program. FPIEP has dedicated faculty and graduate students who will continue the work on quantifying social risk, designing market-based strategies for upholding Indigenous rights, harnessing the activist infrastructure that emerged from DAPL for future campaigns, and offering the Shareholder Advocacy Leadership Training to tribal leaders.
Although the Standing Rock protest did not stop the construction of the pipeline, it did catalyze these and other significant advances—not least a greatly increased awareness about the continuing impacts of colonialism on First Nations people. In 2018, the Investors and Indigenous Peoples’ Working Group (of which Natural Investments is a participant) will continue to advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples. The working group will push for companies to adopt Indigenous Peoples’ Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) policies and to cease activities that harm Indigenous lands, communities, and cultures. It will also focus on building investor, corporate, and U.S. government support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And the group is committed to identifying opportunities, including strategic partnerships and investor support, to advance Indigenous community economic development initiatives.
“The SRI community made our voices heard, and we thank you,” said White and Morris, as they concluded their talk at the SRI Conference. Their eloquent presentation affirmed and deepened the commitment of Natural Investments to advance the rights of Indigenous peoples around the world through the powerful lever of impact investing.
We have some exciting news to share. This year, Natural Investments, LLC (“Natural Investments”) made some changes in the composition of its ownership. Previously, Natural Investments was equally owned by Hal Brill, Michael Kramer, and Christopher Peck. We are pleased to announce that Natural Investments is now owned by Hal Brill, Michael Kramer, Christopher Peck, James Frazier, Malaika Maphalala, and Greg Pitts. Michael Kramer and Christopher Peck still own the same percentage they owned previously. Hal Brill sold a portion of his membership interest in Natural Investments to James Frazier, Malaika Maphalala, and Greg Pitts, each of whom now owns 5% of Natural Investments.
The managers of Natural Investments remain the same. Michael Kramer and Christopher Peck have been managing members since 2007 and will continue in that role. The new owners have been Investment Advisor Representatives (IAR) with Natural Investments since 2011 for Greg Pitts, 2009 for Malaika Maphalala, and 2008 for James Frazier. Hal Brill is still an owner and an IAR, providing continuity to Natural Investments.
We expanded ownership to help sustain the long-term continuity of Natural Investments. We believe that these changes will not alter the control, management or vision of Natural Investments. All of us continue to be resolved to build a better future through a transformation of the investment world.
Please let us know any questions you might have. Feel free to contact Christopher Peck through our contact form.
Christopher, Michael, Hal, James, Malaika, and Greg
Sufficient savings, diligent budgeting, and smart financial planning are of course crucial for a comfortable retirement. Adequate income and assets are essential for the basics— food, shelter, and healthcare—and to maintain one’s lifestyle. However, money is by no means the only important consideration in retirement.
During a recent conversation with a retired couple we serve, they shared how their community organizes an abundance of volunteer activities that offer opportunities to facilitate community engagement and encourage cooperative solutions to shared social barriers. Their enthusiasm illuminates the qualitative concerns that are central to resilient investing and highly desirable for what we might call “resilient retirement”: engaged communities, adaptability, and prioritization of the common good.