Nonprofit Endowments and Values-Driven Investing
Current efforts to pressure colleges and universities to divest from fossil fuel companies demonstrate why most nonprofits should adopt official investment policies – policies that take values into account.
Elite colleges and universities are fundraising machines that run sophisticated endowment building proposals. These institutions devote whole teams to donor research and recognition. Most of the nation’s 1.1 million nonprofits never have the staffing and other resources necessary to replicate the scale of higher education fundraising. But, as I often tell professional and lay leaders, even the smallest organizations can emulate certain aspects of what the Harvards and Yales of the world do so well. And we can also learn something valuable from studying how universities respond when faced with challenges – specifically one of the most vexing challenges of our time.
Colleges and universities, in particular, are facing increasing pressure to divest their holdings from fossil fuel companies. Doing so could potentially take a major chunk out of their holdings. Not doing so could potentially put institutions on the wrong side of the climate change issue.
WHYY, the NPR affiliate in Philadelphia, recently called attention to this dilemma by focusing on Swarthmore College. It is an elite, liberal arts college that is situated in a charming and bucolic suburban Philadelphia setting and tends to turn out progressively-minded and activist oriented students. It also happens to be among the wealthiest small colleges in the nation, with an endowment topping $2 billion. Students at Swarthmore and at other universities have been conducting sit-ins of administration buildings in a push to get the institutions to divest any holdings in the world’s top 200 fossil fuel firms.
Explaining the reasoning behind the protest, Swarthmore senior Sara Blazevic told WHYY that “Divestment is a way for our school, as an institution with a lot of social standing and a lot of clout, to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry.”
The divestment effort at Swarthmore dates to 2011. While students and activists haven’t had much success in getting the university to change its investment policies, the movement scored a major victory earlier this month when Syracuse University, with its $1.2 billion endowment, announced it was divesting from fossil fuel companies.
Activists have long targeted college endowment funds to make political and social statements and drive change – with mixed results. Back in the 1980s, successful efforts to get universities to divest holdings in South African companies helped further isolate the Apartheid era regime. Tobacco and soft drink companies have also been targeted. There are many reasons to explain the national decline in smoking rates between the 1970s and 1990s and divestment campaigns do not top that list.
Climate change is, to say the least, a complicated issue. While it is increasingly difficult to deny climate change is happening, there’s a lack of real solutions to this global problem issue that involves governments across the developing and industrialized world, multinational corporations, and billions of people.
Highlighting the uncomfortable role that climate change has occupied in our cultural discourse, novelist Jonathan Franzen struck a raw nerve with many environmental activists in a recent New Yorker piece in which he accepted climate change “as the environmental issue of our time, but I felt bullied by its dominance. Not only did it make every grocery-store run a guilt trip; it made me feel selfish for caring more about birds in the present than people in the future.”
I quote this just to give a sense of how many sides there are to the climate change debate. Not all climate change activists agree that divestment is the wisest strategy. In my mind, I am not ready to liken oil companies to apartheid era South Africa or even the tobacco industry.
Regardless of how I feel personally, Swarthmore’s representative came off sounding a little hallow in the WHYY piece, explaining why the college rejected fossil fuel divestment in 2013.
“Primarily because we thought divestment would be too costly,” Gil Kemp, chair of the school’s Board of Managers, told WHYY. He said the move would cost the school’s endowment $11 to $15 million a year.
Now, I know that $15 million is a large figure, but compared to $2 billion it is a drop in the bucket. For an institution that places such a strong emphasis on social justice and activism to give a response based on dollars and cents comes across as somewhat tone deaf. Now, to be fair, he also did say that “Reducing our carbon footprint is a more effective way of dealing with this very real issue of climate change and global warming.”
People have come to ascribe certain values to Swarthmore. The school’s response should have included language based on values, less on dollars and cents. Perhaps, in hindsight, they should have assigned a different representative to serve as the face of the school in the piece.
In the wake of the Madoff scandal and the Great Recession, all nonprofits should have learned lessons about oversight and transparency and operate with sound investment guidelines. Regardless of a nonprofit’s endowment size, these guidelines should be drafted and adopted at the board level. They should address critical investment strategies that blend best practices with institutional philosophies.
Institutions need fiscal guidelines to manage investments. But, increasingly, they also need values guidelines. Supporters and stakeholders are increasingly demanding that every holding be mission-driven and appropriate to high standards.
If Swarthmore is getting pressured today to divest from fossil fuel companies, your church or synagogue may face the same chorus in a few months or years. Why not include statements about values and mission in your organization’s investment policy? General guidelines are good, specifics are even better. Will an organization invest in big tobacco or big oil? A board may decide it is more important to maximize funds to aid the nonprofit in its mission than to make a social statement. It is better to have these discussions in advance, to be prepared for questions and challenges, than to try and play catch up after the fact. Not only is it the right thing to do from a public relations perspective, it is the right thing to do from a moral one as well.
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