This spring, a tiny investment firm made waves by disrupting one of the world’s largest companies. Five months earlier, the upstart investment manager Engine No. 1 began lobbying Exxon to more aggressively confront climate change.
Though Engine No. 1 owned only 0.02% of the shares of the energy giant, it convinced the asset managers who control massive holdings of almost every publicly traded firm in the world—BlackRock, State Street, and Vanguard—to back its play; and on May 26 the little activist investor gained two board seats at Exxon and a mandate to radically revamp one of the largest organizations in the world.
Activist investing is, of course, nothing new. Christians helped to ignite the trend when in 1971, holding just 0.004% of General Motors shares, the Episcopal Church offered a resolution at General Motors’ annual meeting to cease manufacturing operations in apartheid South Africa.
The move was supported by GM’s lone black board member, Leon Sullivan, a pastor of the Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia. It was ultimately defeated, garnering only 1.29% of the vote, but ended up shifting GM’s policies in South Africa resulting in the adoption by IBM and GM of the “Sullivan Principles” in 1976.
Today, public battles over the direction of companies are often fought between activist groups, investors, and company management teams over issues as diverse as racial justice, voting rights, climate change, and gun control.
Adjacent to the activist sphere, “impact investing,” investing that prioritizes a missional objective over returns, has swept the world—resulting in micro-finance to help entrepreneurs in developing nations, infrastructure for water and electricity in neglected areas, and other social initiatives from Malawi and Indonesia to the inner cities of Atlanta and Detroit.
And ESG investing—which prioritizes holding companies accountable for positive “environmental, social, and governance” policies—is now mandated by almost every large pension plan, endowment, foundation, and sovereign wealth fund in the world.
One study has found nearly $38 trillion in assets are already ESG-compliant globally, growing to $55 trillion over the next four years. And that number underestimates the percent of assets invested in public and private companies that have an explicit social agenda.
Long prior to the Episcopal Church’s righteous stand against apartheid, the religious faithful recognized the need for this kind of values-based investing. Muslim Shariah compliant funds have been around since the 1960s, based on principles espoused in the Quran. Jewish law in biblical times mandated certain provisions related to ethical investing.
And Christians have a long history of recognizing the importance of the impact our money can have. In the 1800s, John Wesley encouraged Methodists to avoid profiting at the expense of their neighbors, avoiding investments in alcohol, tobacco, weapons, and gambling. Quakers and Methodists both vigorously opposed the slave trade. And these decisions were grounded in biblical principles.
The story of the five talents in Matthew 25 famously extolls the virtues of investing wisely and of growing and stewarding the resources God has given us. Ecclesiastes 7:2 reflects on the need to diversify, stating, “Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight; you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.”
The Bible’s most frequent demands, of course, are to give generously and to resist a love of money. But there’s also a call for those with material resources to use them for God’s kingdom more broadly.
Now Christians are slowly reawakening to a principle much of the rest of society has already embraced: All investing is impact investing.
Every dollar we put to work has impact, positive or negative, on the world around us. Large asset managers vote passive shares held by tens of millions of people around the world, often with defined agendas shareholders of those funds know little about. Hedge funds take over company boards and force change. And small venture and private equity firms own and guide the businesses in our local communities.
Every day, the holdings of individual men and women in 529 and 401(k) plans, individual accounts, defined benefit plans, and donor advised funds are quietly shaping the culture and agenda of corporations, start-ups, and small businesses around the world. And right now, your dollars are at work for these purposes, whether you know it or not.
But Investing is hard. And few individuals or institutions have the capacity to analyze every investing decision they make for its social impact. So, what can the average Christian institution or individual do? A few thoughts:
1. Make Conscious Decisions About Your Investing Strategy and Values
You or your institution (e.g., pension plan, endowment, or employer) likely have a giving strategy or a corporate mission. You also operate by a set of values. What are the values you hope to reinforce with your investing? And what is your strategy for impact?
Take a moment to actually write down a mission and values for your investment dollars and contemplate those areas (e.g., international development, health care, education, etc.) in which you hope to have the greatest effect. This is particularly important for charitable dollars.
We are often very thoughtful about our giving strategy. But many charitable foundations distribute as few as 5% of their assets annually without being similarly thoughtful about the impact of the 95% that remains invested. Learning to consider the impact of the 90% of our dollars that are invested versus the 10% or less that are given is an essential path to more holistic social impact.
2. Support Firms and Leaders Aligned With Your Values
Few individuals or institutions have the capacity to both pursue market returns and vigilantly monitor the impact of the money they deploy. But you do have the option to invest through advisers and investment consultants and with asset managers or companies you can trust on your behalf—those that are mission-aligned and dedicated, ensuring both financial success and impact. Trusting our capital to values-aligned parties can offer a shortcut to more careful investment choices.
Today, a host of wealth managers and investment managers exist that are specifically faith-aligned. Leveraging them can allow you to have greater confidence that your values are being reflected in your investment decisions without you having to study every position you take.
3. Use Your Voice
Most shareholder voting in America is guided by a few large firms—proxy voters like ISS and Glass Lewis and passive investors like BlackRock and Vanguard. As Engine No. 1 shows—marshaling the votes of those organizations can dramatically change a company’s direction.
Talk to your index provider, investment manager, or adviser about issues important to you. If you hold individual stocks, use your shares to vote on important issues and make your voice heard. And if you’re an investor in venture or private equity funds, you can encourage your funds to represent your values with the companies they back—many of which may operate in your own community and over which these firms have great influence or control.
What Will Your Impact Be?
In all of this, the perfect need not be the enemy of the good. We may decide not to weigh in on certain issues and to allow pluralism in beliefs on certain subjects in our portfolios. No company or investment firm will hold exactly our values, nor should they. But we can at least be conscious of the most important values our portfolios proactively represent.
Almost all of us have a stake in global markets, and those stakes can have purpose. They can also be used to forward agendas and causes misaligned with your most fundamental beliefs. If all investing is impact investing, what impact will you have?
This article was originally published in “On Purpose,” John Coleman’s newsletter.
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