I grew up moving from ‘relatively comfortable’ to verifiably wealthy. I was well provided-for, and, provided for. I never had much monetary awareness -my family always told me we were upper-middle class. A few memories of attempts to learn more are met with dismissal or outright being laughed at. With friends, I never kept my wealth hidden; still, I genuinely preferred torn t-shirts and hand-me-downs to anything gaudy or ostentatious. So, as acquaintances became friends, and they learned more about me, there usually came a point when they would ask, “Dude, you wealthy?” And I would respond, introducing humor to deflate potential tension (a favored technique of mine – keep this in mind-heart as you read on), “Dependently wealthy, yeah”
And then my mom died.
I inherited her wealth. (Though I am relatively ‘out,’ I will keep a few things – including figures – private, for the sake of others). I stretched my brain over the ways I could most do good with this money. Give it all away? (Isn’t that the neo-liberal’s dream?) Buy my own home? (Isn’t that the American dream, and the obvious investment?) Invest in green energy and human rights. Be the benefactor of my loved ones and social circle. Put it all in this school I am founding. Save the world…
Forces beyond my control made some of those decisions for me. The inheritance was divided into three separate trusts, granting me access to each as I age. Even the money I would have ‘immediate’ access to would take just about a year of legal proceedings to transfer (This proved incredibly frustrating for closure). In the meantime, my father would be the trustee. I support RG’s mission of redistribution – I give. With the money my father is ultimately responsible for, however, I preferred it be invested as cleanly as possible. He has worked in municipal finance (city money) practically his whole career. We talked about the money going to schools, low-income housing, hospitals, and infrastructure. Then, after months of talking only with my dad, I had a conversation with my financial advisors. They have advised my dad on his finances for years now. They came pre-trusted and approved. In our first conversation, however, they brought up corporate investments…
I was not ready for this. In the months of wondering the best ways to honor both my dad’s interest as the trustee in generating income, and my interest in healing the world, I was also going through a lot else: Grieving, consoling others, performing in an educational theatre troupe, navigating extremely tense relationships, fund- and friend-raising for a theater-education nonprofit, memorial service planning, moving into a temporary home in order to stage my mom’s apartment for selling, stopping a loved one from committing suicide, not failing grad school, planning a K-12 school in NYC, vetting a person who claimed my mom owed him tens of thousands of dollars, looking for a more permanent home, enduring a brief acute episode of catatonic schizophrenia, moving out of the temporary home the same day I flew across the country, staffing three different summer camps across the country, getting a vasectomy before being kicked off my family’s insurance plan WITHOUT KNOWING WHAT STATE I WOULD BE IN, recovering from a hematoma acquired from the vasectomy and losing a jar’s worth of coagulated blood from my scrotum, passing out on an airplane from the painkillers, co-directing a fourth summer camp, being triggered into a depressive episode partly inspired by the catatonic schizophrenia, hurting loved ones, processing guilt, trying to repair those relationships, moving again, breaking up a dog fight in which my dog was being grossly overpowered, and all the while being constantly, unexpectedly, triggered around my mom’s death – I was next to her in bed when it happened, on Christmas, her birthday. So I took great comfort in thinking that we could lend the money to city governments in order to build things that serve the public interest, and look up more profitable, and Pierce-friendly, corporate investments when I was damn well ready.
But the advisors did not know any of this. So yeah, when they brought up corporate investments, I pushed back a little…
Translated into the Subtext:
Pierce: See, I do not really like the economy, or pretty much everything that we have based our society on, so I was thinking we could stuff it all into municipal bonds that invest in public goods so I could provide for myself without funding systematic oppression or amassing the guilt that comes with blood money.
Advisors: Well we do this for a living, and that sounds like a very naïve approach to providing for your future. You should probably accept that in order to make money, you will hurt people, non-humans, and the planet.
Pierce: I do not really care about making this money make me more money, partly because this is plenty, and partly because I really do intend to get a paying job at some point, I swear it.
Advisors: Still, your dad and we are trying to manage this in a way that means you will never ask him for more money ever again, because he is exhausted at the idea of providing for you any more than he already has. We can look up Socially Responsible Funds and let you take a look at what we find if you want. How is that?
Pierce: My standards are very particular, but I am not going to close off conversation, because that is what creates the space for change. So, send me your recommendations, and I will see?
In the meantime, I researched investments that regenerate the Earthly community, as well as studied up on how money moves. I wanted to be prepared to have a constructive conversation. I really had no idea what their recommendations would be. Eventually, they sent them.
They walked me through the funds they had chosen, and the investment firms that offer those funds. They even cited the philanthropic tendencies of the heads of those firms. None of the funds, though, listed what companies they were actually investing in. Lack of transparency is a great big flag when you call yourself socially responsible – I know this well. So I told them I wanted to do more research before I gave it my personal okay, even though I did not even have legal control over most of the money. They agreed, and we scheduled another conversation in two days’ time.
Looking up the corporate funds proved surprisingly easy. I just opened a new tab via Tab for a Cause (which donates to causes every time you open a tab), popped the fund ID into EcoSearch (powered by Google and donates to environmental causes every time you search), and the info was there, on either the official page, Marketwatch, or Yahoo Finance. It was actually the municipal funds that were the most opaque: Though the pages list the investments, each investment project is further coded, without explaining what the projects are.
The proposal itself was basically a worst-case scenario. I personally think this list would upset a lot of people, but remember that I am a deep ecologist, feminist, indigenous-supporting, anti-racism, abolitionist vegan to boot:
Among those companies listed in only the funds labeled Socially Responsible:
Halliburton, PepsiCo, McDonald’s, Nike, Apple, Johnson & Johnson, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Time Warner, Procter & Gamble, Merck, Bank of America, Pfizer, Microsoft, Disney, and more.
There were plenty more, in addition to funds not even labeled SR. I was pretty disheartened. And very unsure of how to respond. I definitely needed to do more research. But even a day’s worth of new tabs left me disoriented and depressed. I do not mind putting work into something – I love it. But when a day’s worth of work leaves me feeling even more clueless then when I started, I get pretty discouraged.
I reached out to RG. They put me on some pretty promising paths (which I am still researching), and more importantly, they offered solace and solidarity, as well as advice on how to communicate with the advisors. I had a lot of questions. Do I really need to go through each company and explain why I disagree with what they are doing to the world? The one thing I knew for sure is that I did not want to just say, “No good, Try again,” and leave them with nothing. I wanted to be constructive. I want everything I do to be that
Once I knew some alternatives, and spoke with a few people about how to best express all the feelings and values, I wrote. I tried to acknowledge all the points going against me, including how I have already benefitted from the practices I am trying to stop. I opened with knowing I lack the legal control. I tried to focus on my feelings and needs a la Nonviolent Communication, rather than put the onus of my self-work on them. I really do not dislike them. For all the vibe of, “You are young and monetarily inexperienced” that I got from them, they were kind. And to their credit, in my own research, I learned that the SR funds they chose really are ranked as the most recommended SR funds in many top ten lists (which both astounds me and makes all the sense). They had demonstrated a willingness to work with me. I wanted to work with them.
After running the e-mail by a few friends, and gleaning a lot of really valuable feedback, I sent it a half-hour before our phone conversation. They sent me their proposal ten minutes before our previous phone conversation – I figured they might need more time with mine. I CC’d my dad. Just two hours before sending it, I told friends how much it would mean to me for my dad to acknowledge the effort I was putting into this, even if he decided to invest it all in Monsanto and PepsiCo. We had a lot of tension the past year. Ten minutes after sending the email, he responded, just to me:
Very well written and researched.
I was soaring. And crying. It simply meant a lot to me to know that I had some degree of support, whatever that translated to in monetary decisions. The advisors called me at our appointed time. They told me they were “still digesting” and had just spoken with my dad. They told me he made it clear to them that he does want me to be involved in the investing of this money. They thanked me for taking this seriously. They said the best next step would be to scratch everything, and while they research the alternatives I sent them, for me to continue researching. They cautioned that they would be still be vetting these alternatives, and to work with them on that. When I told them that I thrive off push-back, they laughed and said, “I think this is going to be a good relationship.”
And I agreed…
This is the e-mail I sent them:
Dear [Advisors’ Names]
I have CC’d my dad on this e-mail
I want to acknowledge here, as well as over the phone with you today, that I understand that I have no legal control over two-thirds of this money, and that checking in with me about this at all is mostly a favor, in some degree perhaps because of your pre-existing relationship with my dad
I also want to say here, as well as on the phone with you, that so long as you are, in fact, asking for my opinion, I will be honest with you. I was very disappointed in the investment proposal, including the Socially Responsible Funds. The SRI criteria was solely based on negative-screening (as opposed to impact investing), and the screens were not very effective
Among those companies listed in only the funds labeled Socially Responsible:
Halliburton, PepsiCo, McDonald’s, Nike, Apple, Johnson & Johnson, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Time Warner, Procter & Gamble, Merck, Bank of America, Pfizer, Microsoft, Disney, and more
Among the companies in the other corporate funds:
Burger King, Lockheed-Martin, Monsanto, British American Tobacco, Philip Morris, Kraft, Dow Chemical, Walmart, Apache, and more, some of those from the SRI funds showing up again
After reviewing these, I got curious and looked into the municipal bond funds as well. Though there were far fewer companies that I could readily identify, they did include (and I have no idea why they are included in a muni fund):
Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, Comcast, JP Morgan Chase, Delta Airlines, United Airlines, dubious connections to Tobacco, and more
Allowing for the fact that the tickers in the municipal bond funds were by far the hardest to decipher, I saw very little investment in schools, my primary interest in investments of any kind – and what I believed would be the focus of the bond investments. Municipal bonds, again, were what I believed would be the focus of all the investing
I understand the privileged position of giving voice to my concerns, combined with the un-privileged position of having no legal authority to make changes to two-thirds of them. Still, as you may have gathered, I am extremely uncomfortable with these investments, and would never consent to them. This comes from neither, as has been said, an issue with profit in and of itself, nor a dissatisfaction with a company whose CEO does not drive an electric car. This discomfort comes from having dedicated, and continually re-dedicated, my life to both ending practices carried out by these companies, and investing in a world in which I actually want to live
I will also add that I understand the very privileged position of having already benefitted from these practices. Now that I have, however, I would love to do something far more constructive with that privilege, and leverage it for the sake of that world in which I want to live, as well as for those who do not have that privilege, those who are most often marginalized by every company mentioned above
That the chairman of Blackrock and other semi-related organizations participate in philanthropy is more of a distraction than anything else, however admirable a distraction it may be (and I do appreciate Robin Hood Foundation’s mission). Far more relevant than what the chairman of Blackrock does in his spare time, however (which, to be on the board of a non-profit, with the funds he surely has, can be as little as the time it takes to write a check and attend dinner parties), is that Vanguard and Blackrock are, respectively, the number 1 and 2 shareholders of for-profit prisons in the United States. While philanthropy is a worthy cause, even essential, it is far more essential to actively invest in a world in which philanthropy is much less necessary
I realize that your interest in providing for me births an interest in maximizing the profits to do so. Reviewing the complicated nightmare that is Socially Responsible Investing, I recognize that you have chosen funds that are repeatedly marked as the most popular. The conflict is that they are popular because of their profits, and not because of their social responsibility. Given that there is no third-party verification for the SRI stamp, it is much closer to “All Natural” than “Organic” or “Fair Trade”. This is why I make a practice of reviewing the ingredients. As a vegan against genetic engineering, I have a lot experience with the food industry. And while I am still learning the financial world, I am doing my best here. I do not want to tell you “No thanks” and leave it at that. I have looked at a number of options, not nearly all of them, and while still confused, I present you with what seem to me to be the most favorable to explore
I also realize that all this comes out of the interest in diversifying the portfolio. For that reason, I ask: Is diversifying the portfolio solely among municipal bonds (focused on schools, low-income housing, and infrastructure) not enough? Would the money not still be safe and profit-generating, short of a city-, state-, nation-, or world-wide disaster? Focusing on the municipal funds for now may allow more time to research alternatives
Still, I leave with you what I have found. I realize that I am more interested in pursuing this than most, and that even these Socially Responsible funds are not entirely transparent. It was (surprisingly – to me) difficult enough just to determine which were profit-generating and which where donation-based (I believe I have only included the profit-generating ones here, though I am not completely sure about a few of them)
There are, of course, many other options to explore. I have yet to research: community development financial institutions (CDFI), targeted CDs at credit unions, slow money and sustainable agriculture, B corps, L3Cs, benefit corporations, co-op loan funds, and more
I do think, as well as hope, that exploring these options will help you as well as me, as there is increasing interest in integrous investing
Thank you for your time and consideration. I really do appreciate it
Love & Gratitude
Two Examples of Rubrics for Sincere SRIs:
Pierce, thank you for sharing! And I would love to see another installment when you get a chance to look into more of these – I know a lot of us have similar struggles.
Wow, Pierce. That was a really touching and personal blog post. I can’t imagine the courage and self exploration you had to muster in order to have those conversations, and have them with, what sounds like, an incredible amount of integrity. Not sure what kind of responses you’ve gotten to this post, but I know it can sometimes feel weird to put all this out there into the interwebs and maybe or maybe not get much feedback or reply. Just wanted to say well done–I’m proud to be a part of RG with you, and truly, thanks for writing.
Super informational and I agree with Dad, very well-written! Thanks for spreading the word about Tab for a Cause, I’m so excited to use it! Great article!
A moving and helpful story. I would check out The Reinvestment Fund and the Institute for Community Economics as potential CDFI investment alternatives.