Friday, August 26, 2005


Stephen Viederman, former president of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation and co-founder of the Initiative for Fiduciary Responsibility, emailed Philanthropica some time ago with some fantastic resources on socially responsible investing (SRI) and the power of institutional investors to change the world for the better through shareholder resolutions and strategic investments. You can email Viederman here for those resources. They were just a few articles but very interesting stuff.

I'm extrapolating here and more than likely projecting, but I detected three major themes for philanthropists in his works:
  1. agents: philanthropy is mainly the province of large institutions run by elites, a group of folks Robert Monks simply called "top people;"

  2. aims: the philanthropy of these large institutions tends to favor the status quo; and

  3. actions: many foundations have become grant factories, forgoing the responsibility to consider the political, social, and environmental consequences of their investments out of a misplaced concern for the bottom line (when evidence shows that SRI can actually produce better results).

Reading through the articles, I am struck by the tremendous democratizing power of SRI. You'll notice that these themes basically describe a philanthropy of, by, and for elites as opposed to a more democratic philanthropy of, by, and for the people. Institutional investors, particularly foundations, can exert a powerful check on corporate power through their status as investors. We do tremendous good with our grants; imagine the good that could be accomplished via shareholder resolutions and the like.

SRI also democratizes the investment discussion. One of the things that I think keeps the philanthropic world in the shadows is that a lot of people don't know how foundations work exactly. The simple mechanics of it are lost on many who just see rich people giving money away here or there (or not). Furthermore, even those in the foundation world (and you find this, for instance, when training new board members) don't quite understand how the investment side of foundations works. I don't always anyway. With SRI, however, investments aren't an esoteric analysis of economic forces and trends but a consideration of the political, social, environmental, moral, and cultural implications of one's investments as well as that analysis. This makes investment not just a discussion for the financially hyperliterate but for everyone. I may not understand how to protect the bottom line in the way my expert investment manager would, but I do know that I don't want to compromise my mission through dealing with certain types of companies and that I might need to change how I deal with a company to make a difference. SRI makes that desire part of the investment equation, and it's brilliant.

Thanks to Steve for sending the stuff our way.

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