Socially Responsible Investing?

The following is a guest blog by Joby Gelbspan, who has leads a ProfDev training every August on Socially Responsible Investing. These trainings are hosted by Socializing for Justice. SoJust is a grassroots, cross-cultural, cross-issue progressive community, network and movement in Boston based on the philosophies of abundance and radical inclusion.

SoJust draws progressives of all stripes that share common progressive values but may work on different issues. We create social spaces in Boston that allow for the possibility of cross-issue connections, and run a monthly ProfDev Series, hosted by The NonProfit Center, which provides affordable professional development trainings to increase our individual capacity for movement building. Robbie Samuels co-founded SoJust in 2006, our 10th anniversary party is on September 22nd. Learn more and RSVP

Socially Responsible Investing?

Here is Joby’s PowerPoint from her 2016 presentation.

A life immersed in activism and movement-building has blessed me with an abundance of friends who are smart, thoughtful, and committed to making the world a more just and safer place. From employment decisions to daily purchases, most of them understand that their economic choices have important social consequences. But I am frequently surprised by how few progressives and activists feel empowered when it comes to savings and investment — to building wealth.

Whether it’s the intimidating jargon or feeling overwhelmed, or an understandable mistrust of Wall Street, the temptation to check out and keep one’s money under the proverbial mattress is all too common. But the mattress will, of course, not even keep up with inflation. Sustaining a movement requires that we support ourselves and those who depend on us. Refusing to invest is not necessarily the most constructive choice for building a sustainable future personally, or for advancing your vision more broadly.

How can investing be “socially responsible?” The definition should vary from one person to the next, but there’s no reason to assume that valuing social justice is incompatible with successful investing. Like any other form of privilege, wealth is a form of power. To quote Alice Walker, “the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Rather than seek to disavow our power, we ought to inhabit it in ways that undermine that and other hierarchies of privilege. To me, “responsibility” means living accountably, and making choices that promote public and planetary health, universal human rights and democracy.

Socially responsible investing has grown into a widespread industry. Today many firms offer products and services to help investors avoid supporting socially or environmentally destructive corporations, for instance excluding weapons, fossil fuels or tobacco corporations. Some also use the assets they manage to build a power-base for more activist corporate engagement, such as filing shareholder resolutions to change corporate policies and practices. If you’re willing to spend a little more time, you can also research your own “picks” according to your priorities, whether you want to focus on companies that build renewable energy alternatives, treat their employees decently, or commit to abstain from corporate lobbying and political contributions.

Financial privilege, like any other, obligates us to take ownership of the effects our decisions have on the broader society, present and future. To me, investing with progressive values means literally owning that privilege, and taking responsibility for my financial choices. This includes sustaining our own future, personal and collective. Most importantly, it means refusing to be intimidated into passivity. If you are clear about your values and goals, your finances should be able to consistently reflect those same priorities.

Joby Gelbspan is a lifelong progressive activist who has dedicated her career to “translating finance for activists.” She holds a Master’s in Accounting and an MBA, with financial and management experience ranging from non-profit organizations to the investment management industry. She has served grassroots, progressive organizations for over a decade as a Board Member, CFO and Financial Consultant. She currently coordinates strategic corporate and financial research to support Corporate Accountability International’s campaigns challenging the abuses of transnational corporations and the World Bank.