Unleashing The Power of the 95%

By Rini Banerjee, Interim Executive Director at Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation

This post is part of “Liberate Philanthropy,” a new blog series curated by Justice Funders to re-imagine and practice philanthropy free of its current constraints — the accumulation and privatization of wealth, and the centralization of power and control — to one that redistributes wealth, democratizes power and shifts economic control to communities. Throughout the series, we will be sharing stories from some of our most forward thinking, transformational leaders in philanthropy about how they are facilitating a Just Transition for philanthropy.

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history…If we do not act [,] we shall surely be dragged down…” -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1967

In the early 1990s, I was a junior financial analyst for Citibank. I just graduated with a Bachelors degree from New York University, Stern School of Business and was ready to hit Wall Street. Back then there was no impact investing field, no Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) investing and no conversations on how extractive financial practices enable deep poverty and inequity. I didn’t last that long in my job. I needed and wanted to work in a field that actually creates long-term systemic impact that stays accountable to the communities they aim to serve.

The last eighteen years, I have been working in the social justice philanthropic field and have done significant donor organizing to push the needle in funding women, girls, and LGBT rights in the U.S and globally. Most of the institutions I have worked at have tried to do their grantmaking with integrity and accountability.

The progress has been slow and steady to unlock more funding for social justice organizations to do the deep work of ending structural injustices. But it is now time for philanthropic institutions to look internally and at their endowments where 95% of its wealth is locked up, and unleash its potential towards a more generative, sustainable, and just economy.

For the past thirty years, Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation has been at the leading edge of funding grassroots organizing in the United States. We are a philanthropic institution that keeps pushing the field to do better, whether it is in social justice grantmaking or aligning its endowment towards social justice goals. At Noyes, we have a mantra that the activation of our endowment — the 95% of our investment capital — MUST be mission-aligned. This concept isn’t the norm because many foundations believe that mission-aligned investing doesn’t equal increased financial return and will diminish its asset base.

However, there are numerous studies that have shown that impact investments can outperform the market. Demand for socially responsible funds and investments are also being driven by many millennials with wealth who are demanding their traditional wealth managers to look at these financial vehicles. At its core, the impact investing field is trying to bring finance back to balance that seeks a socially and environment just society.

I believe justice-oriented philanthropic institutions that aren’t using a mission-aligned investing approach are obstructing the effectiveness of the social justice field.

At Noyes, we seek to invest our $65 million endowment in companies that provide commercial solutions to major social and environmental problems and/or build corporate culture geared toward advancing equity, opportunity, and community.

The Foundation will consider:

- The environmental impact of a business by its use of materials, generation of waste, and the goods it produces or services it provides;
- Issues of corporate governance, including selection of directors, role of independent directors, diversity on the board and executive team, compensation policies, relations with labor unions, employee benefits programs or other demonstrated commitments to the well–being of all individuals involved in an enterprise; and
- A corporation’s openness and accountability to all stakeholders, its local job creation, its corporate giving to and active involvement with community organizations, or its other initiatives that provide net benefits to the local economy.
With the fierce urgency of now, we’ve also leveraged our power as asset holders to push the investment advisor community to think more deeply and critically about how to advance the field of social impact investing.

In fact, in our recent search for a mission- and values-aligned investment advisor, we used the LOI process to pose questions to the investment advisor community about the future of social justice investing, and the appropriate strategies for achieving truly equitable returns. The Noyes board was hopeful that this search will help educate the Foundation on the state of the impact investing field and the options for an investment manager that can provide comprehensive services as well as secure involvement from the Foundation board and staff in investment selection and criteria that is mission aligned.

Given the accelerated pace of innovation and growth in the sustainable, responsible and impact investing field; we had an open call to the investment community to provide letters of interest as the first stage of our advisor search. We asked some critical questions in this phase:

- What does “social justice investing” look like now and in the future?
- What does corporate accountability mean in an era of globalization of capital and supply chains? How does this translate into portfolio selection?
- How can our mission aligned investment portfolio drive the creation of systemic impact in the areas of social justice, equality, human rights, health, and diversity?
- How can the practices and culture of our investment advisors and fund managers embody our values and mission of social justice and equality?
- What investment resources do the grassroots social justice organizations, Noyes support need in order to develop sustainable and viable operations?

They board also decided to share the results of the broader field questions with the philanthropic and investment community. In June, we released a report of the key takeaways from our investment advisor search that provides a snapshot of the current state of the investment advisor community’s ability to integrate social impact into the investment process. At a high level, the process confirmed two broad observations about the world of investment advisors for foundation investments.

First, impact investing services are proliferating that combines traditional portfolio management discipline and access to products with commercial returns. This debunks the theory that impacting investing is niche.

Second, the investment advisor field lacks diversity whether internally and/or a diversity of managers in firms’ databases. The investment profession remains overwhelmingly white and has a way to go in reflecting the diversity of America, where the population of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and other people of color is growing. More than 79% of the 434,000 financial advisers in the nation are white with people of color representing 27.7% of financial analysts, 26.7% of accountants and 35.3% of tax preparers, according to U.S. Census data.

Ultimately, working with investment advisors will require active engagement and open communication about our aspirations for organizational change in the industry and our firm belief in social justice investing.

Noyes will have to continue to be a financial activist in the impact investing field and ask directed questions on race and gender, the social and environmental value-add of particular investment managers, and ways to engage low-resourced communities into the work to make it truly accountable and have real impact.

The urgency of now — from immigrant families being torn apart to the criminalization and divestment of low-resourced communities — compels the Noyes Foundation to keep pushing within our grantmaking and investments to become more committed, knowledgeable and skilled for justice and equity. I hope that anyone working on foundation endowment management will critically explore the full activation of mission aligned investing for long-term systemic change. Please join me on this investment journey to regenerate our land, invest in people powered solutions, and build a beloved community.

Rini Banerjee is a financial activist that advocates for gender and racial justice. She is the Interim Executive Director at Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation and a RSF Integrated Capital Fellow. She has worked in social justice philanthropy for over 18 years.