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Trillium News

October 4, 2011

Guest Column: What’s In Your College’s Wallet?

Do you know what’s in your investment portfolio? If Trillium to manages your investments, you probably do. You have likely also thought about your values, and are confident that your money is working to have a positive impact through shareholder activism and investing in low-income communities and sustainable businesses.

But do you know what’s in your alma mater’s portfolio? Your donations to your university’s endowment support its operations for years to come.

Across the country university presidents have focused on greening their campuses. LEED-certified buildings have been built at many schools, alternative sources of energy from wind to methane digesters are being installed, and hundreds have signed up to the Presidents’ Campus Climate Commitment. These efforts certainly conform to the standard vision of college in America as an idyllic bastion of thoughtful, liberal consideration, where research and teaching are done and administrations make carefully considered decisions in the best interests of their students and stakeholders.

Yet investment policies have lagged, perhaps because investment decisions are often detached from the general campus culture. In some cases the offices are even hundreds of miles away.

Institutions of higher education are 501(c)3 public-benefit institutions with a mission of education and research and an obligation to serve the broader community. One can envision a world where colleges invest money locally in their community and in sustainable investments worldwide, fulfilling their broader mission while still make substantial investment returns.

The Responsible Endowments Coalition (REC) is working to make that vision a reality while training the next generation of responsible investment leaders. REC works with students, faculty and administrators to promote responsible investing of all kinds, from shareholder engagement to community investment.

In one recent example, students from Carleton College in Minnesota represented the school’s Responsible Investment Committee at a recent annual meeting of 3M Corporation. They spoke in support of a shareholder resolution addressing the company’s political contributions policy, which lags substantially behind those of many other companies.1 Their outspokenness garnered substantial press in the local media, drawing attention to the company and the school, where otherwise the topic may have gone without much coverage.

Students who are involved in responsible investment gain substantial experience working with administrators and confronting corporate power. They leave school to become leaders who understand the power of money and how to use it to do good things.

In another example, students at Fordham University saw the great disparity between the school and its Bronx neighborhood. They describe the school as “a beautiful campus with walls” and have been disappointed with its relationship to the community. The student group Fordham For The Bronx pressed the university to invest money into community development financial institutions – community controlled organizations that provide better services to low-income communities.

Students from Fordham attended REC’s conference at Columbia in the fall of 2010, organized teach-ins and events on campus, and after building student support, successfully convinced their administration to invest $500,000 in two community investment institutions in the Bronx, Bethex Federal Credit Union and Amalgamated Bank.

Higher education’s $350 billion dollars in endowments is money that should be aligned with its mission.

REC is advocating nationally for responsible investment at colleges and universities, but these institutions need to hear from their graduates as well.

To press your alma mater (or your child’s) to change its policies, write to your university’s president when you make your next donation. For more information visit REC at www.endowmentethics.org


1. The proposal was co-sponsored by Trillium Asset Management and Walden Asset Management.

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