One of the most interesting aspects about my job is learning things about my clients that perhaps even their closest friends or family don’t know. I feel fortunate to connect with people on such intimate topics, like how they want to invest, spend, or donate their hard-earned money.
Given that most of our clients are wealthy individuals and families, it probably wouldn’t surprise you to hear that many are extremely charitable. At Strategic Wealth Partners, we believe we can provide a lot of value by integrating charitable planning into the financial planning process.
Some of our clients, however, want to make an impact beyond giving directly to a charity, and seek to proactively align their portfolios with their values. If you are interested in different ways to (metaphorically speaking) put your money where your heart is, below I will share some information about the often desirable (yet occasionally confounding) strategies of Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) and Impact Investing.
Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) – “Avoiding the Bad”
There are many investment vehicles available that market themselves as “socially responsible.” In fact, roughly one out of every five dollars managed professionally in the U.S. is invested using a Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) strategy according to the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment*.
Typically structured as a mutual fund or exchange-traded fund (ETF), these funds often seek to avoid investing in companies that operate in certain industries (alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and gambling are common industries that are excluded) and favor companies that are engaged and/or rate highly in things like environmental sustainability, social justice, clean energy, etc. Of course, besides the potentially desirable characteristics of the socially responsible strategies described, mutual funds and ETFs have several benefits – diversification, professional management, and marketability come quickly to mind.
Limitation: Lack of Control
One inherent limitation of these types of vehicles, however, is the lack of control an investor has over the underlying holdings. When you invest in a mutual fund or an ETF, you can usually see the underlying holdings…but only at a point in time. The manager of the fund decides what securities are included, not the investor. Also, who is to say what is “responsible” or “not responsible?” You don’t have to look too far these days to realize that not everyone agrees on many of these things!
Is There an Easy Way to Gain More Control?
If you want to have more control over the companies in which you invest, you can always trade your own account and simply buy what you like and avoid what you dislike. If you prefer having a professional manage your account for you, but you wish to impose certain restrictions, you may be able to do that via a “separately-managed account” (or SMA) structure. Similar to mutual funds and ETFs, SMAs allow for professional management and diversification. However, unlike mutual funds and ETFs, with an SMA you actually own the underlying securities in your name. This is arguably a preferred structure for many investors, but SMAs typically come with a minimum investment of $250,000 or more.
Impact Investing – “Do Well By Doing Good”
Perhaps one of the next great frontiers of the investment universe is the broad category of Impact Investments. Whereas many SRIs could loosely be described as “avoiding the bad,” an Impact Investment aims to generate specific beneficial social or environmental effects in addition to financial gain. A phrase you may hear from an impact investor is “do well by doing good.”
Investing in a start-up that has a socially-conscious mission would be an example of Impact Investing. Another major area for Impact Investing is that of microfinance loans, which can provide capital to business owners in smaller, emerging markets that may not have other opportunities to access loans. Other categories include companies focused on environmental issues, women’s initiatives, sustainable agriculture, affordable housing, healthcare, and education.
Not for the Everyday Investor?
The Impact Investing landscape is still in the early innings of development and maturity. Some of our clients who invest in Impact-oriented strategies do so knowing that there is a very real chance they will lose much or all of their investment. While Impact Investments are intended to make money, investors may accept lower financial returns if other, non-financial goals are achieved (e.g. a certain number of jobs were created as a result of the investment). However, proponents of this space argue that sacrificing financial return is not a given.
Often, these investments are private, and they may be sourced through exclusive networking channels that aren’t available to the typical investor. The due diligence required is arguably more substantial than what is required for other types of investments. That said, an Impact Investing strategy can be deeply fulfilling for the right investor.
When asked about the decision to coordinate their family’s investment strategy with their family values, one Strategic Wealth Partners client (a couple in their mid-50s) had this to say: “After the sale of our business, we repurposed our lives and began intentionally stewarding our resources to make a positive difference in the world. We have pursued impact investment opportunities through public equities, private equity and debt vehicles. We are committed to achieving measurable social, spiritual and financial returns.”
If you consider yourself a socially conscious individual, and wish to incorporate some of what you have read into your investment portfolio, Strategic Wealth Partners can help to potentially integrate various SRI and/or Impact Investment strategies in coordination with your overall financial plan.