Investing for a Better World

There is more to investment returns than money.

Imagine what we could accomplish if each one of us invested even a small amount of money towards making the world a better place to live now and in the future.

Before we get started, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that you invest any amount of money in any particular way. It is your money so you are the person best equipped to determine if and how you want to invest it.

My goal for this post is to you encourage you to think about your own investing philosophy and to evaluate whether it aligns with your values and the world in which you want to live.

Until the last ten years or so, I would say my investment focus was on growing my money (return) and trying to avoid losing it (risk). I am not saying this is a bad thing, but it is a rather narrow way of looking at financial investments.

I cannot pinpoint any particular event or even a year when my view of what constitutes an investment began expanding but I think it co-evolved with my desire to live more lightly on Earth.

For instance, in 2013, my spouse and I invested in a rooftop solar panel system for our home. Mostly we wanted to help build renewable energy capacity in our community; however, the free electricity down the road was also an enticement.

We joined the SLO Natural Foods Co-op in 2014 because we wanted to buy and eat delicious organic food and support local and regional farmers and food businesses.

After talking about it for years, in 2015, my spouse and I finally rolled our IRAs out of traditional bond and equity mutual funds into fossil fuel-free socially responsible investments. In this case, our goal was to invest in companies and organizations that are screened for environmental, social, and governance performance as well as risk and return criteria.

Last year, we began looking for a small investment opportunity where we live in San Luis Obispo County, CA. Two weeks ago, this quest landed us in an all day Saturday workshop entitled Align Your Financial Portfolio with Your Values hosted by Slow Money San Luis Obispo.

That day I realized something that I think has been percolating in the back of mind for some time. There is an investment space between charitable giving and traditional investing.

Financial people refer to this as impact and/or regenerative investing. I like to think of it as making-the-world-a-better-place investing.

Before we talk about the workshop and regenerative investing, it will probably be helpful for you to have a bit of background about the Slow Money movement.

Slow Money Movement

The Slow Money movement is led by the nonprofit Slow Money Institute whose mission is catalyzing the flow of capital to local food systems, connecting investors to the places where they live and promoting new principles of fiduciary responsibility that “bring money back down to earth.”

They accomplish this through a variety of approaches including public meetings, on-farm events, pitch fests, peer-to-peer loans, investment clubs and, most recently, nonprofit clubs making 0% loans.

Slow Money SLO Farm to Buyer Mixer Event Sign

Slow Money groups are independent organizations that adhere to Slow Money principles and facilitate investments and loans within their community and region.

I met Slow Money San Luis Obispo founder, Jeff Wade, at a Central Coast Bioneers conference last November and signed up for the email newsletter list. When the workshop announcement landed in my email inbox, I knew I wanted to go so I talked my spouse into attending and signed us up.

Values-Based Investment Workshop

Marco Vangelisti

Our instructor for the day was Marco Vangelisti, a founding member of the Slow Money movement. For a mathematics whiz and former investment manager, he was a surprisingly down to earth and humorous speaker and kept me engaged throughout the day.

Some of the things we learned during the workshop included how in traditional investing a tree only has value once it becomes lumber, how banks create money using accounting entries, and how corporation stock prices are inflated because they benefit from free ecosystem services provided by Mother Nature.

Marco gave us a crash course in portfolio management and due diligence. He explained regenerative investing and gave us examples. We also talked about direct investing, which is where you make an investment directly with an entrepreneur or business.

Investment Compass

Just before lunch, Marco asked us to determine our personal investment compass. He handed out pieces of flip chart paper and colored markers. Using my limited artistic skills, I drew my investment lens (see featured image at top), which are things I consider now when making an investment.

The SLO Natural Foods Co-op prepared a delicious lunch for us and Jeff provided reusable coffee mugs, napkins, and tableware in the interest of making the workshop a low impact event.

Regenerative Investing

The word regenerate means reborn, renewed, restored, reformed, and reestablished. Regenerative systems keep going indefinitely.

When you make a regenerative investment, you are purposefully investing with the intention of generating a positive social and environmental impact.

The main return is not financial. It is things like bringing a grocery market to an inner city food desert, helping a young organic farmer obtain access to farmland, or enabling a school to install solar panels over their parking lot.

Regenerative investing is democratizing investing because it enables people to make small investments (as little as $25) or large ones and gives a wider range of entrepreneurs and businesses access to financial capital.

You might get your money back. You might get your money back with a small amount of interest. You might not get your money back at all. This is true for other kinds of investments, too.

As we were wrapping up the final Q&A session of the workshop, Marco asked each one of us to tell the group one thing that we learned or got out of the workshop.

Colorful Handprints Surrounding Earth
Shutterstock/Holmes Su

The idea that stuck in my mind is that when you make regenerative investments you are investing in “livable future insurance” for you, your children, and people of the future.

I hope reading this post challenged your view of what constitutes an investment return and inspires you to create your own personal investment compass.

Featured Image at Top: This is my investment lens drawing from the workshop.

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Resources

Dark Money – Book Review

Stand up for our democracy or it will cease to exist.

Dark Money is the book you do not want to read that you must read if you care about the Earth and the people who live on it.

Not long ago, I was wandering through the non-fiction book aisles in the San Luis Obispo Library scanning the shelves for interesting books. I occasionally use this random approach to book selection because it enables me to spot books that are worth reading that may not be on my “to read” list.

Dark Money: the Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, by Jane Mayer, published January 19, 2016, is one of those books.

The first thing that caught my attention was that there were three copies of the book sitting on the shelf. That seemed significant because the Library is well stocked but not big.

Dark Money Book Cover


The dark blue book spines were emblazoned with the title Dark Money in gold lettering and the Great Seal of the United States had been modified to show the bald eagle holding a bag of money instead of an olive branch in its right talon.

Intrigued I pulled the book off the shelf, read the book jacket text, and scanned the table of contents. It did indeed seem like a dark book to read, but an important one so I checked it out.

Book Review

Essentially Dark Money is a history of how, beginning in the 1970s, a small group of billionaires, spearheaded by Charles and David Koch and a few others has been systematically taking control of the U.S. federal government and infiltrating state governments.

What is their mission? They claim to be libertarians who believe in small government, liberty, and freedom for all Americans.

However, their actions tell a different story.

Readers you are about to embark on a journey through the hidden world of money in politics as Jane Mayer unravels thousands of threads that lead to the organizations who shield their billionaire donors that call the shots.

Dark Money unfolds in three parts.

  • Part One: Weaponizing Philanthropy: The War of Ideas, 1970-2008
  • Part Two: Secret Sponsors: Covert Operations, 2009-2010
  • Part Three: Privatizing Politics: Total Combat, 2011-2014

You will read about the corruption of think tanks and academia and the true nature of organizations with innocuous sounding names like the Americans for Prosperity Foundation.

Mayer will show you how the Tea Party is not a spontaneous grassroots movement, but a calculated and far-reaching campaign funded by dark money.

She will describe the dark money clan’s attempt to give themselves an image makeover in hopes that the American public will view these ruthless billionaires as people who care about them.

The Bottom Line

Jane Mayer is an award-winning investigative journalist and author. She has been writing for The New Yorker since 1995 covering politics, culture, and national security.

Mayer’s August 23, 2010, news article in The New Yorker entitled “Covert Operations” provided an impetus for her to write Dark Money.

She conducted hundreds of interviews over a five-year period, many on the record, but not all because some people feared reprisals. She also read books, new stories, and studies, which are documented in the extensive notes section at the back of the book.

The material covered is both detailed and complex. Mayer did an excellent job making the book readable and I think accessible to a wide audience.

While reading the book, I was disturbed and outraged. I did not want to accept that a handful of ultra-wealthy American citizens were willing to sacrifice our democracy and destroy the wellbeing of hundreds of millions of people and the environment we all live in 24/7/365.

There were times when I wanted to stop reading Dark Money and return it to the library. But I persevered because I feel it is my duty as a human being and a mother to look the darkness in the face and then do something about it.

After reading Dark Money, I realized how naive I had been. I used to say off the cuff things like, “Corporations own the government.” or “Money buys elections.” without really understanding the full ramifications of what that means. Now, I do.

What Can You Do?

When faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem, the urge to turn away is strong. I understand I feel like that a lot. The thing is that you have a choice to take action or not.

Here are just a few ideas of things you can do.

  • Read Dark Money and discuss it with your family and friends.
  • Vote in every election for every office and every ballot measure.
  • Make the effort to be an informed voter.
  • Help get people to the polls.
  • Support campaign finance reform.

If we do not stand up for ourselves, the dark money crowd will truly own our country.

Featured Image at Top: Inequality and power imbalance are represented by chess pieces on a scale – photo credit iStock/tifonimages.

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