Invest in Socially Responsible Relationships

by Casey Luongo, Student Organizer, University of Pittsburgh

If you ever feel overwhelmed by all the talk and pressure to “move money,” breathe easy.  Take a step to the left or to the right.  Congratulations, you’ve just moved it.


Today, as students, we grow up in a relentless paradox.  Going to college is barely an option after high school.  Society places increasing demand on acquiring a college degree.  Simultaneously, the cost of attendance increases.  It is becoming increasingly more difficult to afford a vital demand.  Moreover, with the unemployment rate for 20-24 year olds at 14 percent, it’s hard to justify college as a stable investment in our future. Nonetheless, most of us find ways through the financial obstacles.  And when we do, colleges and universities are there to welcome us, and our scrounged up tuition fees, with smiling wallets.  On the first day of school, we get bombarded with “free” stuff that buys our loyalty and sells a sense of community.  This warm welcome stems from the fact that colleges and universities need us to want them.  They need us, but, they don’t specifically need you, and they don’t specifically need me.  They just need students, peoples able to pay the price tag and wear their advertisements.

If you feel like money, take a step back.

Do you remember drawing up a pro and con chart for big and small schools when deciding where to invest in your future?  Now that you’ve made a decision, does the size of your institution really contribute to your self-worth outside of the classroom?

Mine doesn’t.  A few weeks ago, my peers went to an event where the governor would be addressing budget cuts.  They were going to stop the defunding of education, specifically the defunding of our university.  My peers were the leading voice in the room, a voice the administration supported.  However, days later, when passing out literature on the cuts, these same peers were forced off to stop. The executive vice chancellor said they had no business is trying to stop budget cuts, because, “Students are not the University.”

What?  If you feel like money, take a step back.

It is enraging to hear that students are not the university.  It difficult to have a top administrator confirm the hunch of students as dollar signs.  In my work with the endowment, I have been walking a fine line with the administration.  I have struggled with the decision to run a positive or negative campaign to encourage my school to invest in its community.  I chose a positive campaign out of respect for the administrator I was developing a relationship with.  He genuinely seemed interested in my work, and as the vice chancellor for community initiatives, I thought he would take advantage of a new avenue to expand his work.  Well, I overlooked that administrators have a job that is not revealed in their description.  Administrators have a job to master the art of empowering students to do nothing.  Administrations have established structures and channels to create a sense of student participation and representation, such as student government.  However, in reality, this is more of a charismatic defense shield than a structure for dialogue and accountability.  When we seek accountability outside of these channels, administrators make sure a series of good faith meetings take place before an actual action can occur.  If and when the administration acts upon a student initiative, the result is usually one that lacks power.

As students involved in this work, we go to our administration with novel ideas on how to change an unsustainable status quo.  We are spending thousands of dollars to attend universities to legitimize our ideas for a better future.  However, the institutions collecting our money are keeping us from the better world we are capable of creating.  I think in order to be most successful with our campaigns and to ensure a better a future, we must organize around an additional SRI avenue.  When we are working for a specific issue on campus, we must also work for ourselves, the student body.  We must get the university to responsibly and respectfully invest in student voice.  Many college students don’t know what an endowment is or how they have a stake in it.  Likewise, many students go through their college experience without ever engaging with administrators and the structures of their university.  Most students do not realize that they are belittled by the institution that is supposed to build them up.  I encourage all of us organizers to organize for a socially responsible administrator-student relationship.

If you feel like money, more than tuition, take a step forward.
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How Harvard Is Ignoring the Failures of Our System -- and Why We Can't Any Longer

by Martin Bourqui, National Organizer

This piece was first published in the Huffington Post on April 18, 2012.

Last week, a misstep by the Harvard administration illustrated clearly the biggest challenge facing the movement to change the way our universities invest.

The Harvard Management Company, which oversees the school's endowment, allegedly pressured the Undergraduate Council to drop former Harvard lecturer Joshua Humphreys from a town hall on socially and environmentally responsible investing of the largest educational endowment in the world. Dr. Humphreys is one of the nation's leading experts in the field of creating more just and sustainable investment in higher education, and has been critical of Harvard in the past for its policies -- or lack thereof -- around what Harvard is willing to do to grow its endowment.

The administration has backpedaled amidst criticism of suppressing dissent and discourse, claiming that uninviting one of Harvard Management Corp's biggest critics to a public event was little more than an administrative error, as if it were a typo. But the truth this fiasco exposes about Higher Education, Inc., and its attitude towards how to run an educational institution, must inform the work of creating the just and sustainable institutions our society needs.

When it came to the endowment, I gave my school the benefit of the doubt as a student. Surely, if it's obvious to me and my peers that our school should invest in alignment with its values, it will be obvious to the administration once we propose it, right? Wrong. Our schools love the idea of responsible investing as a "learning experience" for students -- as a sandbox for writing a research paper, or a seminar presentation -- but when it comes to actually pushing for transformative change, our schools see responsible investing as little more than a threat to their reputations -- and to the bottom line. And there, at that moment, they morally fail.

No shiny-new LEED-certified building, no Presidents' Climate Commitment, and no US News ranking will change the truth that all of our schools are investing in a wide variety of unsustainable and unjust corporate misdeeds. We can either continue to ignore the catastrophic failure of our system, or we can begin to address it like adults -- ones with serious responsibilities to our environment and to each other.

We are in a climate crisis. We are in an economic crisis. As people wielding the privilege of a college education in the United States, we are shielded from the devastating impacts of lucrative corporate practices from which we directly benefit. Our universities continue to support a number of tragedies, from private equity firms stealing farmers' land in Ethiopia to Chevron dumping oil in the rainforest in Ecuador to our schools' own banks defrauding taxpayers and kicking people out of their own homes right here in the U.S. And it's the last thing our schools want us to be thinking about.

Next time your university asks you to donate, keep these stories in mind. Your alma mater isn't going to tell you where that donation will be invested, and they're certainly not going to open the books just because you ask nicely.

Don't get me wrong; that's exactly how we're taught change is supposed to work. Approaching this subject with the dispassionate lens of academia can be tempting. Why advocate for change when there's so much more research to be done? Why organize, why protest, why spend hours petitioning or phone banking or standing on the quad holding a sign when we've been taught that change happens behind closed doors, through negotiation and diplomacy?

I have asked myself these questions for years, as a student and now as an organizer, and find myself at the same conclusion time and time again, especially in light of the latest hypocrisy from Harvard.

Being right is not enough.

The truth is simple, but hard to swallow in the context of academic culture. We're taught that if you study hard enough and put the time in, you'll get an "A" in the classroom. But in order to get the change you seek, you have to play by a different set of rules, and fight a lot harder.

The status quo of our schools' investments cannot be researched, dissected, or analyzed in some detached, academic tone. The decisions our institutions make about their impact on the world must be challenged respectfully, intelligently, visibly, and relentlessly. Those who make these decisions must be held accountable. It's time we stopped treating responsible investing like an academic thesis, and started treating it as what it is: a moral imperative.

If we're willing only to debate the issues without taking real action, we'll just hear more of the same flawed reasoning we've heard for years. They will say that this is how the system works, and that there is no alternative. They will claim that they maximize returns to leave the door open for future generations, even as their complicit investments in fossil fuels lock us into a world where future generations' options are catastrophically dwindling. They will say we can't "politicize the endowment," a nonsensical favorite of mine.

These arguments amount to little more than burying our heads in the sand.

I have been working on trying to change the way university endowments are invested for four years now, and I'm astounded by the inaction of schools like Harvard, or my own alma mater, Tufts University, where students, with the backing of experts, have been ceremoniously ignored for over a decade. The snub of Dr. Humphreys is just the latest example in years of evidence that the administrative elite is not willing to have this conversation.

So much for school spirit. It seems like the only way to make change at our schools is by forcing us to fight for it as organizers, not by working together as colleagues and equals. I refuse to see one more hardworking student let down by the arrogance of an administrator metaphorically patting them on the head, saying, "This is none of your business." Confronting power in higher education and not taking no for an answer remains, by far, the most successful strategy. Take notice, Harvard. We can't ignore these problems any longer, and our schools do so at their own risk.
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On the Road to Change

There is good reason for optimism amongst the members of the Proactive Investment Club at Fairfield University. Over the course of March we became an official student group and nearly doubled in size as students all around Fairfield began to hear about our efforts. “Responsible investment?” students would ask, “That sounds really cool!”

Our group continued to gain legitimacy and support throughout March, garnering a student government resolution in favor of establishing a committee on investor responsibility and even booking a meeting with a couple of important administrators and board of trustees members. After a number of weeks of preparations we finally had our meeting at the end of March and it went a little something like this:

We arrived at the meeting as four good-looking, well-rehearsed and well-dressed, PIC representatives. We shook hands, introduced ourselves and wasted no time in bestowing upon our administrators their own beautifully crafted binders. The binders enclosed nearly 400 student signatures, a student government resolution signed by the president of the student body, a number of case studies of responsible investment activism around the country and two nicely polished proposals—they were our portable support-containers. We sat and began our meeting according to plan.

Suddenly, however, we encountered some turbulence in the form of a factor we had not anticipated in our preparation; the finance chairperson of the board of trustees was ostensibly a very curious man. At every step, he posed questions ranging from “so where are you all from?—just out of curiosity” to “and what other schools have done community investment like that?” And what we expected to be an ongoing verbal presentation became a dialogue before our eyes. We nervously exchanged glances, telepathically communicating the thought “we didn’t plan for this kind of setting!” The turn of events, in the end, seemed to us highly serendipitous. After all, we became people—real, live Fairfield University students—to our administrators and we formed great relationships in the space of an hour.

Did we leave the meeting with a gratifying agreement about a sweeping revision of Fairfield’s endowment investment? Contrary to my wildest dreams, we did not. But we parted ways with real, live smiles, mutual respect and new allies in our endeavor. And this is all the encouragement we need to push forward and continue our quest for social change—But there’s more!

Just a few days later I was referred to a newly appointed member of our board of trustees by a Jesuit priest on campus. I spoke with this new member over the phone and we hit it off. After about five minutes of taking each other’s temperature it was clear that we had very similar views about the transformative power of money, both socially and environmentally speaking. His enthusiasm and sheer willingness to engage in a conversation about how Fairfield can explore responsible investment possibilities left me excited and assured that our approach is working. We are building relationships and with genuine attempts at collaboration, finding allies all around us. But what initially began as a search—an active combing process—has gotten a lot easier. Allies are now approaching us, as though carried in by the winds of change, and forecasting a high chance of positive impact in the world.

So as I near the end of a year as a student organizer for the responsible endowments coalition, where does the Fairfield chapter leave off? Well this is precisely the source of my excitement; it doesn’t leave off at all. We’ve erected a student group that will give this pursuit longevity on Fairfield University’s campus. We have momentum, just absolutely snowballing its way forward, drawing in allies and support from various directions. We know that we can make a change in the world, as absurdly idealistic or naïve as that might sound, and we’re getting an idea of what it’s going to look like. As my mentor and friend has frequently counseled me, “we have to make the path by walking.” It’s a reassuring bit of advice for when the task you face is terribly daunting and ambiguous and you just can’t imagine where to start. Lo and behold, I’ve been walking for 8 months and these words are proving true. A path is now unfolding before me and it is clear to me that the Fairfield chapter was but a prologue. The best, I’m betting, is yet to come. Results are on their way.
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Never Take “No” as an Answer

By Caitlin Dally
Student Organizer, University of San Francisco

Last week I had a troubling meeting with the University of San Francisco administration. I sat down with chief financial officer and the treasurer who had no real answer to my request for a change in the institution’s banking practices. To be clear, our proposal asked for the transfer of a portion if not all of the cash assets into a CU. We were hoping that this would allow us to make a bigger ask and collaborate further with the administration, but alas, I think it may have backfired on us. I want to share these points of opposition in a public space to be transparent about our campaign at USF. I hope that this “No”, or at least opposition to the idea of community investment, can be better addressed in the future of our movement across the nation.

Here is a list of the arguments the CFO made to me:

1.) Credit unions do not have the same capabilities to provide services that corporate banks can. For example, he gave the importance of international transaction (through the operating account), because we have a lot of international students who pay full tuition. He said that credit unions do not have the capacity to provide these services because it is too expensive to even have the computer operating systems that would manage such international transactions. I am sure there were more services that he was referring to, I was a bit confused because this didn't really make sense to me - I would think that living in this globalized world a CU would have the capacity to make an international transaction.

2.) USF already has diversified their banking. This was also confusing. Apparently, USF does not only bank with Bank of America, but also Chase (and probably others). He made a comment that about how $50 million is in Chase. I think Bank of America is working primarily with the operating account. He also mentioned that their cash assets fluctuate throughout the year, highs being in August (when everyone is paying for tuition) and lows being December. Part of this argument was based on the information I gathered from the annual report, stating $112 million in cash assets. He claimed that during low points in the year the university has only $50 million in cash assets.

3.) USF has considered credit unions before. In fact they had even discussed CDARs, the certificate of deposit account registry service, which is the most convenient way for safety-conscious investors to access FDIC insurance on multi-million-dollar CD deposits. But the treasurer said that they didn't trust them because the credit union is buying federally insured $250,000 deposits at other credit unions and they don't trust the other institutions that they don't have full choice/power over. The chief financial officer did not know anything about CDARs, which I found fairly surprising, since I was the only one in the room without a degree in finance.

4.) USF never keeps money in accounts permanently. The money would only be in the credit union for 1-5 years because they move the money regularly to get better interest rates. The cash would sit with a certain level of interest rate and they wouldn't want to be stuck in a lower interest rate because of being bound by 1- 5 years or because it is a credit union (versus a corporate bank).

Needless to say, I felt pretty defeated coming out of the meeting. I think that was part of their strategy. But I also came out knowing that this campaign has to happen, that the sense of urgency I feel, and others at my university feel, needs to be transferred to the administration. We must never take no as our answer.
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Responsible Endowments Coalition Support for March 1st Nationwide Mobilization to Defend Education

From the campus of the University of Pittsburgh to the University of California -- Davis, students across the country are mobilizing today, March 1, 2012, for a Nationwide series of coordinated actions and mobilizations against budget cuts, rising tuition, austerity, and the corporatization of universities.

The mobilization, originally scheduled for March 1 but now also including actions on March 5, has been coordinated and organized by Occupy Education. "We refuse to pay for the crisis created by the 1%," Occupy Education's website reads as the rallying cry for the mobilization. While there have been a number of disparate agendas on different campuses, almost all are united against the multiple crises facing higher education in the United States that have led to ballooning student debt parallel with budget cuts for education across the nation.

The Responsible Endowments Coalition and students in REC's network support the demands of the March 1st Day to Defend Education. Wall Street was behind the financial crisis that has been one of the major causes of this austerity. Wall Street continues to spend money to prevent regulation and taxation all while refusing to pay their fair share of taxes.

At campuses like the University of Pittsburgh, Washington University in St. Louis and Warren Wilson College (NC) students are demanding that their schools and student governments break up with their big banks and work to end schools' investments in major Wall Street. We believe in building more just, equitable, transparent, and democratic higher education institutions and that higher education must be fully funded and affordable for all.
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End Predatory Bank Lending Now, 250 Groups, Including REC, Tell Regulators

The letter discussed in the following post discusses the importance of preventing banks from making predatory payday loan. The Responsible Endowments Coalition signed this letter because we that the U.S. need a fair, just and sustainable financial system and that predatory lending should not be a part of it.

From the Center for Responsible Investing. Read the original post.

Two hundred and fifty national, state and local organizations and individual advocates have asked bank regulators to stop banks from making predatory payday loans, which carry triple-digit annual interest rates of as much as 400 percent. On Wednesday, a New York consumer group presented a letter signed jointly by the groups to Richard Cordray, Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as the CFPB seeks information on checking account practices in New York City. The Federal Reserve Board, the FDIC and the OCC were sent copies of the letter this morning.

The CFPB is collecting information on overdraft practices that cost consumers billions of dollars each year.  The agency announced today it will examine the practice of reordering customer transactions to boost overdraft fees. It will also look at disclosures and marketing to see if they are confusing or misleading, and to see if overdraft practices disproportionately impact low-income and young consumers.

Another contributing factor to high overdrafts is bank payday loans.  Consumer advocates across the country are asking the CFPB and three other bank regulators to put an end to this disturbing trend before it takes root.

Wells Fargo Bank, US Bank, Fifth Third Bank and Regions Bank are using a system developed by storefront payday lenders to engage checking account customers in a long-term cycle of high-cost debt. They market the loan as a short-term cash advance to customers who have their paycheck or benefits check deposited directly into their checking accounts.

Customers apply online, on the phone, or in person for an advance of a few hundred dollars. The banks pay themselves back by debiting the advance plus a fee on the next direct deposit. The fee is typically $10 per hundred dollars advanced, which comes to an annual percentage interest rate of 365 percent, based on the average 10-day term of the loan.

Storefront payday lending works the same way, creating a long-term cycle of debt that drives borrowers into deeper financial trouble. Though bank payday borrowers start out seeking simple short-term relief, bank they end up in debt an average 175 days of the year. Social Security recipients are especially vulnerable, making up one quarter of bank payday borrowers.

The groups ask the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to stop predatory payday lending before it becomes business as usual in the banking system. NEDAP, a New York City-based economic justice resource and advocacy center, presented the letter to CFPB in New York yesterday.

Find the letter and the full list of signers here:

Consumers can join the call asking regulators to stop bank payday lending by signing a petition here:
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Fossil fuel industry, look out: Campus Sustainability + Occupy = Divestment

by Blair Halcyon, Swarthmore College

SWARTHMORE, PA -- On campuses across the country, students are writing a new chapter in the youth environmental justice movement. The last five years of student organizing have won huge victories. “Sustainability” is on the tip of every college administrator’s tongue, and 674 institutions have signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment to long-term carbon neutrality. Colleges have taken real leadership in the fight for climate justice.

If one thing is clear, though, it’s that we haven’t won yet. The United States and other countries continue to block any international progress on confronting climate change. Mountaintop removal coal mining still devastates communities in Appalachia. A misguided push toward fracking is causing deadly water contamination here in Pennsylvania and across America. And, while we had a big victory on the Keystone XL pipeline, tar sands oil extraction continues to threaten the health of First Nations peoples and menace the global climate.

This is why a new wave of students is bringing new urgency to the movement. We’re following in the footsteps of our predecessors who fought for carbon neutrality, and bringing an Occupy-inspired awareness that money at the heart of our social and environmental ills. American universities collectively invest over 350 billion dollars. Believe it or not, a lot of that money goes to propping up the dirty, dangerous and outdated fossil fuel industry. Here at Swarthmore, a group of students came together because we just couldn't sit around and watch this happen. We couldn't stay silent while our school pours money into companies that are making people sick and destroying the planet. Along with students at UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of Illinois, and several other schools, we are demanding that our schools divest our money from the fossil fuel industry.

This divestment campaign will be an uphill battle, so entwined are our endowments with fossil fuels. Despite their commitments to sustainability and social justice, Swarthmore President Rebecca Chopp and other administrators have learned to think of the college’s investments as entirely unrelated to the values of the institution. They work within a bureaucracy that is structurally resistant to change. And the dominant, outdated and flawed logic of investment finance tells them that any restriction on the college’s investments will result in diminished returns. All of these factors cause them to ignore the contradiction between values and investment practices, or deny they exist.

Fortunately, our position as students, as young people, and as idealists allows us to see the obvious contradiction. Swarthmore’s relationship to its ideals is a tangle of moral knots that needs untying. We refuse to be bogged down by the cynical belief that change is not possible, or the heartless belief that it is not necessary. We negotiate, we organize, we antagonize, we educate, we delve into the tangle because we know we can chart a new course forward for Swarthmore, just as the nationwide fossil fuel divestment movement seeks to chart a new course for our whole society.

We are not willing to settle for a college that exists in moral purgatory. It is not enough to reduce on-campus energy consumption—colleges must prevent their dollars from subsidizing filthy energy companies elsewhere. We need our colleges to confront the contradiction between their investments and their values. Frontline communities—those most impacted by extraction and climate change—demand it. Our personal and institutional commitments to struggle against injustice require it. Lives are at stake every day. Through divestment, colleges can unequivocally proclaim that they stand for sustainability, justice, and human decency.

Blair is a student organizer at Swarthmore College. Get in touch with them at Learn more about Swarthmore’s divestment campaign at
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Youth and Accountability in Tallahassee

by Reamonn Soto, Florida A & M University

Students at Florida A & M University are continuing to push for more accountability from both the University and state community. On January 8, 2012, students marched from the campus of Florida A & M University to the Capitol of Florida, to join in solidarity with Occupy Tallahassee, Veterans, Community Leaders, and students alike, in an effort to demand more accountability and responsibility from their state and local leaders. This movement has attracted much media attention, and has included CNN producers gathering footage for their 1-hour long documentary on student involvement. This is a great opportunity for students across the Country to learn what the Millennial Generation is cooking up, especially here at Florida A & M University.

There is still much work needed to continue to keep the momentum going. Students are pushing for a Committee on Shareholder Advocacy that will allow the University to play a more active role in voicing their concerns in Corporate America. On Wednesday, January 25, 2012, we organized a panel discussion that included State Representative Bullard, and Reverend Yearwood from the Hip Hop Caucus, based out of Washington D.C. We were joined with students who were eager to learn more of how we can participate not only politically and civically in defining the future of our country, but in playing in active role in entrepreneurship and having representation in Corporate America.

There are more developments gearing up here in Florida. Next week from February 8 through February 12, 2012, the Florida Legislature will be hosting the Florida Legislative Black Caucus annual week of Black Caucus Events, where included in these events is a day specifically catered to black businesses. While Florida A & M University is historically a Black College and University, we will have successful entrance into insight from prominent black business professionals.
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Campus Updates, Winter 2011-12

REC’s Move Our Money campaign is starting up again on campuses around the nation including Loyola Chicago, Warren Wilson College, Guilford College, and Wash U, while work around coal is continuing at UNC Chapel Hill, Earlham, and University of Illinois -- Urbana Champaign.

At Fairfield University the Proactive Investment Club is awaiting approval to become an official student group. Meanwhile, representatives of the club are meeting with the editor of the school newspaper as well as the student senate to coordinate a massive awareness campaign and produce a student government resolution in favor of responsible investment efforts by several important metrics including community investment, increased transparency, and the establishment of a committee on investment responsibility which could be presented to the Board of Trustees at their March meeting.

Harvard University students are organizing a broad responsible investment campaign and want to get alumni involved! Visit to learn more and get involved.

At the University of Pittsburgh, students are still awaiting a response on their community investment proposal delivered in Novemeber. As relations are tensing between students and the administration, Pitt students are seeking the support of the community they are trying to improve. Currently, students are undertaking the tasks of getting their proposal endorsed by the student government board, community task forces, district councilman and the mayor of Pittsburgh to truly represent the shared desire for community investment.

Middlebury College’s student investment club is participating with a group of investors in a conversation with Exxon Mobil about tar sands.

Happy New Year from San Francisco! At the University of San Francisco, students have come together to organize around the Jesuit Values of the 21st Century. Together these students are working on a number of issues, but at the forefront is the campaign to move cash assets into a community credit union. The University Ministry has offered the students a monthly editorial section in their regular newspaper that will reach out to the Jesuit and administrative community for support of these endeavors. Equally exciting is the future meeting with USF's CFO who has yet to schedule a meeting with the students. This semester the students at USF are planning on engaging with more community organizations, alumni, administrators and the current student body to further the support of the community investment campaign.

At Swarthmore College, student group Mountain Justice is escalating its campaign for divestment from the fossil fuel industry. Members of the group met with administrators at the end of fall semester, and were informed that the Board of Managers does not intend to divest in the near future, or ever. Undaunted, students are doubling down on their organizing efforts. Swarthmore's investments are killing people and destroying our future, and Mountain Justice plans to take this message to an overwhelming number of students, faculty and alumni.

Responsible investment campaigns are moving forward at UC Berkeley, University of Washington, the University of Chicago, Univeristy of Arizona, and many more schools.

Don't see your school here? Let us know so we can include your updates next time.
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THIS is the Rainy Day!

by Alan Cantor

Reposted from
visit the website for more posts from Alan Cantor

Twice in recent months, I’ve gotten into heated discussions with nonprofit leaders about the spending rate from their endowments.

As you may know, the spending rate is the formula that determines how much an organization pulls from its endowment each year. The federal government requires that private foundations distribute an amount equal to at least 5% of the end-of-year principal. Public charities (that’s everyone from the University of California to the local Boys and Girls Club) have more flexibility. Most adopt a spending rate that is a fixed percentage of a 12- or 20-quarter “trailing average.” That is, they look at the ups and downs of their endowment over the last three to five years, and take out, for example, 5% of the average value of the endowment during that period. The theory – a generally solid one – is that this keeps the pay-out rate fairly steady. The rate doesn’t drop precipitously simply because of one bad fourth quarter. Nor does the pay-out rate veer suddenly higher because of one strong fourth quarter. Purchasing power would be preserved for the long haul. And over time – at least until a few years ago – the yield at most institutions has been fairly consistent and predictable, and it has trended up (with the markets) as the years went by.

But these are not ordinary times. Those trailing averages in many cases are still digesting the huge market drop in 2008, and this, in addition to the flat year in the market in 2011, means that the payouts at many nonprofits in 2012 are going to be lower than last year. Meanwhile, funding sources for nonprofits are drying up. Government support is down across the board. Foundation support (largely for the same investment and spending rate reasons) is weak. Competition for donors and funders is fierce. So nonprofits need more income from somewhere if they are to provide their services – demand for which, not coincidentally, is rising.

What strikes me as counter-intuitive is the refusal of nonprofit boards to adjust the spending rate formula to create more income from their endowments. Just the reverse, in fact, is happening: there’s a trend to lower the spending rates still more. I heard one Investment Committee member say, “Our investment advisors tell us that even if we lower our spending rate, we’re spendthrift by the standards of the big universities!”

My reaction:

  • First, how a well-endowed university manages its endowment is irrelevant to how a small nonprofit manages its endowment. It’s not even a case of comparing apples and oranges. It’s apples and lamb chops. On one hand you have a huge institution with billions in endowment and property, a world-wide reputation, a vibrant and affluent alumni pool, and thousands of students and parents willing to spend significant amounts on tuition and fees. On the other hand, you have, say, a human service organization with a budget of $500,000, an impoverished clientele, and an endowment of $1 million. What works for Yale does not have any real relevance to the small nonprofit.

  • Second, the major universities have not exactly covered themselves with glory in their endowment management. The Center for Social Philanthropy at the Tellus Institute and Joshua Humphreys (lead author) did a remarkable study in 2010 about the investment policies of six major universities. It’s an exhaustive examination that describes many characteristics to avoid: hubris, conflict of interest, lack of transparency, illiquid assets, and significant negative impact on the institutions (in reduced services and halted initiatives) and on the community (higher unemployment and reduced economic activity, along with others).

  • Third, we need to stop treating the endowment and the established spending rate as sacred. A terrific article, “Endowment for a Rainy Day,” by Burton A. Weisbrod & Evelyn D. Asch in the Stanford Social Innovations Review advocates that we should increase the spending rate from endowments in difficult economic times. Weisbrod and Asch essentially ask if the endowment is there to serve the institution, or if the institution is there to serve the endowment. Unfortunately, the latter is often the case. The prevailing notion is that the most important thing is to build up the value of the endowment so that it can then provide an income flow in the future. Weisbrod and Asch say: not if that means gutting the programming today.

Let’s look around. We have people who need to be housed and fed and treated for illness – now. We have kids who need to be educated, environmental challenges that need to be addressed, and illnesses that need to be cured. Aren’t we better off spending money today to cure the ill, feed and clothe and educate children, slow down global warming, stave off environmental disaster, and cure illnesses like AIDS? If we hoard the money (traditionalists would say, “preserve the purchasing power”) until, say, 2042 – won’t it be too late to do much about these immediate needs? Won’t we have perpetuated some problems while allowing others to spiral out of control – while unnecessarily permitting human suffering?

I’m not advocating raiding endowments or “spending them down.” But spending only 4% of a trailing average, as is the standard at many institutions, is too low. This is the rainy day. Pay out 6%. (Most states allow you to draw up to 7% without violating the rules governing endowment management.) This is what we have endowments for. Spending rates are arbitrary and can be changed. Human suffering cannot be ignored in the name of building up the principal of an endowment.

But I know I’m in the minority on this one. What do you think?
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