REC was founded in 2003 by Morgan Simon, Ryan Burg, Gretchen Garnecho, Mark Orlowski, and Lillie Ris, five undergraduates from Swarthmore College, the University of Pennsylvania, Barnard College, Williams College and Duke University. They were looking to share resources, strategy, and questions about how their university endowments were invested. Early student activist victories such as a successful filing of a shareholder resolution by Simon at Lockheed calling for the company to include sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy emboldened students and led to the founding of a small but powerful national network. It didn’t take long for the founders to be recognized by their peers as centers of knowledge and distributors of key resources and success stories. Written resources were key, as students could access an online knowledge base that the proliferation of the internet in higher education had made readily available.
By fall of 2004, REC was represented at over 30 schools, had a website, and put on its first yearly national conference with seventy attendees from fifteen schools to make its presence and resources known to students, largely housed in Ryan Burg’s attic, making PBJ and baking cookies to bring to Wharton where the conference was held. REC achieved its 501c3 status in 2005 with the help of a pro-bono lawyer, but faced existential questions about its identity and strategy. Would the organization remain small and volunteer-led, or would they push to fundraise, hire staff, and become a national coalition? They chose to grow, and fundraised.
After eight LOIs and eight rejections, REC faced doubts, while still experimenting with programming and relationship building across not only higher education and activist spaces, but also the finance and mission-driven investing spheres. Eventually, critical early support from Sibley Verbeck Simon, Swarthmore alum, and from Janet Shenk at the Panta Rhea Foundation (who found REC’s website and reached out, miraculously) gave the organization what it needed to make its first full-time hire and hire its first class of interns, with Morgan Simon taking the title of Founding Executive Director in 2007.
Throughout these early years, REC was still hosting yearly conferences, connecting students, and supporting campaigns. Shareholder activism -- the strategy of having students participate in filing shareholder resolutions on behalf of their institutions’ investments, and having their universities practice proxy voting, was the most common responsible investment initiative budding on campuses to compliment prior work centered on divestment. A strategy emerged of promoting and forming investor responsibility committees at schools, tasked with focusing on shareholder activism and serving as an institutional mechanism for connecting student and community concerns about the endowment to university leadership. The main idea was to move from a very campaign-to-campaign sort of movement, to one with real infrastructure to simultaneously strengthen the power of endowments to contribute to social change, and provide training and support to young activists to simply become great organizers.
For proponents, the proliferation of shareholder activism and of these committees between 2005 and 2012, from fewer than ten to over fifty, was a conspicuous sign of REC’s success, as was its growth to three full-time employees and a multiplying base of student organizers. Among the more radical wing of organizers attracted to REC’s work, however, many saw committees as intentionally or unintentionally co-opting legitimate student concerns and activist energies around endowments. For many, the shareholder activism efforts were also insufficient when the majority of university endowment holdings were invested in much more opaque, commingled asset classes, many of which were higher-risk (and higher-earning). The shift of university investing to a more corporate, high-earnings model, pioneered by David Swensen at Yale, attracted significant criticism, particularly when many of those investments experienced major losses during the financial crisis of 2008-2009.
As the popular mood shifted against the Wall Street status quo, REC’s constituency moved with it, shifting to a more campaign-oriented focus beginning in 2011, first with bank divestment and community investment work stemming from the Occupy movement, and then with the beginnings of the fossil fuel divestment movement as it began at Swarthmore College in 2011-12. REC was instrumental in providing early strategic and technical knowledge to the campaign as it grew from one school to many with the leadership of Swarthmore’s students, the Wallace Global Fund, 350.org, and many others.
REC’s ambitions grew as mission-oriented investing, impact investing, and divestment became more common terms worldwide in the political, social, and economic fallout of the Occupy and fossil fuel divestment movements in the mid 2010s. In addition to REC’s national conference, REC’s programs multiplied: an in-depth summer training program for students began in 2007; a revived student internship program in 2011; an alumni organizing initiative in 2013; and a Training for Trainers program in 2015 to give young people tools for teaching others about the economy. Starting in 2015, REC also partnered with the Triskeles Foundation to provide Responsible Endowment Funds that concerned students and alumni could donate to instead of endowments as leverage to send a message to their schools about investing in line with values.
REC’s 2015 vision statement affirmed that “REC seeks to ‘be the change’ we are trying to create in the world. We work to model a form of organization and organizing that is consistent with our values.” By the mid-2010s, many in REC’s staff, board, and student base felt a desire to shift to organizing focused more on supporting frontline communities impacted by injustice, and bringing students into solidarity work with other campaigns, with REC’s involvement in the divestment movement to abolish private for-profit prisons being the most prominent example. The systemic critique of higher education’s investing practices also grew, with particular focus on university wealth hoarding, the student debt crisis, and exploring how a growth-for-growth’s sake logic in endowment management has contributed to increasingly inaccessible higher education.
REC experienced a number of difficulties in quick succession which made continued operations more and more challenging. The organization lost multiple significant sources of funding between 2016 and 2018, leading to difficult and painful layoffs. In 2017, REC’s board and staff came to an agreement to incorporate REC as part of the Action Center on Race and the Economy Institute (ACRE), and when REC’s Executive Director left the organization, ACRE staff took over providing leadership and support of the organization. REC's national organizer joined the ACRE team and ACRE contributed campaign strategy, operational, fundraising, and management support to REC. By the time REC’s final staff person moved on in 2018, the board raised the existential question of whether to continue with the ACRE partnership, fold, or take the organization in a new direction.
A set of new board members--new to the board, but in general former staff and board members of REC--came together in 2018, and decided to use REC’s remaining resources to embark on a virtual “Listening Tour” to hear the perspectives of past staff, board members, organizers, allies, and funders, to determine where REC went wrong, how it could potentially do better in the future, and to reassess REC’s contribution to the movement.
After a year of careful deliberation and consulting the findings of the Listening Tour, the board decided to implement a “responsible sunset” and to shut REC’s doors. They acknowledged the limited resources that REC’s work was taking as it overlapped with other organizations, and the difficulty of sustained fundraising. They saw the continued vigor and vitality of the youth movement, REC’s ally organizations, and the ever-growing awareness of endowments’ and higher education youth leaders’ role in promoting social justice. They also recognized the ability to spread REC’s many resources online for free, through its website and partners. They passed on REC’s remaining financial resources to Divest Ed, PowerShift Network, and Freedom to Thrive, three ally organizations carrying out work that overlapped and inspired REC’s efforts. They gathered their findings, did their best to tell the story of REC, and overhauled this website as a resource and testament to the 15 years of amazing work that came before, and in service of all that has yet to pass.