Responsible Endowments Funds

REC has decided to close its doors, but we are keeping this archival information online for future reference. We consider alumni giving funds to be a powerful tactic for making change and we encourage you to take whatever ideas you find valuable from our experiences.

The Responsible Endowments Fund was a project of the Responsible Endowments Coalition in partnership with the Triskeles Foundation, As You Sow, and student and alumni groups around the country. Donations were held in an account at the Triskeles Foundation and invested responsibly until the college selected was deemed to meet the benchmarks listed by a representative of the group who set up the fund at the  college and the Responsible Endowments Fund management committee. The management committee was advised on investments by Federal Street Advisors, a Boston-based investment consultant, and was supervised by the board of the Triskeles Foundation.

Background

American colleges and universities have over $400 billion in endowments. Unfortunately, almost all of that remains invested in the fossil fuel industry, in private prison corporations, and other socially unjust companies.  Colleges don’t invest responsibly, yet millions of alumni donate to support these colleges and universities every year.  Students around the country are fighting to make these investments more responsible, urging their schools to divest from private prisons and the top 200 fossil fuel companies with the largest reserves, and organizing for transparent, just, and sustainable reinvestment.   

Colleges care deeply about the financial support of donors to grow the endowment, which makes alumni, parents, and community members extremely influential. One strategy is refusing to donate to the school and instead, donate to your college’s Responsible Endowments Fund. When you donate to the Responsible Endowments Fund, you are expressing support for the responsible investment of university endowments and for student and alumni engagement in the investment process.  

Partners

The Responsible Endowments Fund was a partnership between the Responsible Endowments Coalition, As You Sow, and student and alumni groups around the country. The funds were held in donor advised funds at the Triskeles Foundation until the assets were liquidated and the funds closed when REC shut its doors in 2020. The assets were donated in accordance with the school contacts' wishes.

The Responsible Endowments Fund was invested while the fund was being held to increase the amount of money to colleges, while ensuring a positive impact, and demonstrating the benefits of a responsibly invested endowment. A committee made up of responsible investment experts, students, and board members from the Responsible Endowments Coalition worked with Federal Street Advisors to advise the Triskeles Foundation on investment decisions for the Fund.

Fund Investment Policies 

The Responsible Endowments Fund was intended to be a model of responsible investment. We wanted it to be everything that most college endowments are not. Transparent. Thoughtful. Intentional about having a positive impact. And responsive to our constituents. To that end the Responsible Endowments Fund worked with our advisors to set up two preliminary documents to govern the investments of the fund. Those policies are the Statement of Investment Beliefs and the Investment Policy Statement. We believe that these documents should govern any responsible investment portfolio. The Responsible Endowments Fund is also subject to Triskeles Foundation's broader investment policies.

For more information read our Statement of Investment Beliefs & Investment Policy Statement.

Fund Investments

The fund was invested with Portfolio21 Investments. With the size of the fund we were limited to public equity (stock) investments though planned to expand to other asset classes. You can read more about Portfolio21's philosophy, engagement strategy, and holdings on their website here.

Fund Spending Policies

The Responsible Endowment Fund was intended  be dispersed to colleges per the requirements listed on each colleges page by agreement between the Responsible Endowment Fund Management Committee and the Sponsor of each respective fund. The Fund for Leadership In Responsible Investing gave small grants to support students at colleges and universities as decided by a student advisory committee. 

Management Committee

The Fund Management Committee included Vonda Brunsting, Jerome Tagger, Dan Cmejla, and Ben Collins. The management committee was advised by Federal Street Advisors, a respected investment consultant advising and managing over $1 billion in assets in Boston, Massachusetts.

 

Responsible Endowment Fund FAQ

What was a Responsible Endowments Fund? What was its purpose?

A: The Responsible Endowments Fund (REF) was a creative and powerful way to escalate campaigns. Donors would be invited to donate to the REF as an alternative to giving money to the college directly. The REF would then hold the money, like an escrow account, until the institution committed to campaign demands. The funds were actually held through the Triskeles Foundation. The outcome and disposition of the funds if the institution did not so commit is discussed in detail below.

The REF was not intended to divert money from the school’s endowment, but as a meaningful tactic. In particular, it was a great way for alumni to engage in divestment campaigns, given that colleges are very dependent on alumni support and donations. But donations were also invited from students, parents, faculty and staff, thus affording a way for the whole college community to make a statement that they would not support the institution while it continued to hold unethical investments. The success of the REF and the amounts raised could serve as a visible measure of collective support for the campaign.

 

Was there a minimum amount of money that had to be accumulated to establish an REF? How was the money invested?

A: A $25 dollar donation was required to start the fund initially, but there was no minimum amount that had to be accumulated. However, ideally the fund would accumulate $10,000, at which point the Triskeles Foundation would be able to invest the money in a socially responsible investment strategy.  

The money accumulated in the REF (at $10,000) was invested in socially responsible and environmentally sustainable strategies through the Triskeles Foundation. Investment recommendations were made by a committee including REC board members and students. As with any investments, the value of the investment and the earnings varied, based on what they were invested in.

 

Who was on the Management Committee? 

The most recent Fund Management Committee included Vonda Brunsting (REC Board at the time), Jerome Tagger (REC Board at the time), Dan Cmejla (UVM Student at the time), and Ben Collins (Harvard Alumnus). The management committee was advised by Federal Street Advisors, a respected Massachusetts investment consultant, which since merged with Pathstone Family Office.

 

Were there any administrative fees or other charges for setting up an REF?

A: Triskeles charged a 1% annual management fee to maintain the fund and process credit card transactions. Additionally, there was a small fee charged at the time of disbursement. Fortunately, Triskeles has waived all other minimum fees. Once invested (at $10,000) there would be an investment manager fee of .05% charged to the fund on an annual basis; depending on the specific investments or mutual funds selected in some cases there may have been additional internal fees charged.

 

How did participants set one up? How long did it take?

A: There were three main components necessary to set up a Responsible Endowments Fund. The process of creating the fund took between two days and a few weeks. Students were encouraged to spearhead the fund creation process, though they were required to do so with the support of the REC staff. Here’s what was needed:

  1. Terms of the Fund: These terms specified the demands of a given student campaign, a timeline by which the college must meet the demands in order to receive the funds, and a plan for where the money would be distributed if the demands were not met.
  2. Fund Advisors: The fund advisors established an official fund agreement with Triskeles and were responsible for recommending the final outcome of the fund - whether the demands were met or not - and making the final recommendation to distribute the accumulated money. At least one fund advisor was REC staff.
  3. Organizing Plan: This plan outlined how the student campaign would organize community members to gather donations to the fund. The purpose of creating this plan was to ensure students were strategically engaging their campaign supporters to make the REF project as successful as possible. Approval of the organizing plan and frequent check-ins with REC staff were required for campaigns that wished to establish an REF.

 

What happened to the money if the college didn’t divest?

A: When students set up their REF, their campaign had to decide on specific terms which would determine when and if the money was given to their campus, and a specific timeline by which those demands were to be met. Each campaign had the option to decide how the money would be used if their college did not meet the demands by the deadline listed in their fund’s terms. The Triskeles Foundation would receive the final recommendations from the Fund's advisors as to the disbursement of the funds. Some campaigns decided to donate the contents of the fund to environmental justice organizations near their campus. Others chose to donate the accumulated money to the Divestment Student Network to continue growing the divestment movement. Some campaigns, such as Swarthmore Mountain Justice chose to dedicate 2% of their fund to REC to support the student divestment movement. The REC worked with students throughout the process of establishing their REF to help them define specific demands, timeline, and a contingency plans for the money if demands were not met. 


How was the REF different from other escrow accounts?

A: The REF was designed to match the demands and context of any college endowment campaign that aligned with REC's political priorities. All campus campaigns were different, and context mattered. The REF was not a generic tool, but rather an adaptable one and uniquely developed for each campaign. This way, campaigns could cater the timeline and terms of the fund based on the stage of the campaign to stay accountable to the particular context and priorities of the group.

Alternative endowment or escrow funds like the REF can be a potent tool, but only if they take into account the specific campaign context and are integrated into a broader escalation strategy. Partners worked closely with students to develop terms for the fund, a back-up plan for disbursing the funds if the college fails to meet demands, and an organizing plan to incorporate the tactic into each campaign. REC provided ongoing consultation and support for leveraging the REF to its full capacity in order to make it as successful as possible.  The goal was to support students in becoming strong, whole, and effective organizers and for the fund to become a successful component of a campaign strategy.

The REF project was managed by an Alumni Team, Jess Grady-Benson and Nina Macapinlac, who were committed to fostering intergenerational organizing relationships. The REF was a great way to build a stronger base of alumni and to engage already supportive alumni in helping grow the fund. Rather than allowing alums to work unilaterally to divert donations from the college's general endowment, the REF encouraged collaboration between students and alums to grow the fund and put pressure in campaign targets. Thus, the REF was both an escalation tactic and a base-building strategy.  

In order for the REF to maximally contribute to creating endowments that reflected community values, the fund was managed responsibly with screens to prevent investment in the fossil fuel industry, private prisons, arms, tobacco, pornography, factory meat farms, and genetically modified foods. In addition, students were encouraged to include reinvestment demands in their fund terms to ensure that colleges not only divest from injustice, but also reinvest in community-based solutions. We also encouraged campaigns to divert funds (if demands were not met) to supporting ongoing student organizing for social justice.



Who started the Responsible Endowments Fund?

The Responsible Endowments Fund was a partnership between the Responsible Endowments CoalitionAs You Sow, and student and alumni groups around the country. The funds were held in donor advised funds at the Triskeles Foundation

The Responsible Endowments Fund was invested while the fund was held to increase the amount of money to colleges, while ensuring a positive impact, and demonstrating the benefits of a responsibly invested endowment. A committee made up of responsible investment experts, students, and board members from the Responsible Endowments Coalition worked with Federal Street Advisors to advise the Triskeles Foundation on investment decisions for the Fund.



What were the fund investment policies?

The Responsible Endowments Fund was intended to be a model of responsible investment. The partners wanted it to be everything that most college endowments were not. Transparent. Thoughtful. Intentional about having a positive impact. And responsive to constituents. TSo that end the Responsible Endowments Fund worked with advisors to set up two preliminary documents to govern the investments of the fund. Those policies were the Statement of Investment Beliefs and the Investment Policy StatementWe believed that these documents should govern any responsible investment portfolio. The Responsible Endowments Fund was also subject to Triskeles Foundation's broader investment policies.



How was the fund invested and what were the spending policies?

The fund was invested with Portfolio21 Investments, which has since merged with Trillium Mutual Funds. With the size of the fund, we were limited to public equity (stock) investments though intended to expand to other asset classes. 

The Responsible Endowment Fund was dispersed to colleges per the requirements listed on each college’s page by agreement between the Responsible Endowment Fund Management Committee and the Sponsor of each respective fund. The Fund for Leadership In Responsible Investing gave small grants to support students at colleges and universities as was decided by a student advisory committee. 



Who can I get in touch with if I want to establish a Responsible Endowments Fund?

The Triskeles Foundation was a supportive partner of REC’s efforts, and may be able to assist you. We recommend contacting Triskeles directly.

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