Eye on the UUniverse: What’s in Your Portfolio?

Rev. Jaco B. ten Hove, co-minister 

Those among us fortunate enough to have resources invested in various financial vehicles are probably paying some attention to how those firms are using our money in the wider world, which is generally called Socially Responsible Investing (SRI). It’s become quite an effective way to ensure that our greater resources are not propping up values counter to our own but instead are utilized to promote the growth of life-affirming activities around the world.

Such personal choices do influence planetary ethics, because there are definitely companies that act for the Common Good, locally and globally, and others that profit from at least dubious if not notoriously nefarious endeavors. It matters where our life savings sit, especially in bunches, and history already records a number of powerful collective efforts to address inequities by campaigns that alter the flow of capital resources, such as the widespread divestment campaign aimed at South Africa in the 1980s. This clearly helped bring an end to the unjust apartheid era, supported by Sullivan Principles that arose to inspirationally guide this aggressive but not violent achievement.

Now, three decades later, the way our national UU Association’s significant investments are intentionally invested is in a bit of a spotlight. “The UUA has been strongly committed to SRI for over forty years. Our commitment springs from our faith, and from our deep conviction in the dignity of all human beings,” says the UUA’s SRI web page.

But at the moment there is a rather fierce debate raging about how best to use these collective investments. The UUA’s Common Endowment Fund uses their considerable SRI filters to apply almost $150 million, about half of which is from congregations. (Cedars is not connected to this process, financially, but we could be, if we decide to fund our own Endowment, currently on our books with a zero balance, and then invest it alongside other UU groups, managed by UUA experts.)

The ongoing debate is intriguing and pivots on one of our most pressing and regional issues: coal. A small percentage (3.5%) of the UUA’s portfolio is in holdings that profit from fossil fuel industries. Two viewpoints have been very outspoken about this being appropriate—or not.

One side says such investments give us important access to corporations so we can conduct shareholder activism and try to change them from within. See this piece: Fossil fuel divestment is not the answer by Tim Brennan, UUA treasurer and chief financial officer. The protest against this posture, claiming ethical contamination, is well voiced here: Fossil fuel divestment is moral, strategic by Fred Small, minister of First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and co-chair of Religious Witness for the Earth, a national interfaith network dedicated to public witness on environmental issues, especially global climate change. (These statements were published in last summer’s UU World magazine.)

At last June’s UUA General Assembly in Louisville, KY, I attended a workshop on this issue and listened carefully to related testimony in various plenary sessions, all very cogently presented. I found I could understand both positions. As passionate as I might be in favor of a divestment strategy, the UUA’s impressive description of how little impact divestment actually has in this arena was also persuasive, especially compared to shareholder activism in collaboration with other investors through the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and the Investor Network on Climate Risk.

Nonetheless, near the end of the GA, delegates voted overwhelmingly to adopt an Action of Immediate Witness, “Consider Divestment from the Fossil Fuel Industry,” which calls for “a denomination-wide conversation within congregations about divesting from fossil fuels or exercising shareholder influence.” (Watch the debate and vote on the UUA website, starting at 1:21.)

Looking ahead, as reported on the UU Ministry for Earth website, next steps are apparently aiming at a bothandian solution: “UU divestment proponents are organizing to present a Business Resolution at GA 2014 to divest the UUA’s Common Endowment Fund, with an allowance for minimal direct holdings for shareholder advocacy purposes and increased investments supporting a transition to clean energy” (my italics).

Where would you come down on this issue? What’s in your portfolio?

In the spirit,

jaco