Investors should let their conscience be their guide

Many beneficiaries would like charitable investments to have a positive social impact, says Rod Schwartz of ClearlySo

Rodney Schwartz
Rodney Schwartz

On 16 April this year, the Financial Times reported that the Church Commissioners, the body that manages historic property assets on behalf of the Church of England and its staff - will vote against excessive pay awards in the companies in which it has a stake.

This will be in cases where bonuses are more than four times basic salary, irrespective of judgements about the worth or value of specific senior executives.

The Archbishops' Council has said that the commissioners would "support variable remuneration that genuinely rewards success and aligns the interests of executives, shareholders and wider society".

Although I believe the relevance of this one single criterion is open to challenge, the announcement of this bold position on the subject is certainly to be applauded.

The announcement also begins to address a key question that I have raised before: does the standing presumption that fund beneficiaries care only about financial performance stand up to scrutiny?

It is this presumption on which much of the fund management sector's behaviour is based, and it holds back social investment in the UK. Once this key premise is challenged, the pathway to investment strategies that take social impact into account becomes far clearer.

The commissioners can take this stance from a position of strength in several respects. First, its financial performance has been good: its funds, which are worth more than £5bn, have risen by 15.2 per cent since last year - well ahead of comparator performance of 12.7 per cent. And I happen to believe that, over time, investors such as the commissioners, who practice a form of ethical investing, will outperform mainstream competitors.

Second, the organisation is on very firm doctrinal ground. Much writing in the Bible opposes greed, particularly excessive greed.

I cannot say if the commissioners have surveyed their beneficiaries, as we at ClearlySo have suggested all fund managers do when it comes to ethical preferences, but it is very unlikely that its clergy would object to such a stance. We wish other ethically based groups would show similar consistency.

Far more common is the sort of story I heard last week about a well-known organisation whose endowment is invested in shares of a company whose actions cause the sort of damage the charity spends resources combating.

Such harmful inconsistency is what comes from pretending investment and expenditure on good works lie in two separate and unconnected worlds.

By virtue of their strong moral authority, the Church Commissioners inhabit a leadership position. By taking a moral stance, whatever the consequences, they open the way for the moral or social impact of actions to be considered in investment decision-making. Once this occurs, all investments with strong social impact are in play and we then come to the beginning of three-dimensional investing (risk, financial return and social impact). Watch this space ...

Rodney Schwartz is chief executive of social venture capital website clearlyso.com

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