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SRI teleconferences offer free education

The UUA’s committee on socially responsible investing sponsored three free teleconferences; more are planned.
By Donald E. Skinner
3.17.06

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The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations’ Committee on Socially Responsible Investing has tried to interest Unitarian Universalists and congregations in its programs by holding forums at the denomination’s General Assembly and by making presentations at district events—all with moderate success.

Then this winter it tried something new. Without a lot of fanfare and with a minimum of advertising, it held three teleconferences on SRI: one on investment screening, one on shareholder activism, and one on community investment. Nothing fancy, just PowerPoint presentations and experts responding to the questions of people gathered around computer screens and speakerphones across the country.

But the response was so good––85 people from 32 congregations participating––that the committee plans to repeat the series of presentations next fall and winter.

“The combination of PowerPoint and people responding to live questions from all around the country worked out really well,” said Susan Leslie, director of the UUA’s Office of Congregational Advocacy and Witness, who helped organize the process. “Before we did this we had no way to have a national conversation about SRI,” she said.

Socially responsible investing is the act of investing one’s money without sacrificing one’s values. The main components of SRI are:

  • Negative screening—not investing in corporations that make harmful products or have patterns of egregious behavior (such as polluting or abusing workers).
  • Positive screening—actively investing in firms known for corporate responsibility, who make positive contributions to society or the environment.
  • Shareholder advocacy and proxy voting—changing corporate behavior through proposing and representing resolutions at annual stockholder meetings and by voting to ensure positive outcomes for society.
  • Community Investing—investing in low-income communities, for affordable housing, and in minority-owned businesses, to build up the local community.

The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, a liberal religious denomination with 159,000 registered members, has a more than 30-year track record of socially responsible investing, starting in the 1960s when the Association and other investor groups persuaded Eastman Kodak’s board of directors to hire more African-American residents of Rochester, New York, where the company is based. In the 1970s the UUA was part of an interfaith investment boycott of firms doing business in South Africa. In 1999 the Board of Trustees established a Task Force on Socially Responsible Investing, leading to the creation of the SRI Committee in 2000.

The UUA’s goal is to invest its entire $117 million endowment using SRI screening.

Socially responsible investing is consonant with Unitarian Universalist values, which affirm justice, equity, and compassion in human relations as well as the inherent worth and dignity of every person. These values are summarized in the UUA’s seven principles, which can be found at www.uua.org/aboutuua/principles.html.

Ann Fryberger is treasurer of the First Unitarian Church of Duluth, Minnesota, where five people participated in one of the teleconferences. “Our congregation is socially conscious, but most members don’t know much about investing,” she said. “And a lot of people don’t believe socially responsible investing is as financially productive as other ways of investing. The teleconference showed us that it is.”

A number of people on the calls wanted more information for themselves and also hoped to involve their congregations in SRI. Pat Clark of Plainfield, New Jersey, participated in one of the calls. “What I appreciated most was joining with others around the country in learning new ways to act on our shared UU values,” she said. “Since SRI really supports all of our seven principles, it's an important way to more fully integrate our spirits into our lives, and the lives of others.” She said she plans to raise the issue of SRI with her congregation, the First Unitarian Society of Plainfield.

Christopher Manning, a member of the Bay Area UU Church in Houston, Texas, is an investment manager who focuses on SRI portfolios. He was a participant in all three teleconferences. “I got a much better feel for how SRI is used throughout the UUA,” he said. “It’s good for me to know that there are all these contacts out there within the UU community.” He added, “An individual can make a difference by using SRI and you don’t have to sacrifice performance or accept inferior results.”

Members of the UUA’s Socially Responsible Investing Committee were the presenters for the three teleconferences, which were held February 4 and 18 and March 4. Dates of the next sessions will be posted on the Socially Responsible Investing website, www.uua.org/finance/sri, when they are determined.

There are other signs that UUs are showing increased interest in socially responsible investing, said the Rev. Sydney Morris, chair of the UUA Committee on SRI and minister of the Keweenaw UU Fellowship in Houghton, Michigan.

“We are seeing more questions coming to members of the committee,” Morris said. “The UUA treasurer’s office is getting more questions. And the questions are more sophisticated. More people than ever are visiting our website.”

Thirty-two congregations have joined with the UUA in a matching investment program whereby the Association will match congregational investments in local communities if they meet certain criteria. At the moment more than $996,000 of UUA funds are involved in community investments and matching loans.

UUA Treasurer Jerry Gabert said an article by the Rev. Dorothy Emerson on microcredit in the March/April 2005 issue of UU World called “The Microcredit Revolution,” generated many calls to the UUA about SRI practices. “The calls and the enthusiasm of the calls were greater than anything we had previously experienced," he said. Emerson, a UU community minister focusing on microcredit, leads seminars for Rainbow Solutions, a socially responsible investing firm in Medford, Massachusetts, and is the editor of several volumes of UU history, including Standing Before Us: Unitarian Universalist Women and Social Reform, 1776-1936 (Skinner House, 1999). Emerson is also the author of another piece on community investing, “Seeds of Opportunity,” in the Spring 2006 issue of UU World.

A conference focused on socially responsible investing in the developing world will be held on Saturday, March 25 at the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship in Morristown, New Jersey, featuring the Rev. Dorothy Emerson as one of the speakers.


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