Responsible investing means aligning your financial goals with your values.
Money is one of the most uncomfortable and complicated aspects of our lives. In the religious tradition of my youth, 1 Timothy 6:10 was cited regularly and righteously: “The love of money is the root of all evil.” In many families, mine included, it is considered impolite to talk about money—never mind trying to learn how to manage it.
When I was 17, I got my first job, in the intimate apparel department at Filene’s department store. I worked nights and weekends, and I have no idea what I spent my money on. One evening my dad picked me up from the mall after work. As we waited at a stoplight, he casually asked, “So, how much money have you saved up?” I answered, hesitantly, “None of your business.” He was so mad! But I was simply reflecting what I’d learned from him and other adults: talking about money just isn’t done.
With a lack of transparency, a lack of education, and no small amount of cultural disgust around the topic, it’s no wonder that so many of us are at a loss with money management. The average U.S. household carries $5,700 in credit card debt. Payday lenders make exorbitant amounts of money off those least able to pay their ridiculous fees. Only 39 percent of Americans have enough money to cover a $1,000 emergency, and the statistics surrounding savings for retirement, medical expenses, and home ownership are no better. When I went off to college, I somehow got a credit card with far too high a limit and ended up in thousands of dollars of debt by the time I graduated. Since then I have floundered at various points through my life with managing my money. I’ve busked with my guitar so I could make rent, I’ve been on food stamps, I’ve been confronted by debt collectors in court. My personal money journey has been a long and complicated one, and I imagine many can relate.
The culture of shame and silence surrounding money extends to our spiritual spaces. Money is not something that we often discuss in church, except during pledge season or when we’re fundraising for a specific goal. But as people of faith who believe in justice and fair dealing and empowerment for those disempowered by unjust systems, if we can get over our shame and silence about money, what kinds of change can we manifest in the world? If we can reframe our perception of money and see it as a tool to help us build a just society, what more can we accomplish?
As people of faith, and particularly as Unitarian Universalists, our desire to create the world that we believe is possible extends beyond the walls of our sanctuaries and Sunday morning services. Our vision of the beloved community is embodied in the ways we interact with one another, care for each other and for our community, show up for the causes we believe are true and just, and move and breathe and live in the world. Money is a tool (and managing it is a skill that you learn, like cooking or gardening). Since money is a tool, shouldn’t we use it to live out and embody our deepest values?
Given my personal money history, it may surprise you to know that I now work in the financial industry. After a winding career path—working as a medical interpreter, a Methodist pastor, a professional musician, and a burrito engineer—I ended up analyzing stocks for an asset management firm. As I’ve learned the language of finance over the past five years, I’ve also discovered that there is a whole area within finance for which I am particularly suited and which aligns with my spiritual values: responsible investing.
Responsible investing, at the most basic level, means aligning your financial investments with your personal values. In its earliest form it was called socially responsible investing and included such things as divesting from South African companies in an attempt to end government-backed apartheid; today, this kind of “exclusionary investing” may mean choosing to not invest in companies that profit from weapons sales or extracting fossil fuels from the earth. These days, ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) is the term most often used to describe the factors of sustainability and ethical impact that investors investigate before choosing to invest in a company. ESG covers both exclusionary investing and positive investing: choosing to invest in companies with better gender diversity on the board, or which do a better job of caring for the communities in which they operate. The term also includes “impact investing,” which focuses on measuring the impact of your investments by engaging directly with companies and challenging them to change their behaviors. Today, thanks to our ability to mine big data about companies, it’s easier than ever to choose to invest in firms that prioritize diversity, environmental stewardship, and ethical governance practices.
Until a few years ago, responsible investing was rejected by many in the finance industry as a fad or a niche investment strategy. To invest in line with your social and spiritual values, they argued, you had to give up asset performance, which meant investors lost money by choosing such a strategy. However, over the past few years research has shown that this is simply untrue. You don’t have to give up performance to invest responsibly; indeed, some factors—such as board diversity and carbon emission management—are correlated with better financial performance. The financial industry is starting to take responsible investing seriously, which is good news for people of faith.
1 Timothy 6:10 is often misquoted as “Money is the root of all evil.” What the passage actually says is that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Money is a tool, a way of using our power in the world, and does not become a spiritual liability until it is deified, idolized, and privileged above all other things. I also believe that ignorance about and fear of money contributes to evil.
What if we stop being afraid of our money and instead start using it to enact our beliefs, values, and principles in the world? What if we choose to spend our money at a locally owned store instead of buying a product online? What if, when we give our kids an allowance, we teach them to save one third for the future and save one third for charitable giving, so that from an early age they learn how to use money to improve the world around us? What if we invest our retirement funds or our endowment funds in companies that take seriously their responsibility as stewards of the environment, the planet, society at large? What if, instead of seeing the financial profession as one that exists to make rich people richer, we start to see it as a viable option for those who want to change the world?
I invite you to consider not just how you use your own money in the world and choose to spend or invest on a small scale, but also to imagine how much more of an impact we all could make on a larger scale if we work together. If we teach our children that money is neither evil nor a deity but a tool to help create the beloved community, if we use our money to strengthen the interconnected web of which we are all a part, if we truly align our faith with our finances, I believe we can do no less than change the world.
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Rachel V. Burlock lives in Concord, New Hampshire, with her husband and two daughters. She is a member of the UU Church of Concord, where she occasionally preaches, often plays music, and continues her lifelong pursuit of learning about as many things as she can.
Investing in change
As UUA treasurer and CFO, Tim Brennan led on socially responsible investing and shareholder advocacy.