As UUA treasurer and CFO, Tim Brennan led on socially responsible investing and shareholder advocacy.
Tim Brennan was UUA treasurer and chief financial officer from 2006 to 2019. (© 2020 Jake Belcher Photography)
With $7 trillion in assets, BlackRock, Inc. is not only the largest asset manager in the world, but one that claimed to support climate justice. But its shareholders—including the Unitarian Universalist Association—wanted to be sure. Under the leadership of former UUA Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer Tim Brennan, the Association spent three years using its shareholder status to pressure BlackRock into disclosing all of the trade associations to which it belongs. In February, in large part because of the UUA’s pressure, BlackRock publicly revealed that it belonged to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, which make huge political contributions against policy progress on climate change. For Brennan, the disclosure was one more victory in a career focused on socially responsible investing (SRI).
“I feel pretty good about that one; it’s a big deal,” says Brennan, who stepped down from the position of treasurer and CFO in June 2019 but continues to work for the Association on a part-time basis managing shareholder advocacy work. He is also a consultant for other clients through his company, Responsible Investing Solutions.
For twenty years, including thirteen as the head of finances at the UUA, Brennan has been a leader in the world of SRI and shareholder advocacy, working to promote the concept that investments can do good while earning money. As treasurer, he oversaw approximately $600 million in combined UUA assets in the UU Common Endowment Fund, the UU Organizations Retirement Fund, charitable gift funds, outside trusts, and real estate. The $200 million in the UU Common Endowment Fund includes the assets of the more than 300 UU congregations that participate.
When Brennan joined the UUA, about 40 percent of its investments screened out certain troublesome industries, such as cigarettes and weapons. Today, fully 80 percent of the portfolio incorporates environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors into the investment process. Through shareholder activism, he has persuaded companies to support a variety of social justice issues important to the UUA, from adding gender identity and expression to their non-discrimination policies to lowering methane emissions. “It’s living our values through the way we invest our assets; it’s about alignment,” he says.
Brennan is instrumental in the SRI movement, says Josh Zinner, CEO of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a coalition of global institutional investors that pioneered shareholder advocacy. “Tim has been a real leader in the field of socially responsible investing, working on critical issues, including climate change, human rights, food and water, and lobbying and political spending,” Zinner says. “He has really been out front in representing the UUA and making the case that companies deeply concerned about the environment and social impact are companies building long-term value.”
Brennan, a finalist in 2019 for the CIO Magazine Innovation Award in ESG Investing, is quick to share credit with two UUA committees on which he served, the Investment Committee and the Socially Responsible Investing Committee. Among his other accomplishments, Brennan got the two committees, which had experienced conflict, to work together well, says former UUA Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery, who was on the team that hired Brennan in 2006.
“Tim somehow convinced them that those two goals”—good financial results and aligning investments with faith values—“were not in opposition to each other,” says Montgomery. “What had been years-long conflict turned into a lovely collaboration, thanks to Tim.”
He was also instrumental in the decision to move the UUA headquarters from Beacon Street to 24 Farnsworth Street in Boston in 2014, a complicated process that has been a “financial boon” for the Association, he says. Under his tenure, the UUA also laid the groundwork to begin more community investing—putting funds in low-income housing and loans to communities that often have trouble getting them—and now, the UUA is a leader among faith groups in this area, he says. The Operations and Finance teams at the UUA, which he supervised, were “great people who do great work, and that’s what made it a real pleasure for me, because I certainly didn’t do it alone.”
When the UUA Board of Trustees in October 2016 decided to commit to giving $5.3 million to Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU), Brennan worked with others on the Leadership Council to make it happen. He also partnered with the BLUU Organizing Collective and BLUU Executive Director Lena K. Gardner to assist them as they set themselves up as a nonprofit organization.
“That was very gratifying, to take what was a surprising and frankly confusing motion from the board and figure out how to get it all done in a way that helped BLUU accomplish their goals without harming the UUA’s finances,” says Brennan.
Gardner says BLUU “wouldn’t be as strong of a spiritual community without Brennan’s ‘administry’ [administration as ministry] help.”
“We’re really grateful for his leadership and committed, responsible stewardship, and his continued guidance,” she says. “He does a really good job of connecting financial stewardship with our UU values. It’s a muscle that all of us leading congregations or spiritual communities need to get better at and practice more.”
Born and raised in St. Louis, and a die-hard Cardinals baseball fan, Brennan holds a master’s degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, with a focus on the emerging field of arts administration. In managing a series of theater companies across the country, he developed essential skills for running successful nonprofits, including fundraising and working with boards.
Raised Roman Catholic, Brennan became a UU in the 1990s when he joined the Unitarian Church in Westport, Connecticut, where he chaired the fiftieth anniversary capital campaign. In 2000, he moved to the Boston area to become senior director of development and communications at Ceres, the national network of institutional investors working to advance corporate responsibility for the environment. He dived into the area of SRI and found his passion in melding social justice values with good financial stewardship. He also became an active member of First Parish UU in Needham, Massachusetts.
When the treasurer of the UUA announced his retirement in 2006 and Brennan applied for the job, Montgomery says she knew immediately that he was the ideal candidate, noting, “not only did he have a proven record of having done finances for all different-sized organizations, but he also was just devoted to Unitarian Universalism—and he’s a lovely human being.” At that point in time, the UUA had done more than most faith groups in the area of SRI but aimed for much more, says Brennan, who today continues to represent the UUA as a member of the board of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.
“My goal was to move the UUA down that path, to have a more methodically planned-out shareholder advocacy program, to be thoughtful about what the issues were, and then move the portfolio more towards responsible investing,” he says.
Today, in addition to the UUA and other organizations, Brennan advises foundations, endowments, and colleges and universities on investment practices that incorporate environmental, social, and governance factors into the process.
“This whole concept of ESG, everybody is talking about it now!” says Brennan. “Many pension funds and endowments and family offices want it.” One indication that shareholder advocacy is having a significant impact is that companies are starting to push back; the Trump administration is trying to gut shareholder rights as well. “On the one hand, it’s disturbing, on the other hand it shows how important the work is,” Brennan says. “It’s a very dynamic, very interesting time.”
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.
Faith in finance
Responsible investing means aligning your financial goals with your values.