I have just spent three days at PlayBIG with some of the most progressive philanthropists and investors on the planet. It was a diverse group: some had inherited great fortunes, some had made them; some had foundations, some had donor-advised funds. But we were all there because we were passionate about doing as much good with our money as we possibly could. Together, we were exploring the possibility of ‘full portfolio activation’, not limiting ourselves to philanthropy but using all of our financial assets to support positive change in the world.
So how did I come to be there? My late husband Justin and I founded Silver Oak Cellars and grew it from a dream to a world-class producer of Cabernet Sauvignon. After 30 years, we sold our interest to our financial partner. This catapulted us into the world of full-time investing. Soon after this, Justin suddenly died, activating our estate plan and the creation of multiple trusts. Over the course of a couple of years, I created a well-run family office.
As I took a few moments to breathe and assess what I had done, I realized I was much more energized by my grantmaking than by my investment portfolio. Through my grantmaking, I was spending time with bright, dedicated entrepreneurs who were passionate about making the world better – people like Martin Fisher of KickStart and Jonathan Lewis of MicroCredit Enterprises. My investment portfolio felt dead in comparison. I began to wonder how I could do more good with my investments.
Then it dawned on me. I had made a private investment in a company that cleaned contaminated dirt and felt really good about the positive impact that this business was having. So I set out to invest in more and more social venture companies.
One of the best investments we have made is in Bridge International Academies. Currently in Nairobi, expanding to Nairobi outskirts and soon to Uganda and India, this is the largest chain of private primary schools in Africa. In 24 months it has grown from 1 to 22 schools with 2,700 students. Schools break even in one year with 200 students and provide a superior education for just $3.50 a month. It plans to open 50 schools simultaneously next January.
But there’s a limit. There’s a limit to how much due diligence our staff can perform. And I am pushing the limits. Joining Investors’ Circle and some funds like Good Capital and Renewal2 to share due diligence has helped. We have also piggybacked on some of the investments these funds have made. We also made a solid loan to a micro enterprise in Sierra Leone, Africa that MicroCredit Enterprises researched.
More importantly, there is also a limit on how much cash I can tie up without return. We are addressing this by encouraging the ventures we fund to build their businesses for the long term, to design them to kick out dividends. You know, the old-fashioned way.
And still there is a limit. So now I am turning to my public securities portfolio and beginning to explore how I can create the most environmental and social good through choosing public companies that exhibit the most integrity and holistic thinking in their products and management. A couple of weeks ago, I walked out of a meeting with our traditional investment firm, letting them know we will be cycling out of all our holdings with them by mid-June. We have spent the past couple of years trying to get them to offer us alternatives to investment managers that offer financial return only, but to no avail. We want to move forward with advisers who are truly committed to impact and full-integrity investing. Paul Herman, ‘HIP Investor’, has helped us to identify public companies that are aligned with our mission and values in terms of human impact (health, wealth, earth, equality and trust). We have recently invested in the HIP 100.
The best investment I have made actually used my portfolio as a guarantee. A couple of years ago I pledged $2 million worth of my public securities portfolio through MicroCredit Enterprises as collateral against approximately 6,000 loans distributed to 19 countries to lift 30,000 people out of poverty – every year. This is the most good I have ever done and it costs me virtually nothing! Well … one microcredit organization in Georgia failed owing to a political uprising, so I made a cash donation to MicroCredit Enterprises for $11,500, which is less than I used to donate every year to one project in Guatemala.
Using all these strategies, I am headed towards full portfolio activation for good by 2020. According to Paul Herman’s HIP Check, I am currently at around 63 per cent. So I have a little more work to do. And I know it will be fun, exciting, energizing and fulfilling.
Bonny Meyer is principal of Meyer Family Enterprises. Email firstname.lastname@example.org