Occupying Our Money
by Tim Little, Executive Director
What does money mean to you?
It's a simple question, with complicated and highly personal answers intertwined with pressure to pay bills, dreams of retirement, concern about the national and global economy, and much more. But whatever money means to you, the meaning and power of money has been a national focus since September 17, 2011 when a group of American citizens occupied Zuccotti Park near Wall Street in lower Manhattan.
Money has always fascinated me, and it has often helped me find order in a confusing world. For example, when I struggled with math in first grade, my mom turned all the adding and subtracting into pennies, nickels and dimes on the kitchen table - suddenly math became real and I could do it. But money has always meant more to me than just math. It was a powerful force in teaching me manners - courtesy of a nickel from Aunt Perlie every time I pulled out her chair at the table. I had a coin collection (still do, in fact) where the languages and images on coins from around the world became a geography lesson in a jar. My favorite game as a kid? Monopoly of course! After I got out of college, a love of nature replaced the thrill of putting my hotel on Boardwalk, and I ended up canvassing door-to-door for an environmental group - that work taught me about raising money and how to invest it in protecting environmental health.
So it's no surprise that I ended up co-founding the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment, where my main job is to raise money, take care of it just as carefully as when I was six years old and sorted out my piggybank on the kitchen table, and then invest it in building community resources to advocate for a sustainable environment. And our grantees have become my new geography lesson and entree into the diverse cultures that collectively create the mosaic we call California.
My money story started nearly 50 years ago. But historians trace the invention of "proto money" (such as ivory or shells) back 100,000 years. Metal money does not appear until 1500 BC, when the Phoenicians decided metal rings (that ironically look a lot like the bulls' horns near Zuccotti Park) were a lot easier to carry on their ships than bulk commodities like cattle and corn. The metal rings quickly gave way to coins, and we can thank the Romans for our word money; it comes from the Latin, monere, which was a name for the goddess Juno, in whose temple money was coined.
But the patron goddess of Rome had a stern side - translated literally, monere means "to admonish." Regardless of how you feel about some of the demonstrators' recent behavior in Oakland, as a movement, Occupy is admonishing us think about money in a different way.
This is not a new topic for the Rose Foundation. 15 years ago we discovered how a small amount of stock, combined with a whole lot of community organizing to lead a shareholder campaign, could save the ancient redwoods of Humboldt County's Headwaters Forest. Stemming from that experience, we learned about socially responsible investing and began to apply it towards managing the money that our donors entrust to us. Over the last 10 years, our financial performance proves that diligent and strategic application of environmental and social criteria, layered on top of standard financial analysis, helps meet or exceed all the traditional financial benchmarks while also keeping the money our donors have trusted us with working towards our mutual values.
Unfortunately, most big foundations – and in the US, that collectively represents over $500 billion in assets – don't think about how to orient the full weight of their portfolios behind their mission. For example, did you know that, even today, most large environmental foundations invest heavily in coal, oil and gas - while they use their pennies-on-the-dollar dividends from those stocks to fund grants to groups opposing strip-mining, fracking and global warming! So most foundations are investing their 5% grants payout in direct opposition to the entrenched weight of their endowment's entire portfolio. At environmental funders' conferences, I often hear variations on the refrain of, 'Why are we losing?' My response is to hold up a mirror.
Two years ago, Rose joined with other forward-looking colleagues to launch Confluence Philanthropy, a funder affinity group dedicated to promoting mission-related investing. Confluence now has nearly 200 foundations in its network; a fellowship program to educate young people who are beginning to assume responsibilities as trustees of their family foundations; a proxy voting service to help funders support shareholder campaigns to pressure polluting industries to become cleaner and greener; and, a Carry the Cash campaign. Carry the Cash is a challenge to funders to move some their cash reserves out of big national banks and into local community development institutions.
Carrying Our Cash
Just this month, Rose responded to Confluence's admonishment to 'carry the cash' by transferring most of our long-term cash deposits from our big full-service bank to local community banking institutions. Along the way, we discovered Solar CD's at the nation's first environmental bank, New Resources Bank in San Francisco. They pay about the same as any other CD, but 100% of the money is helping people afford to put solar panels on their roofs. Our money is safe (FDIC insured), it's working 100% for our mission, and it's helping support local green energy jobs. I think we did more than just carry our cash - I think we occupied our bank account.
Now we have launched an initiative to occupy Rose's business relationships. We switched from our standard credit card to a Visa card issued by One PacificCoast Bank in Oakland. The fees are the same, but now the money is supporting a local bank that loans money to community-oriented businesses in the East Bay. Next up - our cell phones. We are switching away from a company that makes political donations to politicians who advocate abolishing environmental laws and going to a national provider that supports social and environmental causes.
I feel good about the steps we've taken, but we're not done. One of the things I've learned from the Occupy movement is that we all need to admonish ourselves take a fresh look at how the financial and tax structure of the United States really works. At the Rose Foundation, we are going to continue to examine where our money is, and what it's leveraging, to make sure that the funds entrusted to us are best oriented to maximize environmental sustainability, consumer protection and human rights.
We're occupying our money. And we invite you to join us.