I first came across the idea of Divest-Invest Philanthropy in early January this year through Ellen Dorsey, executive director of the Wallace Global Fund. Divest-Invest Philanthropy is a coalition of foundations committed to divesting from fossil fuels and investing in new energy solutions across asset classes such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, water purification, and agriculture, and Dorsey is one of the movement’s pioneers. Around the same time, the New York Times ran an article announcing that 17 foundations had resolved to get rid of fossil fuel investments in their own portfolios in support of cleaner energy. Dorsey had a vision to engage all foundations in a global movement, and I soon signed on to help make it happen.
Keen to ensure that this was a community of practice and that issues of equity and justice were part of foundations’ investment consideration, we set up a governance structure, with working groups helping to support foundations on the specifics of divesting and investing. Since January, the movement has gained momentum in galvanizing foundations across the United States, Europe, Australia, Africa, and elsewhere.
At the UN during Climate Week late last month, more than 70 foundations in collaboration with individuals, universities, faith-based groups, schools, hospitals and cities from around the world—representing $50 billion—announced that they would divest from fossil fuels and invest in new energy solutions. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Stanford University were part of this historic announcement. Actor Mark Ruffalo even called on the Avengers to divest.
This is an exciting example of the power of an idea whose time has come. Not only have these funders moved beyond their own specific agendas to engage with a community in a shared collective goal, but also they are working in solidarity with faith based groups, universities, schools, hospitals, individuals, cities, and civil society in general to achieve it.
There is precedent for divestment changing the course of history. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has emphasized the joint moral imperative between divestment from apartheid South Africa and the fossil fuel divestment movement. By harnessing ethical and financial power, the worldwide divestment movement accelerated the downfall of racist apartheid rule in South Africa. Divestment in the context of a movement means more than just a sale of an asset; it sends a signal. It says business as usual is no longer acceptable. In a recent op-ed, Tutu wrote: "People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.” He argues that we need to end our addiction to fossil fuels.
Rather than investments undercutting grants, tax-exempt organizations such as foundations have a responsibility to make their investments reinforce their grants. A great example of this is the Russell Family Foundation’s investment in Ecotrust Forest Management. The foundation recently invested in sustainable forestry in the Northwest using funds originally divested from coal holdings in their endowment’s portfolio.
Furthermore, the power of communities to support each other in this work is extremely significant. The Divest-Invest Philanthropy movement is becoming a strong community of practice.
Individuals and institutions of all shapes and sizes are committing to divesting and investing; both members of the general public and institutions are joining the commitment to divest from fossil fuels and invest in new energy solutions. Grassroots campaign groups such as 350.org and the Responsible Endowments Coalition have played an important role in supporting students, giving them the tools to engage their universities and shift them in the direction of divesting and investing.
Part of the power of Divest-Invest of course is active investment in sustainability and the new energy economy. On the invest side, many assets deemed responsible investments outperform the general market as measured by standard benchmarks, partly due to the fact that energy businesses are often grounded in innovative technology, giving them the potential for rapid growth.
There are some great opportunities for investing in the new energy economy. We can support wind, solar, geothermal, and other clean energy innovations. But also other sectors such as energy efficiency, industrial waste recycling, and sustainable agriculture and building materials can also propel the clean energy economy forward.
There are investment opportunities in every industry and asset class that belong in a diversified, fossil-free portfolio. Stocks, bonds, and cash alternatives are all options. So are hedge funds, private equity, real estate, farmland and timberland, and other commodities. Investors can also move their money to institutions that direct assets to local communities, building resilience.
To slow climate change, according to a recent Ceres report, we need to close the clean investment gap with a "clean trillion" dollars invested every year, from now through 2050. If all philanthropic institutions deploy a portion of their assets toward renewable and clean tech, and other sustainable options, we can participate in closing that investment gap and help scale industries.
The Divest-Invest Philanthropy movement hopes to triple its $50 billion commitment by the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris 2015. This approach to new energy solutions represents an opportunity for individuals and institutions all around the world to align their values with their investments and show that business as usual is not the business of the future.