Using financial assets to build a better future: webinar report

There is a real desire now, particularly as a result of the COVID crisis, for us all to find values from which we can actually build a different world and we, as the faiths, have those values. That’s how FaithInvest CEO Martin Palmer opened our recent webinar on Financial Assets, part of our Faith Long-term Plans Webinar Series.


The webinar went on to produce a fascinating discussion between our three speakers – Suzanne Ismail, Head of Networking and Engagement for Quaker Peace and Social Witness, Nigel Savage, President and CEO of Hazon (who shared a pre-recorded video), and Dr Vinya Ariyatne, President of Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement – on how their organisations manage their financial assets.


If you missed it, you can watch the webinar by clicking below.



‘You invest to build for the future, and there was a growing discomfort about some aspects of what future we might be helping to build’ – Suzanne Ismail


Suzanne Ismail began by explaining her experience of faith-driven investment in Quakers, including the process of divestment through which Quakers in Britain went to realign their investments.


‘In a nutshell, back in around 2013, we sold all of our investments in fossil fuel companies and companies involved in the production or extraction of fossil fuels. As far as we’re aware, at that time we were the first church to that at a national level in Britain although there have been many others who’ve joined us on that journey since which has been great,’ Suzanne explained.


Suzanne spoke about the Quakers’ long-standing concern around environmental issues and climate change. She said there was a significant change in 2011 when Quakers in Britain made a corporate commitment to become a low-carbon, sustainable community.


‘When we made that commitment we didn’t know exactly what it would mean in practice, but Quakers were asked to go out and act in faith on the issue of climate change as individuals, as local Quaker communities, and to go out into the world and engage with government and businesses to make wider structural changes… it was obvious to us that we needed to look at investments as part of this.’


The Quaker investment portfolio is reportedly worth £21 million, and just under 4% of that was invested in fossil fuel companies.


‘We already had what we thought at the time was quite a well-developed approach to investments, but we wanted to increase the emphasis that we put on climate change factors,' Suzanne explained. 'When I look back at that time, it’s quite surprising that divestment wasn’t explicitly on the agenda for us… it was seen as quite a new thing, really.’


After two years of progress and increased campaigning around sustainability, as well as rising concern around non-ethical forms of energy production, the decision was made to divest Quakers in Britain’s existing portfolio to realign their investments to their values.


Suzanne explained how a number of options were considered to bring investments in line with Quaker values before the decision to divest was made. She said: ‘A range of views were expressed, from all sorts of different perspectives, but by the end of it there was a really strong feeling throughout our community… that this was absolutely the right thing for us to do at the time, and it was absolutely the right thing to do even if it meant the possibility of some extra financial risks.’


That money was then invested in renewable energy companies, and investment policies were amended to reflect that this was not a one-time sale. A ban on fossil fuel investment is now embedded as policy - it was not a one-off action.


Suzanne finished by explaining how positive divestment had been: ‘Our portfolio has held up well… and we really don’t have a sense that this has been detrimental to us financially at all.


'More importantly I would say is the sense from within our Quaker community that this was something that Quakers were really called to do at this particular point of time. It was an opportunity for us to really put our money where our mouth was,’ she finished.


‘If you’re a business that is making the world better, there is every likelihood that – in time – you’ll outperform’ – Nigel Savage


Nigel Savage, CEO of Hazon, the largest environmental organisation in the Jewish community, spoke via a pre-prepared video. He started by outlining his early career experiences in the financial heart of London, where he worked at the end of the apartheid regime.


He looked after a pension fund for an organisation that wanted to run an apartheid-free portfolio while maintaining its responsibilities to its clients, which in turn sparked Nigel’s longstanding passion for ethical, sustainable investing practices.


Nigel explained how much Hazon learnt over the course of putting together its last long-term plan, launched in 2009, including collaborating with the Sikh community who were so impressed with Hazon’s plan.


This time, he explained, the approach would be slightly different. Jewish tradition has the notion of shmita – the sabbatical year – the next of which starts in September 21. It will be the first full year post-COVID and is an amazing time to look back over and evaluate the last seven years, before starting to flesh out a vision for the next seven-year period in Jewish life.


Nigel spoke about the framework Hazon is using as it speaks to Jewish communities, schools, synagogues and community leaders.


‘It’s a 3x3 grid. Across one axis education, action and advocacy, and across the other axis an individual, an institution, and the wider community. What we’ve said is none of us has the knowledge, the time, the interest, the ability to move forward all nine boxes personally, but institutionally, we need to move forward all nine. And Hazon, as an organisation, is saying to individual Jewish institutions: “We’re here to help”.’


He then explained how this could work in terms of evaluation of investments. ‘Education could be learning about our assets and where they’re employed. Action could be changing them, and advocacy could be speaking up in a public space and to other institutions for wider change.’


Nigel finished by talking about some of the key concepts Hazon discusses whenever it meets with senior figures, and about the importance of acknowledging feelings of guilt and powerlessness about what people are and aren’t doing with their investments.


‘A remarkable number of people in our experience feel bad about even engaging in these topics because they feel “oh, I’m doing X but I’m not doing Y”. There is a famous Jewish tradition from the Mishnah – the rabbinic compendium from 2,000 years ago – that simply says: we’re not required to complete the task, but neither can we desist from it. And the first step is unpacking that we may feel disempowered, but the second is to say okay, let’s move beyond that and start to make that change.’


'We wanted people themselves not to be dependent on outsiders but to try to develop their own self-reliance' – Dr Vinya Ariyaratne


Dr Vinya Ariyatne started by introducing the work of Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka, of which he is President. The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement is a social organisation which takes a holistic approach based on Buddhist teachings.


He said: 'We are working with communities to improve their economic wellbeing. Buddhism recognises that all living beings are interconnected, and also that poverty is not just a lack of basic resources. It’s also about disempowerment.'


The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement is about social, economic and spiritual wellbeing, and building confidence in people so that they themselves can make a difference.


‘The journey started in 1958 and after 60 years we have reached about 15,000 out of 38,000 village communities in Sri Lanka. It has not been an easy journey – we’ve had our own share of challenges – but it has survived as a very effective social movement based on Buddhist traditions, but which encompasses a very inclusive philosophy,’ he explained.


‘Coming into the economic dimension… the Movement had a very entrepreneurial approach to development. We wanted people themselves not to be dependent on outsiders but to try to develop their own self-reliance. All the resources were mobilised locally with people gifting their time, their intellect, their knowledge, their land, their money,’ he went on.


Vinya talked about the infrastructure used to support the organic process each village can take to achieve self-sustenance and the spiritual principles that support Sarvodaya Shramadana to encourage ethical capital formation.


‘We believe in an economic system where only one portion goes for consumption; two portions go for business or investment or industry and then we keep one for emergencies,' he said.


'We have tried to address the ills of the present economic model and look at an alternative economic system where we look at satisfying basic human needs using renewable resources… this economic system is not trying to create a rich few, not trying to make profits by destroying the environment or communal harmony. Even though they are legal, investments may not be moral, so we refrain from those things.’


He concluded by explaining the transformative approach Sarvodaya Shramadana takes to financial decision-making: 'We are working to address the ills of the present economic model and look at satisfying basic human needs. We are not trying to create a rich few or make profits by destroying the environment.


'We encourage those in our movement to voluntarily give up wasteful ways of living, and we are taking steps to remove unjust structures that keep people poor.


'Our aim is to create a just, sustainable and compassionate social order that fulfils basic human needs through collective awakening.'

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