PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) — Catholic teaching and Portland hip have found common ground.
John Burnside, a financial adviser who sits on the investment council of the Archdiocese of Portland, has become a spokesman for impact investing, a movement holding that venture capitalists can do good and make money simultaneously.
“I love the idea of doing good works,” said Burnside, a member of St. Philip Benizi Parish in Oregon City. “I think companies can lead by example. And there is no reason a company with a social mission can’t make a substantial profit.”
Impact investing aims to turn the power of the market to human benefit, including a growing bottom line. It differs slightly from divestment (think apartheid in the 1980s) and socially responsible investing (stripping things like tobacco and big oil from a portfolio) in that it not only avoids companies seen as harmful to society and the environment, but supports small, new, local businesses and organizations that try to make things better. Examples include firms focusing on sustainable agriculture, affordable housing, accessible healthcare, clean energy and financial services for poor people.
The practice could just as easily apply to any diocese and local community around the country.
Burnside, 44, offers his investors these kinds of companies among many options. He is trying to build an investment prototype that will spread.
“Investing $4,000 in a local urban farmer will have more impact than withholding $4,000 from BP,” Burnside said.
Pope Francis touted impact investing at a Vatican conference this summer, saying ethics must play a part in the world of finance and that “markets must serve the interests of peoples and the common good of humanity.” The pope called it “intolerable” that financial markets are shaping the destiny of people rather than serving their needs.
Burnside does not urge investors to put all their money into altruistic startups. The returns will not likely hit market level. But he does calculate that if accredited households in Portland put just five percent of their portfolios in such ventures, that would infuse noble companies with almost a billion dollars, spark a finance trend and put Portland on the map for it. He also said impact investing is a good way to diversify a traditional portfolio.
If impact investing catches on, Burnside said, it will not be long before companies see that good social and environmental outcomes are good business.
“Corporations need to care not just for shareholders but for stakeholders — the community and workers,” Burnside said.
While wealthier people are already taking part in impact investing, Burnside is trying to find a way to make it available to the masses. One mechanism could be retirement funds, in which employees can designate percentages to certain kinds of ventures.
Burnside wants people to keep donating to their favorite organizations, including the church, which considers indispensable. But he said governments and nonprofits cannot solve all of the world’s problems.
“Investors and corporations need to lead the way,” he said, explaining that the money and ideas brought to bear on social ills could be unprecedented.
Current nonprofits may be able to set up organizations that run like a business but have a deep conscience. Carolyn Woo, president of Catholic Relief Services, told Vatican conference attendees the model holds promise.
“We have to be creative,” said Woo. “We can’t rely (only) on donations and grant money because both of those streams are diminishing.” She cited examples from the Catholic world, such as self-supporting monasteries that market beer, cheese and even coffins.
“Portland can be a hotbed for impact investing because of its culture of thinking differently, yet it has real connections to the West Coast startup world,” Burnside explained. “The nation is looking at Portland to see what we are doing.”
Burnside sees potential impact investors in aging Baby Boomers who, now that they are retiring, may want to use their earnings to return to their 1960s and 1970s idealism. Some of the energy behind impact investing comes from awful memories of Enron and the Great Recession, when excess sparked a national outcry against corporate overindulgences. The rise of social media and crowdfunding also make this an opportune time, he said.
Langlois is a staff writer at the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.
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