RSF Social Finance: Making money, making change

Happy customers of Revolution Foods

Happy customers of Revolution Foods

If you have a few extra dollars in savings, and you’d like to earn more than 0.00001% interest or whatever it is your bank or money market fund is paying, and you’d like to support socially-conscious businesses, you’ll want to take a look at RSF Social Finance.

RSF Social Finance is a financial services organization of modest means (about $145 million in assets under management) that is bursting with big ideas and bold rhetoric. It calls itself “a leader in building the next economy.” It seeks to generate “social and spiritual renewal through investing, lending and giving,” Its mission is to “transform the way the world works with money.”

Whew. What’s going on here?

To find out, I visited RSF Social Finance’s offices in the Presidio complex in San Francisco last week to talk with Don Shaffer, the organization’s president and CEO.

At the simplest level, RSF looks and acts very much like a bank: Its flagship product, the Social Investment Fund, takes deposits and makes loans to so-called social enterprises, a term that’s widely (and often carelessly) thrown around to describe businesses or nonprofits whose intention is to improve society and the environment.

Deciding what qualifies as a social enterprise is subjective, at best. That said, the RSF Social Investment Fund supports companies and nonprofits that, by all appearances, do great work. Among them: [click to continue...]

How to be a HIP Investor

R. Paul Herman

R. Paul Herman

Make money by making the world a better place.

What’s not to like about that? So appealing is the idea of doing well by doing good that a significant slice of the financial services industry is devoted to persuading people that they can invest with their values without sacrificing returns. That’s what so-called socially responsible mutual funds are all about.

R. Paul Herman, the founder and CEO of an investment advisory firm called HIP Investor, goes a step further:  He argues that companies that are leaders in sustainability and corporate responsibility are likely to outperform their peers. Those companies can be identified by using publicly-available data, he says. So by constructing an index of big companies, and investing more money into the better companies and less into the not-so-good, Herman says he both promote good corporate behavior and make money for his investors.

HIP stands for Human Impact plus Profit, Herman explained today during a talk at the  Kenan Flagler business school at the University of North Carolina. (I’m in Chapel Hill for a couple of days, participating in a conference called Global Innovations in Energy organized by Kenan Flagler’s Center for Sustainable Enterprise.) I interviewed Herman, who gave a talk about HIP investing and his brand-new book, called The HIP Investor: Make Bigger Profits by Building a Better World. He’s a personable, 41-year-old Wharton grad who did a stint at McKinsey and worked at Ashoka.org and the Omidyar Network before starting HIP.

The core of his argument, as expressed on the HIP website, goes like this:

Our world of more than six billion people faces many human problems that need solutions, many of which can be served by companies.  By solving these human needs profitably through products and services (from Walmart’s $4 generic drug program to ICICI Bank’s micro-loans to Vestas’s wind turbines), a company can benefit customers, inspire employees, engage suppliers,  and deliver sustainable profitable growth for its investors.

Well, sure. Like many, I believe that Herman’s fundamental investing thesis makes sense.  I wrote it right into my bio: “Companies that make the world a better place—by serving their customers, their workers and their communities—will deliver superior results to their owners in the long run.”

The challenge for an investor comes in identifying those better companies and deciding whether they are fairly priced by the market. [click to continue...]