Saturday, January 20, 2007

More on foundation investment practices

The Wall Street Journal followed up yesterday with a small article about foundations which clarified for me that there are really three basic choices for foundations, not two as the L.A. Times portrayed it. (You can't read the Journal article unless you're a subscriber but a Chronicle of Philanthropy note on it is here, and Philanthropy 2173 has links to all the foundations mentioned in it.)

(If you're interested in this subject, go take Lucy Bernholz's online poll found on the right at the Philanthropy 2173 link above.)

The L.A. Times articles about the Gates Foundation talked about either letting mission-related issues influence decisions about buying stock, or deciding that getting the highest returns is all that matters. That's basically the same as the debate about whether Western nations should keep China at arm's length until it improves its human-rights practices, or have normal diplomatic relations so as to encourage change. (When I was in college the topical subject of that foreign-policy debate was South Africa.)

Buying stock in a corporation, though, is different: it's ownership. You get to actually vote on the policies of the thing you own part of, and to speak out loud at annual meetings where the management and all the other owners have to listen to you. Indeed if enough other owners feel the same way that you do about an issue like corporate practices, the company must follow your wishes. That's a whole different caliber of influence than any nation, even the U.S., gets by trading with China -- the U.S. State Department obviously does not get to speak, let alone vote, as a member of the Chinese Politburo or even the country's toothless parliament.

Upon reflection that's the path which seems to me to best leverage the latent power for change of big investment portfolios. So that's why I voted for option 4 on the online poll mentioned above. (I notice that the poll stacks the deck in its structure -- it lists three different flavors of the first strategic option and then just one version of the other two -- so there's little chance that anything but a version of "mission imperatives should change investment choices" will win.)

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