July 19, 2022
The U.S. sees firsthand the trade-offs inherent in the experiment known as democracy. Bakers, event planners, cakemakers, theme park operators, and even software providers are in the cross-hairs as they navigate the meanings of their brands.
The timing of this discussion coincides with a TechCrunch article that called out Blackbaud for having the National Rifle Association (NRA) as a customer (the article was published a week after the Uvalde school shooting). While the details of the original article were somewhat inaccurate, the major point was clear: a company that claims they provide “Software solutions powering the entire social good community” had a customer that sells rifles and assault weapons to young people who shoot up schools. My informal survey of Blackbaud customers revealed that only one school out of ten contacted would reconsider their future relationship with Blackbaud given the school’s current commitment to their systems. From Blackbaud’s perspective, the notion of choosing customers based on the alignment of organizational philosophies seemed inequitable and non-inclusive. Those issues were central to the Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court case in 2018. How would you choose the vendors of your products and services?
Additionally, Blackbaud pointed out that many of their Texas customers viewed having the NRA on their customer list as a positive factor. Blackbaud has 40,000 customers, and one might expect that every political, social, and economic view is represented in that group. Does that mean that you should work exclusively with companies in alignment with your social responsibility philosophy? In a very polarized society, chances are that you will be making some compromises as you identify those enterprises that provide you with the most value for your scarce dollars.
What is social responsibility in the financial world and how does it impact independent schools? The Conversation defines social responsibility as “fostering an environment that combines fairness and positive social connections with opportunities for students to learn and model ways to be kind and include others.” But what about socially responsible schools? In the public sector, providing free breakfast and lunch is a social responsibility. In the independent school world, the term is more amorphous, igniting memories of “public purpose.” For several reasons, schools are still using fossil fuels for heat and electricity, disposing of thousands of pounds of uneaten food every year, and transporting students in gas-powered vehicles. One might argue that it’s difficult to ask students to be socially responsible if the schools they attend are not modeling that behavior. It turns out, however, that students can be socially responsible while avoiding any personal financial demands while schools, like corporations, are more challenged to balance social responsibility with prudent spending and investments. Here are examples of both types of challenges.
On the investment side of the ledger, you might recall that in the 1980s our Boards were asked by students and faculty to consider divesting their endowments of investments in South African companies due to their Apartheid policies. At the time, most Boards responded by saying their fiduciary responsibility for the school required them to maximize endowment returns; there was nothing in their bylaws about investments that might be excluded. Of course, we know that few schools would knowingly invest in “sin stocks,” so there are some unwritten standards guiding endowment investments. Given the current investment environment, would you either retain or divest your hypothetical investment in Twitter if Elon Musk purchased the company (there is current litigation over his initial offer to do so)?
School investment portfolios change based on performance, but how many endowment managers are making changes based on SRI (Socially Responsible Investment) criteria? How many are on the lookout for “greenwashing?” Think about the implications of excluding specific high-performing funds from your portfolio. Consider your matching gift policy. Will you accept a gift match from a company that does not meet your social responsibility standards?
There are several general questions that you might ask and discuss to ensure that the school regularly considers spending and investment decisions that might align with your mission and philosophy. No school will receive a perfect score on socially responsible spending while maximizing your return on investments, but the more you document the criteria for your decisions, the more likely that the school will be able to demonstrate socially responsible intent.
- Do you identify vendors positively as environmentally green or negatively as greenwashing?
- Prior to doing business with a vendor, do you research their DEIJ philosophy and practices? What about manufacturers that utilize overseas sweatshops for labor? What about companies that historically used slave labor, discriminated against women, or had racist hiring policies? How will this information be discovered and used in decision-making?
- Do you have a review process for existing vendors once you determine their business does not align with your school philosophy?
- Will you do business with companies that operate in Russia?
- Does your school have a socially responsible investment policy? Do you follow the ESG guidelines (ESG is used to measure the ethical and sustainable impact of an investment in a company or business)? What is your position on carbon-neutral investments?
- Is there a periodic review of investments to determine if they are still consistent with school philosophy?
- What are the criteria for weighing investment performance and social responsibility? What is the appropriate balance for your school? Just as you have a risk tolerance, what is your social responsibility tolerance?
General Financial Decisions
- What general principles for gifts does your Advancement office abide by?
- Will you accept gifts from donors whose business, political, or personal philosophy does not align with that of the school? How do those philosophies impact naming opportunities?
- Will your spending and investment decisions be subject to the charge that you have politicized the school, and how do you counter such an accusation (see below for an addendum on this topic)?
Addendum on politicizing the school through financial decisions
While one of the goals of liberal education is to cut through political views to analyze critically the essence of an issue, schools sometimes find themselves taking a political stance. Following the recent Supreme Court ruling, many schools defined themselves as either being pro-life or pro-choice. Even if there was no public press release, accounts of internal conversations ended up with parents, alumni, trustees, and sometimes the media. Should a school adopt a position on controversial social and political issues or should it simply provide its community with the resources to make personal decisions?
The Citizen’s United Supreme Court case of 2010 gave free speech priority over laws that might suppress it, even in the case of corporations. Does that mean that schools may now express political statements? If they do, how does that Constitutional right square with the principles of liberal education? There are no easy answers to these questions. Outside the financial scope, almost every school has recently communicated prominently a position on DEIJ. Is that position a political statement or a statement of values? Each school should carefully weigh what the law allows and what is best for our students.
You may also enjoy other articles written by Joel Backon for Intrepid Ed News.