By Avi Deutsch
This last July, over 500 young adults, representing an estimated wealth of $750 billion, gathered at the United Nations headquarters in New York as part of the Nexus Global Youth Summit to discuss social entrepreneurship. They did not send their wealth or philanthropy advisors, but instead chose to spend three summer days cooped up in conference rooms to learn how to better use their capital and business acumen to make the world a better place.
The Nexus attendees reflect a dramatic shift in how millennials relate to wealth. The generation entering the workforce around the recent recession, laden with debt and weary of institutions, is set on making a difference. This may surprise those who view millennials as self-occupied and individualistic, quintessentially portrayed by the obnoxious selfie. However, it is a mistake to focus only on the superficial aspects of the fascination with the “self”; the emphasis on the individual is driving millennials to seek meaningful and value-inspired lives. This affects how they choose their jobs, consume, and importantly, invest their money.
As of 2015, millennials make up the largest generation in the US labor force. In addition to their earned income, they stand to inherit $59 trillion from baby boomers. A 2014 U.S. Trust survey found that 67% of millennials believe that their investment decisions are a way to express their social, political or environmental values, and 73% believe they can achieve market rate returns by investing in companies based on their impact. These factors help explain the global growing interest in for impact investing, a practice recently recognized by the CFA Institute as a distinct method of values-based investing that intentionally seeks to generate and measure social and environmental benefits alongside a financial return.
So how should we think about designing investment opportunities that appeal to millennials? The Nexus example holds several clues. First, millennials want to belong to communities where they can express their identity and feel a part of something bigger than themselves. While the jury is still out on whether technology is bringing us together or tearing us apart (it is doing both), one thing is clear: online networks are not a substitute for offline community and human interaction. Second, millennials want to be actively involved in the investment process. Finally, a third related factor is an unprecedented demand for transparency. Millennial investors want to see the measurable difference they are making. This last factor helps explain why millennials are changing the face of philanthropy, and perhaps, why they have lost faith in wealth advisors, as well as in the stock markets
Although the field of impact investing is growing rapidly, few existing products sufficiently meet the demand for values-based community, active participation, and transparency. Public equities struggle to provide retail investors with the opportunity for meaningful dialogue or participation. Investments in private companies – where exciting and hands-on transactions occur – have traditionally been off-limits to retail investors and anyone but ultra-high net-worth individuals or institutions.
The growing field of angel impact investing provides a notable exception. Aided by changes in regulation and technology, individuals are increasingly investing directly in early-stage companies that have a social or environmental mission. Angel investing is often done in a communal setting, which lends itself to creating a dialogue around shared values, and in turn, boosts a sense of purpose and belonging. Among the more than 400 active angel groups in the US are a growing number of impact-focused groups including Toniic and Investors’ Circle.
Despite this progress, impact investing as a meaningful personal practice is still in its infancy and requires ongoing innovation. At LAVAN, an angel group investing in Israeli impact entrepreneurs, we seek inspiration for creating meaningful experiences from another and perhaps unlikely source – religion. Religious institutions have millennia of experience in building communities and facilitating values-based dialogue. Our particular religious tradition – Judaism – has a long history of group learning and facilitated debate as means of arriving at a communal understanding of values. Further, more than most religions, Jewish law regulates even the most mundane aspects of life (e.g., dietary laws), and the extension to investing is a natural one.
LAVAN fuses tradition with investing by drawing on the fundamental Jewish commitment to making the world a better place. In the words of Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, “the heart of Judaism is the vision of perfection. The dream is of a world in which every human being is in the image of God, i.e. of infinite value, equal and unique.” Jewish tradition teaches that all humans have a responsibility, through a covenant with God, to bring our world and its inhabitants to a more dignified, and ultimately perfect, state. Jewish law is intended to provide the rules that help the Jewish people fulfill their end of the agreement, namely by ensuring that everyday actions serve that end.
The key takeaway here is straightforward and universal: with every act, we must ask ourselves how we are bringing the world closer to the image of perfection. Our investing activities are no exception.
To infuse values into investing, and meet the growing demand for social impact products, we must first understand how a sense of meaning is achieved. Millennials do not want financial products; they want impact investing experiences that enable them to participate thoughtfully, feel their impact, and belong. It is our job to create opportunities for them to do so.
This article was originally published in the Journal of Sustainable Finance & Banking