A Food Bank’s First Foray into Mission-Aligned Investing

Bryan O'Connor & Meg Taft

Every nonprofit’s guiding star is its mission statement. Plans are developed, activities executed, and resources allocated all with the mission in mind. We’re held accountable by donors, the government, and various watchdogs to ensure that every dollar is invested in activities that contribute, directly or indirectly, to the mission. However, even the most mission-focused nonprofits spend little time and energy making sure their biggest investments – those held in stocks and bonds to fund future work – are aligned with their mission and values.

As it was for many nonprofits, 2020 was a transformational year for Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine. A public health emergency, its economic impact, and various government responses sent hunger rates in Maine on a rollercoaster ride. Donors responded as they never had before, generously considering both the emergent needs of food-insecure Mainers and the future needs of the Food Bank and its partners. For the first time in the organization’s history, investing resources for future use became a critical priority.

As Good Shepherd Food Bank’s quasi-endowment and other investable assets in excess of required liquidity grew – due to the COVID response and a strategic $250 million Campaign to End Hunger in Maine – it became clear that we needed to pursue an investment strategy that empowered our dollars to work toward our mission while preserving and growing our funds for future use. This need was drive by the systemic inequities that were amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic and illuminated through 2020’s social justice movements.

To fulfill our mission of improving access to nutritious food for all Mainers, we must also acknowledge and address the root causes of hunger, including poverty and income inequality, and how they are grounded in persistent and pervasive structural racism. Centuries of oppression have left our Black and Indigenous neighbors experiencing hunger at far greater rates than white Mainers. Language and cultural barriers have kept refugee and asylum-seeking communities from accessing food through our traditional pantry network.

Recognizing the deep disparities in food security by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and other factors, we decided we must align our investments with our mission. We selected an investment partner and a portfolio of corporations that help fight food insecurity by prioritizing living wages over executive compensation and practice non-discriminatory hiring, promotions, and terminations. In doing so, we were able to put our donors’ dollars to work through investments that directly supported our mission, rather than working against it.

To choose a new investment advisor, Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine convened a committee comprised of staff and board members committed to centering equity in their selection process.  As we prepared and issued a request for proposal, and interviewed prospective advisors, the committee learned from each other and those around us. We collectively gained a better understanding of existing environmental, social, and governance (ESG) tools that help investors screen out bad actors, how those tools could help us align investments with our mission, and where they fall short. While it’s comforting to know that such structures allow other investors to follow their values, we maintained a healthy skepticism, particularly about the ability of corporations to manipulate ESG scores in order to stay attractive to potential investors. Committee members also took the opportunity to better articulate how our mission and values should influence the types of companies we invest in, choosing to prioritize those that provide livable and equitable wages while demonstrating a commitment to inclusive policies and practices.

The process led us to Zevin Asset Management, a socially responsible boutique investment firm based in Boston, Massachusetts. Zevin worked with us to create a customized screening tool that reflects our mission and values so we can proactively prioritize investments in companies that emphasize the same principles. Furthermore, Zevin is a leader in shareholder engagement, using executive meetings, letter-writing, campaign pressure, and shareholder proposals to hold companies accountable and press for change that benefits employees, stakeholders, communities, and ecosystems. By aligning with Zevin and its other socially conscious investor clients, Good Shepherd Food Bank can leverage our position as a shareholder to influence corporate behavior in ways that work toward community food security.

Our journey in responsible investing has piqued the interest of our foundation funders and individual donors. Upon learning about our process and selection, some donors have shared that they are considering revamping their own investment strategy. Good Shepherd Food Bank’s investments, while important, are smaller in scale than many of the endowments at other institutions and foundations and smaller than the portfolios of many individual donors. We encourage funders and organizations who are committed to fighting social inequities, poverty, and hunger to consider how they can have a dual impact on these issues by aligning their investments with their philanthropic values in addition to contributing to organizations and missions like ours that are actively working on solutions. Imagine the social change we could effect if we collectively put our current and reserve dollars to work for the same common good.

Bryan O’Connor is vice president of finance & administration at Good Shepherd Food Bank.

Meg Taft is director of equity, diversity, & inclusion at Good Shepherd Food Bank.

Follow Good Shepherd Food Bank on Twitter at @feedingmaine.

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