Little attention was paid last fall when the financial leaders of the world’s major religions met in the medieval city of Zug, Switzerland, and agreed to focus their investments on sustainable development and the environment.
With three trillion dollars in assets, faith-based investors will be noticed soon enough.
The October gathering of representatives from over 500 faith investment groups related to more than 30 faith traditions from eight religions “was like a rock plunged into the center of Lake Zug in the middle of the night,” the Rev. Dr. Patrick Duggan wrote in a letter to the organizer. “It happened without being seen, but the waves rippled outward to every shore.”
Duggan, who is executive director of the United Church of Christ Church Building & Loan Fund, says the Zug meeting’s impact will be felt for decades to come because faith leaders have taken the bold step to move beyond negative guidelines for their investments, such as avoiding tobacco, weapons and fossil fuels, to putting their money where it can make the most difference.
“The whole idea behind this initiative was to get the largest and oldest institutions — and some would even argue the wealthiest — to engage in advancing the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals,” he says.
The SDGs — 17 goals which include eliminating poverty, creating gender equality, and providing clean water — may not be on the radar of the average American, but Duggan stresses that in the international community, UN policy is treated with sincerity and reverence.
“There are organizations, businesses, governments who are taking the SDGs seriously, and creating strategies to accomplish them,” he says. “So for us, faith leaders who want to see transformation on our planet, meeting those goals — it’s becoming a part of our practice.”
Trying to tackle all 17 goals is impossible for any single organization. Which is why, Duggan says, CB&LF will focus on measurable progress toward three or four of the goals.
A new CB&LF initiative that launched in January is integral toward implementing the work: the Adese (ah-DEH-seh) Fellowship. The two-year program for emerging entrepreneurs challenges participants to combine theology with innovation to fight poverty in their communities.
“We’re going to ask the Adese Fellows to bake SDGs into their enterprises,” Duggan says.
The ecumenical program has drawn a diverse group of inaugural fellows who share one key similarity: a desire to use enterprise to improve the lives of those who endure systemic poverty.
“It’s a way of connecting with a global movement to end poverty, and it’s a global movement that’s being taken up by governments and private wealth-generating enterprises,” Duggan says.
Many of the SDGs pertain to entire nations. And yet, as staggering as U.S. wealth is collectively, those UN goals are also of importance to an alarming percentage of Americans, Duggan says.
“Because we live in a wealthy country, we don't acknowledge that 40 percent of the country is low income,” he says. “One in five children are hungry; one in five children are in poverty. A lot of people are struggling.”
Simply put, he says, “We can’t continue operating the way we are in terms of the environment and the number of people in poverty.”
Duggan and the other Zug participants affirmed a set of guides for “faith-consistent investing.” They also agreed to form an alliance that “will enable faith groups to share information, experience, knowledge, research and resources to ensure they put their investments and assets into initiatives to help create a better world for all,” said event organizer Martin Palmer in a statement.
“The long-term impact will be to empower faith groups — and the billions of people who make up their congregations — to decide how to use their investments, their pension funds and their assets to create a better world,” Palmer said.
Duggan looks forward to a follow-up meeting later this year in Zug as the faith in finance movement grows. The camaraderie alone has a powerful effect, he says.
“It might seem really simple, but it’s the power of affinity,” he says. “We’re all these different religions, and people are wearing their best — the garb, different languages, different culture. But we’re more or less aligned in many ways — certainly around the ideas we’re wrestling with. There is a very intentional sense of ‘let’s communicate, and let’s connect for this greater good.”
That connection is enough to deepen commitment and raise the spirit for the hard work of creating social justice, he says.
“There’s an embrace of the Divine and the idea that as hard as this stuff is, we believe we’re going to overcome this. We’re going to win. We’re going to transform the world,” he adds. “It’s an amazing thing when you're in the room like that.”