Water.org, Bank of America Partner to Bring Safe Water and Sanitation to India and Brazil

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Water.org received a $3 million grant over three years from Bank of America to unlock safe drinking water and promote sanitation practices for more than 250,000 people in India and Brazil. The grant will enable Water.org to effectively expand its microfinance practice, WaterCredit, which gives small loans to people struggling to afford essential sanitation systems like water connections and toilets.

Water.org, a nonprofit organization co-founded by Gary White and actor Matt Damon, will use $2 million of the grant to provide market-based solutions to people in India. The remaining $1 million will be deployed in Brazil, where 5 million people lack access to safe water and 25 million lack access to improved sanitation. Last year, Water.org certified its first microfinance institution in Brazil and is looking to scale up its WaterCredit initiative “in this new, top-priority geography.”

India’s struggle with sanitation is well documented—the United Nations reported that nearly 600 million of India’s 1.3 billion people openly defecate. The solid waste from open defecation often finds its way into waterways that are used for drinking and cooking water. This puts hundreds of millions of people at risk of contracting a slew of diseases, including cholera and diarrhea. In India, the World Bank links one in 10 deaths to poor sanitation.

Water.org has worked in India since 2005, using its staple WaterCredit microfinance initiative to help more than 7 million people access safe water and sanitation.

The Indian government is also looking to combat open defecation—albeit using controversial methods of public shaming and a “take the poo to the loo” campaign. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it a top priority to end open defecation, ambitiously vowing that every Indian will have access to a toilet by October 2019. One financial report showed that India spent $106.7 billion in 2015—or 5.2 percent of its GDP—to build latrines, promote safe sanitation and install toilets.

Water.org’s market-based approach goes beyond providing people in need with sanitation solutions. Distributing loans to rural, often unbanked people gives them the opportunity to repay the loan and build credit, credit that they may use to leverage a future loan and start a small business.

Improved water access also frees up time, particularly for women. UNICEF found that women and girls around the world spend 200 million hours each day collecting water. The hours saved collecting water for their families, coupled with the time not spent caring for their constantly ill children, could unlock new economic and educational opportunities for women and girls.

“Just imagine—those 200 million hours add up to 8.3 million days or more than 22,800 years,” said Sanjay Wijesekera, UNICEF’s global head of water, sanitation and hygiene. “It’s as if a woman started with her empty bucket in the Stone Age and didn’t arrive home with water until 2018.”

Image credit: Water.org via Flickr

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Financial Activists Leverage Capital for Good

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Magic happens when trailblazing financial activists come together. Freed from their geographical and professional silos, they develop strong coalitions to shift the flow of capital in ways that create powerful social and environmental benefits.

That’s the purpose of the Integrated Capital Institute, a nine-month fellowship program that gives finance professionals the strategies and insights they need to leverage capital in all its forms to effect lasting, positive change—launched last year by my organization, the nonprofit socially responsible investment group RSF Social Finance.

Current financial systems and incentives focus on maximizing short-term returns for wealth holders and do not include concerns for nature and economic equity. RSF’s Integrated Capital Fellows believe a different paradigm is possible—one that prioritizes long-term benefits to all stakeholders, including local communities, employees, customers, investors and the environment.

The urgency of addressing climate change and economic inequity calls for bold actions by those who understand the power and potential of capital to chart a different path.

Innovative thinkers seeking solutions

Investors, donors and wealth advisors are craving new solutions. Many who work in the world of finance are feeling disillusioned, thinking, “This is not working; I am not helping.” At the same time, investors and donors are realizing that it’s possible to have more than enough wealth, and they’re looking for financial practitioners who know how to leverage capital to support their values. Empowered by the great generational wealth transfer underway, people are ready to put money behind groundbreaking solutions.

The 22 Integrated Capital Fellows in RSF’s first cohort are activating resources—pulling together giving, lending, investing and field building—to direct capital flow in ways that create significant change. They’re committed to building social and economic justice, having uncomfortable conversations about money, and creating effective coalitions. Collectively, our Fellows have the potential to move billions of dollars toward world-changing initiatives.

They are part of a growing movement of investors, donors, financial activists and educators who are using new strategies to leverage financial, human and social capital to have the greatest positive effect on communities, individuals and future generations. Below are just a few examples of the important initiatives they are leading.

Moving from extraction to regeneration

Integrated Capital Fellows Stephanie Randolph and Lora Smith are working to support a successful economic transition in Central Appalachia, in collaboration with the Appalachia Funders Network—an organization committed to developing more diverse and resilient local economies.

Randolph serves as a program officer at Cassiopeia Foundation, a philanthropic investment fund. She developed Impact Appalachia to accelerate sustainable market development in the six coal-impacted states by blending $17 million in catalytic capital to unlock a $40 million investment fund. Smith, executive director of the Appalachian Impact Fund, makes grants and direct impact investments that support community-led economic development.

Flowing capital to underserved communities

Fellows Jessica Norwood and Nina Robinson are co-leading an exciting integrated capital fund called The Runway Project. It bridges the racial wealth gap by providing innovative funding and wealth-building tools designed to replicate “friends and family” funding for early-stage ventures led by African American entrepreneurs.

That essential seed stage of funding is not an equal-opportunity resource. White families in the U.S. have an average net worth of $142,000, while African American families have an average net worth of $11,000. The Runway Project provides affordable loans, along with culturally relevant technical support, to promising African American entrepreneurs. The project has provided financial and human capital to 12 companies in a range of industries.

In the Pacific Northwest, Nita Shah, founder and executive director of Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon (MESO), matches entrepreneurs from underserved and unbanked communities with the services and support needed to succeed in business. MESO has provided $5 million in loans to 611 entrepreneurs and placed over $2.5 million in matched savings.

Partnering across race and class

Tiffany Brown and Kate Poole became business partners during our Integrated Capital Institute. They are co-founders of a new financial advising firm called Chordata Capital, where they work with inheritors to balance present and future needs with a desire to address the extractive history of wealth accumulation.

Brown and Poole use an integrated capital approach, and they each bring over a decade of work in movements for racial and economic justice. Their work helps individuals and organizations collaborate across race and class to move their money in powerful ways.

Growing momentum

Leveraging capital to effect lasting change is more art than science and relies on leadership, innovation and collaboration more than just technical financial skills. Those qualities are what our Integrated Capital Institute aims to cultivate and spread. The second Integrated Capital Institute cohort, convening November 2018 to June 2019, will provide 24 financial activists with the connections and insights they need to leverage financial, human and social capital to address our most pressing social and environmental problems.

No one can solve these problems alone, but we begin to turn the tide when we question assumptions about money, engage in radical collaboration, and move capital where it’s needed most.

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Digital and the Sustainable Development Goals: An Urgent Call to the World’s Donor Countries

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Charlotte Petri Gornitzka co-authored this story

In a meeting last month co-hosted by the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) and the GSMA, it was revealed that only half of the world’s 30 major donor aid agencies have a public Digital for Development (D4D) strategy to integrate digital technologies into their development policies.

This is an extraordinary finding, given the world that we live in. The rapid spread of digital technologies, and mobile in particular, has been a phenomenal success story. Today, over 5 billion people on the planet have a mobile subscription, with 3.7 billion subscribers living in low- and middle-income countries.

Mobile technology provides core digital infrastructure around the world. In the agricultural sector, mobile provides information and access to markets—enabling farmers to increase their crop yields, reduce pesticide use and increase family income. Mobile technologies, including the Internet of Things, are enabling increased access to safe water, sanitation and energy. And mobile money is offering a transformative digital solution for the world's financially excluded; at the end of 2017, there were 690 million registered mobile money accounts worldwide, and mobile money providers are now processing over $1 billion a day.

Through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the world has made an ambitious commitment to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030. While digitalization and mobile technology are not explicit targets within the SDGs, mobile connectivity and the services it enables hold great potential to accelerate all 17 goals. Indeed, the mobile industry was the first sector as a whole to commit to the SDGs.

That digital is an essential accelerator and delivery mechanism for the SDGs was reinforced when United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres created the High-Level Panel for Digital Cooperation in July of this year. Chaired by Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Jack Ma, executive chairman of Alibaba Group, the Panel underscores that the scale, spread and speed of change brought about by digital technology is unprecedented—and, perhaps more importantly, that the current means and levels of international cooperation are unequal to the challenge.

We see several immediate opportunities. First, digital solutions can significantly improve the effectiveness and efficiency of existing development programming. Secondly, it is critical that we increase digital inclusion by ensuring that underserved populations can make best use of available technology, in particular women, older people, those with disabilities and rural populations. Finally, we need to build stronger partnerships between the technology industry and the development community to bring digital inclusion to the fore.

Advancing the SDGs requires governments to recognize that mobile connectivity and innovative digital technologies offer the promise of social and economic progress for millions of people at a speed unimaginable without mobile networks.

As 2030 approaches, there is an ever-pressing need for the world’s major donor countries to adopt digital strategies, to boost impact on each individual reached and drive scale to reach all those most in need, across their collective annual spend of nearly US$150 billion for official development assistance. We are already witnessing leading examples of bold ambition in development cooperation with the transformative use of mobile technologies—but to deliver the SDGs, we must all work together to ensure that this transformation becomes reality.

Image credit: Alix Murphy/WorldRemit via Flickr

Co-author Charlotte Petri Gornitzka was elected as Chair of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) in 2016 to lead reform efforts of the DAC to support members in delivering on the SDGs. Prior to this, she served as Director-General of the Swedish International Development Co-operation Agency (SIDA) between 2010 and 2016 where she reaffirmed Sweden’s role as leader in development co-operation and spearheaded the implementation of innovative models to stimulate private sector engagement in development activities. She was recently appointed Deputy Executive Director at UNICEF. You can follow her on Twitter @CharlottePetriG.

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How Market Levers for Clean Energy Development are Continuing the Trend Toward Renewables

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This article series is sponsored by NRG Energy and went through our normal editorial review process.

The renewable energy industry has come a long way since 1975, when the first utility-scale wind generation project came online in California. By the end of 2017, all renewable energy sources provided about 17 percent of total utility-scale power generation in the U.S., with about 10 percent of this total coming from wind and solar facilities.

While 17 percent may not sound like a lot, it’s double the amount from 10 years earlier. And over this same period, power generation from burning coal declined from about 45 percent of the U.S. total to 30 percent in 2017.

This trend is likely to continue according to most energy industry experts as costs continue to drop for renewables and as operating coal-burning plants becomes increasingly uneconomic.

So how did we get here? Over time, several factors have emerged, both at the federal and state levels, to support the growth of utility-scale renewable energy projects. Among the most important are federal tax incentives and state-mandated Renewable Portfolio Standards.

Tax Incentives and Renewable Portfolio Standards

For many years, the U.S. government has provided tax incentives to encourage domestic fossil fuel production. Starting in the mid-2000s, the government began offering similar incentives for renewables.

Chief among these are the Production Tax Credit (PTC) and Investment Tax Credit (ITC), which provide a 30 percent federal tax credit for the owners and investors in renewable energy generation projects. A 10 percent credit applies to other technologies like geothermal and combined heat and power systems. The industry has boomed since the introduction of these credits; however, they are set to decline or expire by 2022.

At the state level, Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) require state utilities to obtain a percentage, or specified amount, of the electricity they sell from renewable resources. Currently 29 states and the District of Columbia have such standards. According to recent estimates, roughly half of the growth in U.S. renewable energy generation since 2000 can be attributed to these RPS programs.

Price Parity and Beyond

Today, even without tax subsidies, solar and wind power are often cheaper than electricity generated by coal or nuclear over a facility’s lifetime. Likewise, natural gas prices, which were highly volatile in the early 2000s, have now stabilized making it a more economical choice for generating electricity versus coal.

As a result, many electric utilities are moving away from coal and increasing investments in renewables and high-tech natural gas-fired power plants that emit much less carbon dioxide (CO2) than existing plants.

In fact, the number of coal plants has been declining for some time, and as of late 2017, the number closing exceeded those still open. Another 43 gigawatts, or about 18 percent of the remaining 249 gigawatts of capacity, is expected to close by 2030. (A gigawatt powers about 700,000 homes.)

Moving Forward

Even with federal tax incentives sun-setting, industry watchers expect state programs, like RPS, will continue to drive clean energy development while other market forces will come forward.

Carbon Pricing

Many clean energy advocates are pushing for widespread carbon pricing plans like market-based cap-and-trade schemes. Such programs have already been implemented in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and in California through Assembly Bill (A.B.) 32.

The California program has proven effective. State officials recently announced greenhouse gas pollution in California fell below 1990 levels for the first time since emissions peaked in 2004.

Corporate Demand

Another key market driver is the growing demand from the largest electricity consumers in the commercial and industrial sectors. Currently, 71 of Fortune 100 companies have set renewable energy targets, with 22 of those committing to procure 100 percent of their energy from renewable sources.

The accounting firm, Deloitte, recently surveyed over 600 businesses across industries and found that nearly half of business respondents are working to procure more electricity from renewable sources.

Increased Competition

Based on rules created by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), several states today offer some form of electricity market deregulation at the wholesale or retail level or both.

In deregulated wholesale markets, companies other than the utility can operate power plants and transmission lines. These companies compete to sell electricity into a wholesale market for retail energy suppliers to purchase and sell to their customers. Deregulation at the retail level means retail customers (commercial, industrial, residential) can choose between different retail suppliers, who compete to provide customers with technologies, solutions and options beyond “one size fits all” electricity.

Many in the industry, like Abe Silverman, vice president and deputy general counsel at NRG Energy, believe competitive markets have already demonstrated their impact on renewable energy development as most of the country’s wind and solar power plants are currently located in wholesale power markets.

As power generators look to replace aging power plants, Silverman believes, “competitive energy markets—not Washington—should decide where scarce investment dollars are spent and which technology mix will prevail.”


But it won’t be all smooth sailing going forward if the current administration continues to implement coal-friendly policies while downplaying the role of renewables. Withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, repealing the Clean Power Plan, imposing tariffs on solar panels – all these actions could slow progress.

In September 2017, the Department of Energy directed FERC to create a bailout plan for uncompetitive coal and nuclear plants couched in the premise that power plants with fuel located on site are needed to guarantee “grid resiliency.” FERC rejected this proposal in January 2018 saying there was no evidence that power plant retirements affect grid resilience.

Since then, the administration has continued to develop plans to bail out coal and nuclear plants. A draft of one such plan suggested that Cold-war era laws could be used to create a “strategic electric generation reserve” by compelling grid operators to buy electricity from at-risk fossil fuel plants. As of October, it seems that the administration has shelved this plan, but no official announcement has been made.

So, what’s next?

It seems that with or without federal-level support, market forces will continue to promote growth in low-carbon technologies. Customers large and small are voicing—with their wallets—that renewables continue to be economically and environmentally attractive and the power sector is responding.

Image: Pexels/Narcisa Aciko

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Brands Taking Stands: FedEx Fills a Leadership Void, Intentionally or Not

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The corporate social responsibility movement has been ramping up to a new level over the past two years, as leading consumer brands take steps to address the reputational risk of associating with right wing extremism. One significant development occurred on the heels of last week's hate-fueled violence - FedEx has announced that it will no longer provide a shipping discount to the National Rifle Association.

To be clear, the break is between FedEx and its broader marketing program, which includes the NRA organization among many others. The company has stated that it will still provide discounts to individual NRA members. Nevertheless, there is more to that announcement than meets the eye.

Brands (not) taking stands

FedEx came in for a good deal of criticism over its relationship with the NRA long before the trio of violent episodes erupted last week, including a series of failed package bombs in New York and other cities, the deadly shooting of two shoppers in Kentucky and the massacre of 11 people at a synagogue in Pennsylvania.

Back in January 2017, an alliance of gun control organizations drew attention to the connection between FedEx's robust delivery business with gun dealers in Florida, the state's notorious "stand your ground" law enabling citizens to use deadly force and a spike in homicides that some researchers have linked to passage of the law.

The pressure turned up considerably higher with the murder of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida earlier this year.

Rather than letting adults spearhead the reaction, students at the school took the lead with an informed, passionate appeal for gun control that resonated nationwide.

Major brands, most notably Dick's Sporting Goods, quickly withdrew from their relationships with the NRA. The list of those making a swift, public withdrawal included the First National Bank of Omaha, rental car companies including Enterprise, Hertz and Avis, the purchasing service TrueCar, airlines United and Delta, cybersecurity companies SimpliSafe and Symantec, the Wyndham Rewards program of Wyndham Hotels, MetLife Insurance, Allied Van Lines and NorthAmerican Van Lines.

The list of household brands did not include FedEx, which may have been hoping that the public spotlight on the Parkland murders would soon dim, just as it has in so many other cases.

Brands taking stands: when boycotts work

So, what finally prompted FedEx to drop marketing ties with the NRA after last week's violence?

It could have simply been a case of the very last straw. The Oval Office is occupied by a president who has populated his inner circle with people sympathetic to the white nationalist movement, and who gins up fear, anger and paranoia as a matter of routine, promoting an undercurrent of state-approved violence and resentment. It was only a matter of time before that influence propagated from online bullying and rally-goer chanting into the real world.

The reaction of other brands may have also motivated FedEx to take a stand. In the wake of the Pittsburgh massacre, the killer's affinity with the extremist social media platform Gab came to light and brands were caught in the reflection.

Consumer brands had already kept Gab at a distance from the get-go, and Microsoft had already cut off Gab from its hosting service Azure. The site's current host, Joylent, swiftly closed out the account after the massacre. PayPal and Stripe were already beginning to disentangle their services from Gab, and both companies brought the process to a swift conclusion after the massacre.

This kind of reaction takes corporate social responsibility into a new level of activism, in which brand risk is deeply entwined with issues of broad social concern that are not being addressed by elected decision makers.

Reputational risk and the bottom line

Whether or not brand risk and brand activism were significant factors, FedEx has chosen to downplay its decision as a bottom-line strategy.

The NRA decision was slipped into a group of 100 organizations that formerly received FedEx discounts.

As reported by Local 24 News in Memphis, Tennessee, FedEx provided this explanation:

We are transitioning some account holders in more than 100 organizations in the FedEx Marketing Alliance program to other pricing programs. Account holders that participated in the program will continue to receive the same discounts on FedEx shipping, and we will work directly with these customers to ensure a seamless transition.”
The New York Times provided more details:
...FedEx said on Tuesday that its decision to end its marketing relationship with the N.R.A. was the result of a review that began months ago. The review showed that members of the group did not bring in enough shipping volume to warrant its participation in the program, the company said. More than 100 companies were dropped from the discount program as part of the review.

That's fairly consistent with the argument FedEx employed to defend its NRA shipping discount shortly after the Parkland murders:
FedEx is a common carrier under Federal law and therefore does not and will not deny service or discriminate against any legal entity regardless of their policy positions or political views. The NRA is one of hundreds of organizations in our alliances/association Marketing program whose members receive discounted rates for FedEx shipping. FedEx has never set or changed rates for any of our millions of customers around the world in response to their politics, beliefs or positions on issues.

However, FedEx's position started to crumble when other companies dropped the NRA from similar discount programs. FedEx tried to deflect attention by pointing out that UPS ships from the NRA store, but that is an apples-to-oranges comparison. UPS has stated that it does not provide a discount (as a side note, the NRA store sells gun-related paraphernalia, not guns).

Bottom line or not, FedEx may have come to the realization that the consequences of terrorism ripple far beyond the actions of individuals. Brand risk applies to companies that provide material support those who promote gun violence as well as those who perpetrate it.

Photo (cropped): Backbone Campaign (photo by Mike King)/flickr.


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Companies Step In to Preserve Ecological and Economic Benefits of Bats

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This Halloween, befriend a bat. Dozens of companies are doing it. You might wonder why corporations would care about these much-maligned creatures. Those small flying mammals that adorn houses for Halloween and got a bad (and unfair) rep from Count Dracula have enormous ecological and economic significance. There’s a direct bottom-line impact to preserving the 1,300 species of bats around the world and their habitat.

In our family, we love bats. A favorite book of my daughters when they were young was Stellaluna, which follows the adventures of a lost baby fruit bat. Later, my ornithologist husband and I took them to the Venado Caves in Costa Rica to look for some of the four main bat species that dwell there. We were lucky to spot a few. Our fondness for these clever mammals made our daughters puzzle about why their friends thought bats were scary.

Still frightened of bats? The companies who are working to preserve the ecological and economic of benefits seem to think the scary part would be losing bat species. Ontario Power Generation, BASF, Covia, DTE Energy, Freeport-McMoRan, GM, LafargeHolcim and Marathon Petroleum are all engaging in bat conservation projects on their corporate-owned or leased land. In a recent white paper, the Wildlife Habitat Council reviewed the companies’ efforts and outlined why they’re important.

Insectivorous bats save agriculture billions of dollars through predation of a multitude of agricultural pests. Other bats eat fruit and nectar, acting as pollinators and spreading seeds of the fruit they eat, proving essential to the success of many food products like tequila and chocolate (need we say more?), consequently contributing to the global economy.

Consider these facts from Bat Conservation International:

  • Bats pollinate more than 500 species of plants, ensuring the production of fruits that support local economies, as well as diverse animal population

  • Bats save U.S. farmers $23 billion annually in pesticides and reduced crop damage by consuming vast amounts of insects, including some of the most damaging agricultural pests

  • Fruit-eating bats in the tropics are called “farmers of the tropics” because they disperse seeds that are critical to restoring cleared or damaged rainforest

  • Bat droppings (guano) are valuable as a rich natural fertilizer worldwide providing economic benefits for landowners and local communities

Making bats feel at home

Various companies are helping bats thrive in a number of ways, according to the Wildlife Habitat Council. DTE Energy has installed bat houses on its 2,350-acre Taggart Compressor Station site in Michigan to provide roosting habitat that is lacking in the surrounding ecosystem. LafargeHolcim’s Onoway Aggregates in Alberta, Canada not only feature bat houses but engage employees in acoustic monitoring and capture-release monitoring to assess the species.

Cave- and mine-dwelling bats are susceptible to disturbance from predators, cavers, vandalism and harassment. Therefore, Covia, a minerals and material solutions company in Michigan, provides shelters for hibernating bats. Marathon Petroleum’s Palestine Neal Pit engages the community and its employees through learning opportunities and community events and a bat learning station. BASF’s Vermont site in Johnson, Vermont works with several local partners to conduct surveys of the site’s bat species and their population.

General Motors’ Milford Proving Ground turns employees into bat detectives, giving them Echo Meter Touch 2 devices, which plug into a smartphone or tablet and uses a special app to analyze bat echolocation calls. The app allows participants to see and hear the echolocation sounds that bats use to navigate and hunt for food at night.

There’s no better time to give bats a break than Bat Week, which ends, not coincidentally, today, October 31, on Halloween. And really, you don’t need to worry that a bat might fly in your hair (even though that’s a thoroughly debunked myth).

In many regions, bats are most likely hibernating on October 31.

Image credit: Pixabay

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Investors Petition SEC for Mandatory ESG Disclosure

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With the recent momentum in the U.S. for more environmental, social and governance (ESG) transparency, it comes as no surprise that a group of investors have petitioned the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to require mandatory ESG disclosure.

While no one expects this to happen any time soon, the SEC has now been put on notice that investors are clamoring for more clarity on ESG disclosure.

The petition, filed on October 1, calls for the SEC to design a framework for companies to disclose “specific, much higher-quality ESG information” than is currently required. “It is time for the SEC to regulate in this area,” the 20-page petition states. The Commission is under no legal obligation to act upon the petition, and an SEC spokesperson declined comment.

The petition was written by business law professors Cynthia A. Williams and Jill E. Fisch, both of the University of Pennsylvania, and signed by investors and associated organizations representing more than $5 trillion in assets under management, including the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), the U.N. Principles for Responsible Investment; and dozens more firms and organizations.

“It’s time to bring coherence”

The petition’s authors make a case for the “clear materiality” of ESG issues, emphasizes large asset managers’ existing calls for standardized ESG disclosure and underlines the importance of such standardized disclosure for companies and the competitive position of US capital markets.

Pointing to the existing rulemaking petitions, investors proposals and stakeholder engagement on human capital management, climate, tax, human rights, gender pay ratios and political spending, the message from the investor community is clear: “it’s time to for the SEC to bring coherence to this area.”

“Today, investors, including retail investors, are demanding and using a wide range of information designed to understand the long-term performance and risk management strategies of public-reporting companies,” the petitioners wrote.

“Without adequate standards, more and more public companies are voluntarily producing ‘sustainability reports’ designed to explain how they are creating long-term value. There are substantial problems with the nature, timing, and extent of these voluntary disclosures, however. We respectfully ask the Commission to engage in notice and comment rule-making to develop a comprehensive framework for clearer, more consistent, more complete, and more easily comparable information relevant to companies’ long-term risks and performance.” 

Such a framework, they say, would better inform investors and “provide clarity to America’s public companies on providing relevant, auditable, and decision-useful information to investors.”

A muddled world of ESG information

Both companies and investors will attest to the struggles of the current muddled world of ESG disclosure: companies are often perplexed about what ESG information investors find relevant, reliable, and decision-useful, and investors find the voluntary disclosure episodic, incomplete, incomparable and inconsistent.

And it is no longer niche investors who want this kind of information. BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, wrote in the Petition, “Environmental, social, and governance issues are integral to our investment stewardship activities, as the majority of our clients are saving for long-term goals. It is over the long-term that ESG factors – ranging from climate change to diversity to board effectiveness – have real and quantifiable financial impacts.”

Yet the clarion call for bringing clarity to ESG disclosures is clear: as TriplePundit reported recently, 24 percent of U.S. investors now say that an ESG integrated portfolio will outperform a non-ESG portfolio, five times the number who agreed in 2017.  

Investors grow impatient

Regulators in other countries have been heeding that call. The United Kingdom and Sweden require public pension funds to disclose how much they incorporate ESG considerations in investment decisions and the European Commission plans to introduce a regulatory framework supporting sustainable investment. In addition, seven global stock exchanges — in Australia, Brazil, India, Malaysia, Norway, South Africa and England — require ESG disclosure as part of their listing requirements.

U.S regulators have been lagging behind, and investors have grown impatient. Whether there is appetite for mandatory ESG disclosure in the Trump administration or Republican-led Congress is doubtful. But the momentum seems to be pointing towards not whether ESG disclosure will become a matter of law—but when.

Image credit: Pixabay

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Reforestation Project Combating Climate Change Wins $100,000 Ray of Hope Prize

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At least 14.2 million acres of land in the Atlantic Forest has the potential to grow trees - and Brazilian company Nucleário has found a faster and more sustainable way to do so. Nucleário’s use of biomimicry resulted in the company winning the 2018 $100,000 Ray of Hope Prize. Biomimicry is the imitation of models, systems, and elements of nature for solving complex human problems.

Championed by the notion of businesses doing well by doing good, the Ray C. Anderson Foundation along with the Biomimicry Institute have been working together to understand how nature-inspired design can solve problems such as deforestation, and how these solutions can become commercially viable. As a result, the Ray of Hope Prize was launched to crowdsource nature-inspired solutions through the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge.

The Atlantic Forest passes through Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay and is one of the world’s most ecologically diverse regions. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most threatened and exploited regions as deforestation for commercial agriculture, particularly soy production, dominates.

Globally, every year the world loses 18.7 million acres of forests, equivalent to 27 soccer fields every minute, according to the WWF. This deforestation robs animals of their habitats and is a cause of global warming, making sustainable reforestation a global priority for many NGOs. According to many international organizations, if current deforestation levels continue, the world's rainforests may completely disappear in the next 100 years.

Traditional methods of planting and maintaining trees is logistically complicated and expensive, as it is labor intensive and requires regular visits to the reforestation areas. Nucleário’s solution reduces the need of regular manual maintenance of seedlings, the main bottleneck in remote reforestation projects.

"If you just plant seedlings and go away, more than 90 percent will die. Every three months, you have to cut grass, water, apply fertilizer to avoid this,” said Bruno Rutman Pagnoncelli, CEO and founder of Nucleário. An average of 30 percent of planted tree saplings do not survive to become mature trees, so Nucleário says the company is working towards to reduce this number.

Nucleário's plantation device helps seedlings grow like they would in nature by providing them controlled water supply, protecting them from leaf-cutting ants, and preventing them from losing their nutrients. This increases the survival rate of seedlings at a lower cost of time and money, allowing for more efficient reforestation. Designed to safeguard seedlings for three years after plantation, the device then eventually decomposes into the soil.

The Nucleário team has been testing a prototype of this system with the WWF in the Cerrado region of Brazil, the largest savanna ecosystem in South America.

After winning the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge for climate change, Nucleário undertook an intensive 12-month program at the Biomimicry Launchpad that assisted them in further developing their concept with industry experts. It is after this program that they were selected from among five others to win the $100,000 Ray of Hope prize. The Biomimicry Launchpad is the world’s only accelerator program that supports early-stage entrepreneurs working to bring nature-inspired climate change solutions to the market.

Other projects competing for the prize at the Biomimicry Launchpad were RootLink, which connects urban farmers to end users; Refish, a device that can remove particles from the air; Extraction, a filter system that uses the same process as nature for carbon capture; Cooltiva, which mimics nature to ventilate buildings; and BioThermosmart, which applies lessons from animals’ circulatory systems to develop a temperature control system for buildings that harvest waste heat, and cycles it back into the system.

Innovations with biomimicry at their core offer hope that we can use the lessons of nature and evolution to protect it for future generations.

Image credit: Nucleario

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How the Proper Use of Fertilizer Can Help Global Progress Toward Zero Hunger

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This article series is underwritten by The Mosaic Company and went through our normal editorial review process. 

By now most of us have heard the oft-quoted refrain that the world is going to have to find a way to feed 9.7 billion people by 2050 while still limiting the effects of agriculture on climate change. This will be no small undertaking.

Population growth exponentially increases climate change by creating a greater burden on natural resources. Climate change negatively affects agriculture, as weather disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods greatly reduce crop yields, contaminate water supplies, and destroy the infrastructure of agricultural operations. Agriculture can also increase the negative effects of climate change as farming increases greenhouse gas (GHG) production. And this vicious cycle negatively affects food security.

Increasing land use for food production can provide part of the answer, but removing trees and destroying ecosystems is the antithesis of minimizing climate change.  A better solution may be found in intensifying the production of food—and the nutritional value of that food—where it is already being grown.

One way to achieve this necessary increase is to boost the health of the soil in the growing area, and one way to boost the health of the soil is with fertilizer.

Plants need three main nutrients to grow: Nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) -- or NPK -- as well as a range of micronutrients. When soil is farmed, these nutrients diminish substantially; introducing fertilizer adds them back for optimal growing conditions.

In 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the U.N. published its 16th FAO Fertilizer and Plant Nutrition Bulletin. Titled “Plant nutrition for food security: A guide for integrated nutrient management,” the report details how nutrient-abundant fertilizers are vital to the ability to increase agricultural yields, while being mindful of the potential ecological implications of excess fertilizer runoff entering natural waterways.

Since then, The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) has developed the 4R Nutrient Stewardship. This is a “framework to achieve cropping system goals, such as increased production, increased farmer profitability, enhanced environmental protection, and improved sustainability.” The basis consists of using the “right fertilizer source” -- matching the fertilizer type to what a particular crop needs; at the “right rate” -- only using the exact amount of fertilizer necessary; at the “right time” -- only adding fertilizer when needed; and in the “right place” -- keeping the nutrients where the crops can use them.

In 2012, TFI launched the 4R Advocate program which recognizes agricultural retailers and producers who are leading the way on the implementation of, and educating of other agricultural stakeholders on, 4R nutrient stewardship.

On a larger scale, TFI recognizes 4R Partners, which consists of companies and NGOs who:

  • Embrace the 4R framework within their organization and messaging as a recognizable strategy for economic, social, and environmental sustainability;

  • Create awareness and provide outreach for the initiative within their organization, to their stakeholders, to policy developers and to the public;

  • As applicable, implement services or practices consistent with the 4R scientific principles.

Among those included are Ducks Unlimited, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), The Nature Conservancy, John Deere & Co., and The Mosaic Company.

Though the 4R framework is currently practiced only in North America, many of its principles are being introduced in India and have resulted in crop yield increases and Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) achieving prominence. In many areas, fertilizer has not only safely increased food production, but it has also given smallholder farmers more ways to earn a living and take care of feeding their own families.

Through the next articles in this series, readers will learn more about the positive impacts of appropriate fertilizer use in India, and how companies like Mosaic are decreasing environmental footprints while working toward zero hunger via community development.

Image via Unsplash/Thomas Gamstaetter

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6 Ways to Boost Corporate Support For Your Nonprofit

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Corporations donated more than $20 billion to nonprofits and charities last year, according to Giving USA. But forming successful and lasting relationships with corporate partners remains a challenge for many nonprofit groups. How do you attract a corporation's attention? How do you interact with their team? And how do you create a bond that will stand the test of time?

Social Solutions—a technology company based in Austin, Texas—provides performance management software to help government agencies and nonprofits, such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the United Way of Metro Chicago, maximize their impact by tracking the outcome of their programming. At the company's annual Impact Summit in Austin this week, experts representing both the donor and nonprofit perspectives discussed how charitable organizations can best position themselves to attract and retain corporate partnerships. Read on for their top tips.

1. Be clear about the business case

Of course, companies work with nonprofits because their leadership cares about serving a cause bigger than the bottom line. But more often than not, these firms are also chasing a secondary benefit—such as boosting employee engagement, enhancing consumer trust or building relationships with the communities they serve. When talking with a current or prospective corporate partner, highlight win-win situations that further your nonprofit's mission and also help the company meet its goals, said Susan Moore, VP of government affairs and corporate responsibility for the California-based semiconductor company AMD.

"Focus in on the value proposition between you and a corporate partner," she advised nonprofits. "and really take the time to understand what’s important to that company and how to explain the business value."

Showing your corporate partners that you're aware of their priorities also helps strengthen your relationship for the long haul, Moore continued. "A lot can change," she said simply. "People come on board, and people leave. The more you have a relationship where you each know how you’re helping each other, the more you can weather those changes."

2. Keep your mission front and center

"Be true to yourself and your mission," said Amanda Webster, community relations manager for National Instruments, an Austin-based producer of automated test equipment and related software. "I think of stories like Scholastic partnering with Meals on Wheels. Scholastic wanted to get books out into the community and Meals on Wheels agreed to deliver the books, but that's not Meals on Wheels' mission—and then they were stuck delivering books."

You and a prospective corporate partner may both have great ideas about how to improve your community, but that doesn't mean those ideas mesh well together. By being selective about your partnerships, you're far more likely to develop a mutually beneficial relationship that impacts your community while making sense for both you and your partners, Webster said. "Be conscious of whether you’re putting a square peg in a round hole," she advised. "Ask yourself: Is this truly a good fit, or are we making a stretch here? One great match is better than a lot of small, not-so-great matches."

3. Understand the company's culture

"Each corporate partner that you work with has their own culture," Moore said, "and their definitions of success will be different." When engaging in talks with a new partner, do your homework to uncover some detail about its culture. Take a look at the company's website. Review its mission or values statement, if it has one, and read through its latest corporate responsibility report.

As you do so, try to determine some common themes. Is the company all about community engagement, or is it more focused on attracting top talent? Does it work with a broad cross-section of nonprofit groups, or is its giving more targeted? Suss out what its teams appear to value, and come prepared with some ideas about how your group can contribute.

4. Form relationships across the company

When you interact with your corporate partners, do you always speak with the same person or the same team? If so, you may consider diversifying your approach. "Your doorway to your corporate partners should not only be through the public affairs or community affairs team," Moore said.

Get to know people in the human resources group to better understand the company's needs, and connect with the corporate communications team for help in getting the word out about your organization, she suggested. "Our corporate communications team is constantly available to help advance the positioning of our partners—whether it’s Dell, HP, Lenovo and Microsoft, or one of our nonprofit partners," she explained. "Those nonprofits are just as important. They’re a key part of our business."

In the interest of saving time and resources, try to set up a meeting with a corporate partner’s public affairs team, communications team and HR team—all at the same time—to discuss your priorities. Be clear about what you're looking for and the value-add for the company, and make yourself available to discuss.

5. Treat donors as people, not paychecks

"People should feel like more than a checkbook," said Shaleiah Fox, associate director of external relations for the University of Texas at Austin, who cultivates support for the school's Black Studies Department. "It’s important to listen to the donor—not only because they’re giving, but also to better understand what’s important to them, so [your] work can better reflect those priorities."

Beyond that, simple pleasantries go a long way in helping donors feel appreciated and cultivating a relationship that feels reciprocal—not extractive. "Say 'thank you'—right away and as often as possible," Fox advised. "We tend to think it’s implied, but really we can’t say ‘thank you’ enough to the people who support our work."

6. Don't forget donor-advised funds

"Understand that your donors might have access to donor-advised funds," said Brandon O’Neill, VP of charitable planning for Fidelity Charitable. Through donor-advised funds, donors can make a lump contribution, receive an immediate tax benefit, and recommend grants from the fund over time. These funds also allow donors to gift non-traditional assets—including stocks, stakes in S or C Corporations, and even cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin—and they're becoming more popular each year.

As America’s largest donor-advised fund provider, Fidelity Charitable has $26 billion in its giving accounts as a ready reserve for philanthropy. It gave out more than a million checks to nonprofit organizations last year—totaling $4.5 billion, or more than $18 million every day. 

Along with individuals and families, businesses can also open donor-advised funds for their corporate giving. To help nonprofits engage with them, Fidelity Charitable came together with Charles Schwab, Bank of New York Mellon and the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation to create the DAF Direct widget—which organizations can embed on their websites to create a fundraising ask for donor-advised funds. "Make sure you bring up the option—rather than just thinking about checks or securities," O'Neill advised.

Image courtesy of Social Solutions 

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