‘Social Alpha’: Nonprofits Dive Into ETFs

‘Social Alpha’: Nonprofits Dive Into ETFs

Impact Shares helps charities bridge capital to cause.

Reviewed by: Lara Crigger
Edited by: Lara Crigger

Ethan PowellEthan Powell is a man on a mission.

As CEO of Impact Shares, the first nonprofit ETF issuer, Powell wants to modernize the way charities—and donors—think about using money to make a difference.

"ETFs are almost the perfect engagement vehicle for nonprofits," he said. "We can use ETFs to bridge capital to cause."

In late November, the firm announced partnerships with two prominent charities, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, to bring single-issue socially responsible ETFs to market.

Neither fund has been approved by the SEC yet, but a Q1 2018 launch is expected. And Powell has more ETFs in the works, with both the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association in talks to launch funds through Impact Shares.

His end goal is to have every social issue—from arts education to veterans affairs—represented by a separately investable ETF, allowing investors to "create a sophisticated, bespoke, socially responsible portfolio to reflect your individual priorities."

Fixing ESG's ‘Messy Middle’

ESG—or "environmental, social and governance"—investing is a catchall term that becomes less useful the harder one looks at it.

Arguably, it's easy to quantify what makes a company environmentally friendly (e.g., a low-carbon footprint). Good corporate governance is more nebulous, but often it's defined in terms of rules concerning ethics, equality and transparency.

But measuring a company's overall positive social impact is much harder. What one person believes is in the social good may not matter at all to another person—or, worse, the two may be in direct conflict.

Generally, socially responsible ETF issuers have dealt with this problem in one of three ways.

  • Excluding "sin stocks" whose businesses most people agree have negative societal impact (e.g., tobacco producers, firearms manufacturers, gambling stocks). Unfortunately, this workaround doesn't really address or define what "socially responsible" is, only what it isn't.
  • Ignoring the "social" category altogether and instead focusing on a company's environmental or governance vectors, with the understanding that what's good for the environment or the labor force also tends to be good for society.
  • Devising a proprietary system to rank and score stocks according to social metrics. However, as Powell points out, this method means the profit-driven asset manager "becomes the arbiter of good citizenship."

Impact Shares uses the third approach, but takes it one step further. To develop meaningful evaluation metrics, Powell directly partners with charities that are leading their particular social cause. Case in point: the NAACP on the cause of minority rights.

"We're leveraging the hundreds of years of experience these organizations have to design superior social metrics based on their understanding of the issue." (The NAACP did not reply to requests for comment in time for publication.)

Giving Back The Advisory Fee

In practice, Impact Shares will operate much like a typical white-label ETF provider: The firm will take care of the day-to-day investment management on behalf of its partner charities, while also charging them an annual fee for service.

The big difference, however, is that Impact Shares is itself a tax-exempt nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization. As such, it donates 100% of its advisory fee back to the partner charity, less operating expenses and working capital.

Partner charities can then use that money as they see fit, directing it into their own programs, or regifting it to charitable causes that support its mission.

"It's a charitable giveback they can use as they see fit," said Powell.

Donated Advisory Fee Scenario

Powell estimates that the donated advisory fee will amount to roughly $500,000 per $100 million of assets under management. That's not much, especially considering that over half of ETFs on the market—53%—fall well below the $100 million mark.

But Dorri McWhorter, CEO of YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, isn't bothered: "For us, it's really no different than any other cause-marketing relationship we have," she said. "It's about leveraging all parts of a market that can actually advance one's work."

An ETF doesn't cannibalize potential charitable donations, she says; instead, it funnels existing investment dollars toward charitable goals. "People are going to invest their money anyway. But this way, they can invest as well as contribute to us. It's not necessarily an either/or," McWhorter noted.


Under The Hood Of WOMN, NACP

Impact Shares' initial filing is for three ETFs, including the Impact Shares YWCA Women's Empowerment ETF (WOMN) and the Impact Shares NAACP Minority Empowerment ETF (NACP). A third ETF, the Impact Shares Cause Based ETF, was also filed, but the fund has yet to establish an index or partner charity.

According to Powell, Impact Shares and the partner charity together construct a list of stocks that meet their social impact criteria, while a third-party provider optimizes the portfolio to the broader market.

The result is meant to be a collaboration between investing and philanthropic experts. The security selection screens aren't meant to stay static. WOMN tracks U.S. large-cap companies with policies that are "empowering to women," as determined through 19 criteria, including the gender balance of their leadership teams and workforce; their policies promoting equal pay and work/life balance; their policies promoting equitable access to company resources and opportunities; and their commitment to transparency and accountability.

NACP, meanwhile, tracks U.S. large-caps that are "empowering to minorities," though the index is a "work in progress," said Powell. Some of the criteria include the ratio of minorities in company leadership and workforce; equal pay policies; and opportunities for minority recruitment and advancement.

Both ETFs also overlay an additional screen excluding weapons manufacturers, gambling companies and tobacco companies, as well as any company on the Council on Ethics for the Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global, an often-used benchmark of ethical companies. Furthermore, any company that has engaged in discriminatory or unethical practices is ineligible for inclusion in WOMN for two years.

Both ETFs would carry an expense ratio of 0.75%.

Financial Beta, Social Alpha

Rather than trying to outperform, Impact Shares ETFs will attempt to generate financial beta using only companies that align with each charity's particular mission. Powell calls the result "social alpha."

"It's like factor investing, but being exposed to a single social factor, versus a single financial factor," he said.

The concept could be especially attractive for charities looking to engage a new, younger donor base. "Through ETFs, nonprofits can have lifelong engagement [with investors] without asking for charitable gifts on day one," Powell added.

Social alpha may also appeal to stability-seeking institutions, even other nonprofits, says Powell.

For McWhorter, though, the goal of WOMN is to get more women of all ages investing, period.

"Typically, women don't invest in the stock market because they're more risk averse [than men]," she said. "But an ETF is less risky than owning one or two stocks. So we can actually use our ETFs to attract women investors, who haven't invested at the same rates as men."

‘Drinking Our Own Kool-Aid’

Though nonprofit investing is not a new phenomenon, the use of ETFs among nonprofits remains anecdotally low. It's difficult, however, to quantify precisely which nonprofits use ETFs and how, because many are too small to be required to file 13-F documents that detail investments within a portfolio.

Still, says McWhorter, the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago is no stranger to ETFs. Fully one-third of its investment portfolio is invested in three ETFs: a Russell 3000 ETF, a global infrastructure fund and a 1-3 year credit bond ETF (brands and tickers were withheld). With their new ETF, WOMN, "we'll be drinking our own Kool-Aid," said McWhorter.

Contact Lara Crigger at [email protected]

Lara Crigger is a former staff writer for etf.com and ETF Report.