The small but growing movement to pressure institutions to divest from fossil fuels got a major boost Thursday when 17 private foundations that manage nearly $2 billion in assets announced the Divest-Invest Philanthropy initiative. The foundations have joined forces, pledging to divest their assets from coal, oil and natural gas companies and invest in the clean-energy economy.
The foundations include the Schmidt Family Foundation, founded by Google's Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy, as well as the Sierra Club Foundation, the Wallace Global Fund, the John Merck Fund and the Russell Family Foundation. More foundations are expected to join the effort in the coming months.
"The wider divestment movement has spread rapidly from universities in the U.S. to a broader campaign," said Ellen Dorsey, executive director of the Wallace Global Fund and the originator of the Divest-Invest initiative. "If we own fossil fuels, we own climate change. We cannot invest in the industry that is driving climate change and funding climate science denial."
Each of the foundations is at different stage of divesting and investing. The Wallace Global Fund, an early investor in Silicon Valley companies like Tesla and Nest, is almost fully divested from fossil fuel companies, while other foundations are in the early stages. The Schmidt Family Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.
Many of the foundations said they spent months researching and deliberating the process, which required looking at existing holdings, examining the foundation's core mission and thinking about long-term risks and investment goals amid growing concern about volatility in the fossil fuel market and "stranded assets" on balance sheets if the values of fossil fuel companies decline.
"We believe that we've got to respond to the crisis of climate change with every asset available," said Olivia Farr, chairwoman of the John Merck Fund, based in Boston. "To date, we are 97 percent divested from fossil fuels and utilities and are reinvesting in cleantech. We are helping to fund the transition to a clean economy."
The "Go Fossil Free" movement has spread to more than 400 college campuses in the United States. So far, nine campuses, including the Foothill-De Anza Community College Foundation and San Francisco State, have committed to pursuing fossil fuel divestment. Students at Stanford University are working with a financial analyst from the Aperio Group to explore the feasibility of a fossil-free portfolio. And they are working with Stanford faculty, staff and alumni to bring additional pressure on Stanford's Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing, or APIR-L. Several cities and faith groups are divesting as well.
Foundation executives said Thursday that their united effort should help bring attention to the urgent problem of climate change, and could help bolster support for a possible carbon tax.
"We are divesting and reinvesting to align our portfolio with our values, accelerate the growth in renewable energy, and protect the long term value of our investments," said Richard Woo, CEO of The Russell Family Foundation, located in Gig Harbor, Wash. "Given the urgency, we call on all philanthropy to do the same."
Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.
Foundations that have pledged to divest
1. Ben & Jerry's Foundation
2. The Chorus Foundation
3. Compton Foundation
4. The Educational Foundation of America
5. Granary Foundation
6. Jesse Smith Noyes Foundation
7. The John Merck Fund
8. The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust
9. KL Felicitas Foundation
10. Nia Community Fund
11. Park Foundation
12. The Russell Family Foundation
13. Schmidt Family Foundation
14. The Sierra Club Foundation
15. Singing Field Foundation
16. Solidago Foundation
17. Wallace Global Fund