Interview with Beth Sirull, President & CEO, Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego
Q. What was JCF San Diego's process to consider impact investing?
A. We realized that impact investing is where the world is headed, and we need to stay ahead of the curve. We partnered with JLens to help us get started and that partnership was critical, as it gave us a national perspective, a peer perspective and brought a lot of credibility to the process. JLens helped us educate our Investment Committee and Board.
But the real key to us moving forward and not just talking about it was to go out and survey our customers – families and organizations. So, with JLens, we designed a simple survey. We sent out over 800 and received around 100 responses. We were very excited by that level of response, what we heard – and from whom. We received detailed responses from CEOs of major Jewish institutions and even one of our major public museums. Once we had that buy-in and actionable information, we were able to move forward and develop a “product”.
We decided to develop a new pool, investing across multiple asset classes, to complement our existing portfolio of five investment pools. Working with Julie and our existing investment consultant, we created a pool to give us exposure to high impact shareholder advocacy, support for Israeli public companies and the ability to allocate to thematic areas of impact through private investments, both debt and equity. We have a very small endowment - we manage Donor Advised Fund money, mostly - but from our small endowment, our Board agreed to seed the Impact Investment Pool.
Looking back at the process so far, I’d say that education was our biggest challenge. It remains a challenge as we work to grow our pool. JLens was and is our lead educator, with our staff, board, committees, and donors. JLens provided materials; they visited and taught workshops; even when we launched the pool, Julie came and did a session and answered donors’ questions.
Q. Can you talk about the pool’s financial performance?
A. You can align a portfolio with Jewish values without sacrificing return. Our pool is only 18 months old, and it is ahead of its benchmark. Over the past year it was our top performing fund. We know that there are other private foundations that are going 100% for impact and finding ways to maintain their payout ratios. I need to emphasize that you can do this and not compromise on financial return.
Q. Tell us a bit more about your Israel/ESG tilt.
A. We are the first institution to work with JLens to create an Israel/ESG tilt to their advocacy strategy. Part of our impact as a Jewish values pool is not only to invest in Israel but to have a positive impact on the Israeli economy within an environmental and social framework. The pool has a 5% allocation to Israeli public equities - and our tilt is specifically to Israeli public companies with social or environmental impact. We looked to JLens to help us creatively meet our mission.
Q. What impact is the pool having?
A. The first story I want to tell is a story I tell everyone. In partnership with JLens, we filed a shareholder resolution and achieved a huge win with Teva Pharmaceuticals to address the opioid crisis—to shift how doctors are educated, how the sales team is compensated and how prescriptions are tracked to identify potential problems. The opioid crisis is a serious deal. We just had a program through our Jewish Women’s Foundation about opioid abuse and young people - generally, but also specifically within the Jewish community. We as a community are not immune. At the Women’s Foundation program, I told them about our Teva win. This is impact.
We also just approved a fixed-income investment in local affordable housing with two different managers, including a local San Diego fund manager who is specifically working on investing for impact in San Diego. Affordable housing and homelessness are two of San Diego’s biggest social problems, and we’re having an impact.
Also, through JLens’ shareholder advocacy, we had recent wins around the cocoa supply chain and human trafficking; and we have also combatted a couple of pro-BDS shareholder resolutions.
Q. Why is it important for Jewish institutions to invest the capital entrusted to them in ways that are in line with Jewish values and generate positive impact?
A. To me, the question is, why wouldn’t you? Jewish is our first name. We talk about Jewish values all the time. You don’t get to say “I live those values in this area but not in that area.” I think it is incumbent upon us to look at everything we do through a lens of Jewish values. Not to say it’s the only lens - we are investing and we have a fiduciary responsibility, and that is obviously critical. But I think it behooves us to make the Jewish lens at least one of our lenses.
Also, as leaders in the Jewish community, we should lead! Working on investing consistent with Jewish values, learning more and putting your toe in the water is moral leadership; that’s incumbent upon all of us.
What turned me on to this, Jewishly, was the shema and the phrase “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might.” The shema is a central prayer to Jewish life. And Rashi, one of our leading scholars in Jewish tradition, said that “all your might” is not about your physical power, it’s about your wealth, your worldly possessions - how you steward your assets.
Q. Can someone outside of San Diego open a DAF with your institution?
A. Yes! We have donors in Israel, across the country, and some around the world. Some came from San Diego, or their wealth advisor referred them, or they love our service. We would welcome anyone to open up a fund and put their money in JCF’s Impact Investment Pool.