Monday, June 8, 2009

Tipping pointers: an advisor roadmap

In 2007, it seemed socially responsible investing had finally reached its "tipping point" in Canada - institutional investors were on board following the UN's Principles of Responsible Investment and on the retail side, the big banks were launching their first-ever SRI funds.

But, thanks to the credit crisis, the euphoria was short-lived, and today, SRI advocates are once again seeking ways to engage new investors. That was one of the topics of an advisor panel discussion held Monday at the Canadian Responsible Investment Conference in Winnipeg.

Cheryl Crowe, SRI Specialist at the Assiniboine Credit Union in Winnipeg, says it's back to basics: make sure you bring up the SRI question in your discussion with clients and, if you haven't yet done so, add a question on SRI to your "know your client" form. Resources are also important, Crowe stressed, suggesting that other companies might want to consider hiring their own SRI specialist or resource person.

"It would be great if other credit unions would pick up on the [Assiniboine] model," says Stephen Whipp, an SRI-only advisor based in Victoria. Whipp says he has clients who have come to him because their credit union didn't raise the SRI option. "As an investor, I was never asked about SRI."

Betty-Anne Howard, a Kingston-based SRI advisor, suggests making connections with other like-minded groups in the community. Whipp also likes the idea of networking, noting that Victoria stages regular "green drinks" nights in an attempt to bring together various environmental and social groups.

The panel also discussed SRI mutual funds in Canada, and whether it might be time to add some new products. Though all agreed there's a good cross-section available now, certainly enough to construct a diversified, SRI-only portfolio, some clients are asking for more.

"Animal welfare is a big issue in Manitoba," Crowe said, as well as Alberta's tar sands and genetically-modified food. Whipp puts clean tech and water on his new fund wish list.

Interestingly, the market downturn doesn't seem to have fazed SRI investors, the panelists said. "As an advisor, the market meltdown really shook me up," says Howard. "But my clients have a passion to promote SRI."

"I'm more scared than my clients," Whipp agreed. "Once someone is on board, they stay."

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