One from the Heart: A Tribute to Jack Brill

JACK BRILL, the founder of Natural Investments and a pioneering thought leader of the socially responsible investment (SRI) industry, passed away recently at the age of 89. As one of the earliest SRI advisors in the 1980s, Jack was a passionate advocate known for his generous heart and tireless work to advance an approach to investing that was radical in his early career. He wrote one of the first books on the field, Investing from the Heart (Crown, 1992), which was the basis for the Heart Rating, the first and most rigorous rating system of SRI mutual funds. From 1993 to 2000, Jack helped SRI achieve mainstream recognition through his competitive investment exercise in a quarterly NY Times series.

With his son Hal Brill and Green Money publisher Cliff Feigenbaum, Jack co-authored Investing With Your Values: Making Money and Making a Difference (Bloomberg, 1999; New Society, 2000). The book generated a lot of interest in the field and led Jack and Hal to form their own company, Natural Investment Services, with Michael Kramer in 2000. Jack eventually moved to San Luis Obispo, Calif., and went into semi-retirement but remained active with the company. Upon being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease he devoted himself to helping other patients. He became president of the local chapter of the Parkinson Alliance and invented a device that helps people with Parkinson’s to walk. He then persuaded some former students at Cal Poly to develop his invention, the NexStride, now sold internationally through De Oro Devices. Jack also served as chair of the Social Action Committee of his local temple congregation.

Everyone who knew Jack appreciated his warmth, candor, smarts, and humor. He will be cherished in the hearts of all who knew him. Following is a recent conversation between Hal and Michael about Jack’s journey and legacy:

Michael: What was the pivotal moment in Jack’s life when he decided to transition into the SRI field?

Hal: Jack held various positions as a mechanical engineer on the East Coast and then San Diego. He always promoted peace, but his last job was with the US Navy, where he witnessed insider deals with contractors. This was intolerable for his ethics, so in 1985, at the age of 53, he decided to go in a new direction. His hobby was financial planning, which he had done informally by helping friends and family, so he took the exams and hung out a shingle.

MK: How did he discover socially responsible investing?

HB: I was in Santa Fe learning about sustainable community development and had come across information about the fledgling field of SRI, which I passed on to him. Around that time, he was approached by the Calvert group who told him about their SRI mutual funds. Jack was excited to learn that he could make a living doing things that could help create a more peaceful world.

MK: So he became one of the first financial advisors to focus exclusively on socially responsible investing.

HB: He jumped in, even though there were only a handful of SRI mutual funds at the time. To spread the word, he started writing a column for the local health food store called Healthy Money and gave talks to teach people how they could invest their money in alignment with their values. Every time he got a new client, no matter how much or how little they had to invest, he was thrilled.

MK: And then he got “discovered,” so to speak.

HB: A reporter from the LA Times saw his column and wrote a nice profile in the paper about him. A literary agent saw that piece and told Jack he should write a book. And that’s how Investing from the Heart came about.

MK: You did research for the book, as I recall.

HB: He wanted to do a profile of each SRI fund in the book, so I compiled data about their social and financial performance. And that was when he came up with this idea for the Heart Rating. Morningstar® has a well-known system that gives one-to-five stars based on financial performance, so Jack came up with the idea of giving mutual funds one-to-five hearts. One heart would be awarded to a fund that, for example, only screened for alcohol and tobacco, while more hearts would go to those that really “walked the talk” about values, such as opposing war and military spending and supporting a clean environment. So we rated each of the dozen or so SRI mutual funds in the book.

MK: By this time, you had decided to get your license and work with your dad. I remember being one of your first clients.

HB: I was really passionate about community projects that were alternatives to the “system” and saw this career path in finance as a way to gain credibility, even though I was wary of Wall Street and the whole financial system.

MK: What was it like to work together?

HB: We had a few bumps but in time created a wonderful partnership. Prior to that, in my 20s, I was exploring and finding ways to express my values outside the mainstream. But even as I rebelled against societal norms, my parents kept taking an interest in what I was doing. They were open to seeing the good in the things I was doing and were receptive enough to begin questioning their own values, particularly the pursuit of material wealth as a path to happiness. And so our worldviews came together to form an “alternative” investment firm, and we were able to move forward as collaborators and teammates. It also helped that our skills were somewhat complimentary, him being very detailed oriented and me being more visionary.

MK: It’s very rare, given general generational differences, that you were able to work together and build a practice. And then you connected with a larger group of SRI advisors.

HB: A company called First Affirmative Financial Network was just getting started. Their founder, Ed Winslow, came down to Santa Fe to interview Jack, who signed up as one of their original advisors. He was happy to have found a company that was specializing entirely in SRI, and I signed up soon thereafter. We both attended all of the early SRI in the Rockies conferences, starting with the first one that was held at a Colorado dude ranch. I fondly remember horseback riding and soaking in the hot tub with Jack and all the other visionaries at those gatherings.

MK: When Jack’s book came out, how did the world greet this field at that time?

HB: The book got a good reception, primarily in alternative publications like New Age Journal, because it made a convincing case for SRI. It brought in clients from all over the country. Jack and I coauthored a regular column for In Business magazine, which reached the kind of people who really cared about these values and had some money to invest.

MK: But then Jack had a breakthrough in mainstream media with the New York Times. How did that come about?

HB: They wanted to do a study with five financial advisors each given a hypothetical $50,000 to invest for somebody’s retirement. They brought in some of the biggest names on Wall Street, but the reporter had a passion for SRI, so Jack was asked to submit a quarterly portfolio using solely SRI funds to test if our lofty ideals of people making money and making a difference in the world could compete financially.

MK: How did he do?

HB: The first couple of years he was lagging, but slowly his SRI portfolios started creeping up to the leaders. By the end of the study after seven years, he finished within a whisker of the top place (a .17% per year difference). It was very exciting!

MK: What convinced you two to write another book?

HB: The field had grown so much in the 1990s, since Investing From the Heart came out, with many more funds and a number of new social and environmental issues being considered by the managers. Cliff Feigenbaum of Green Money and I wanted to let the world know how robust the industry had become and how the straw man arguments against doing it, such as underperformance, had fallen by the wayside. So Jack, Cliff, and I wrote Investing With Your Values: Making Money and Making a Difference.

MK: And Bloomberg Press published it, which is interesting.

HB: When they approached us, we were a little suspicious, thinking that a Wall Street firm wouldn’t give us the liberty to write a book that was critical of business-as-usual. But they encouraged us to write it the way we wanted to, and Jack was supportive because he felt that Bloomberg would give new credibility to SRI.

MK: In the book you coined the term “natural investing.”

HB: Jack always thought that what we believe and what we do should be an alignment, that it is “natural” to live in accordance with our values. Why should we profit from activities that we oppose? He wanted to show that the basic tenet of the Golden Rule should be applied to investing and everything we do with our money.

MK: The book attracted even more clients.

HB: More than we could handle, and as our practice started growing, we decided to start our own company, Natural Investment Services. He kept saying, “Hal, we need help!” And that is actually when we brought you in as our third advisor in 2000.

MK: At that point, having written a couple books on the field, Jack was considered a thought leader. What do you believe his core defining contribution was to our industry?

HB: Jack had this uncompromising passion to show that SRI could do everything that mainstream investing could do, but better. He exerted a lot of extra effort: for example, in the early years there weren’t good bond fund options for SRI investors. He would pore through dozens of government bond funds to find the ones that didn’t invest in US Treasuries so that investors could avoid supporting the military. He also had this intense love of working one on one with clients and really helping them meet their financial goals while making a difference in the world.

MK: He had to be really creative to find solutions where there were no products.

HB: He was very creative, and he was incredibly persistent. And he wouldn’t hesitate to call up the funds and to raise a little ruckus to encourage them improve their standards.

MK: We have definitely kept that tradition alive. After Jack moved into semi-retirement, when you would talk to him about the trajectory of the company and his legacy, what did he say to you about it?

HB: He would look around the circle at our annual gatherings and get teary-eyed seeing young advisors, as well as dedicated SRI veterans, who had joined Natural Investments. One of the beautiful things for him later in life was to realize that although he was just following his heart to do something he believed in, the seeds he had planted had grown into a something healthy and thriving, beyond his wildest dreams, really. He felt fortunate that he had found something meaningful and had opportunities to reach and influence people. He knew this would continue as his legacy.

MK: Everyone who knew Jack sensed his huge heart.

HB: He loved being a part of something that was really good for the world. My family has enjoyed hearing from people who were touched by him in one way or another. He also loved bringing people into the field, beginning with me! He was visibly touched seeing all 20+ advisors on our recent video conference call, and in particular was thrilled to see the strides we’ve made in increasing the racial diversity of our team. He certainly started something pretty amazing, and that gave him a lot of satisfaction, even as his health was challenged by Parkinson’s in his later years.

Donations can be made in Jack’s honor to:

Parkinson Alliance
PO Box 308, Kingston, NJ 08528

Congregation Beth David: Social Action Fund
10180 Los Osos Valley Road,
San Luis Obispo, CA 93405

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