Wanted: Fellow Resilient Investors

By: Jess Brooks

At the US SIF conference in DC earlier this month, I picked up a copy of The Resilient Investor, by Hal Brill, Michael Kramer and Christopher Peck. The book revolves around two central concepts – resiliency and a broader view of what it means to “invest.” These concepts – and the act of combining them - resonate strongly for me both in how I try to live my life and in the context of our work at Sunwealth.

 
 The view from the roof of Church of St. Augustine and St. Martin in Roxbury, where solar panels provide clean energy and reduced electricity costs. Photo by Cody Eaton.

The view from the roof of Church of St. Augustine and St. Martin in Roxbury, where solar panels provide clean energy and reduced electricity costs. Photo by Cody Eaton.

 

Striving for Resilience over Sustainability

First, the notion of resilience, which Brill, Kramer and Peck nominate to replace sustainability as the organizing concept toward which we strive. (They quote William McDonough, who asks “Who simply wants a sustainable marriage?”) Resilience implies strength and integrity, but also the ability to flex and endure in tumultuous times.

We try to raise our children to be resilient. We know we can’t teach them everything, or remove all of the obstacles they will face in their lives.  Resilience is the ability – when you encounter those obstacles, whatever they may be – to keep going or to find a way around them.  It’s the ability to weather the storm – or the hurricane. It’s not just picking up broken glass or replacing the roof after the fact; it’s about building stronger and smarter. It’s having flashlights and candles in the drawer: it’s thinking ahead, so that you’re ready for whatever comes.

Brill, Kramer and Peck argue that resilience is also a “unifying and powerful lens, (which) can focus our awareness and actions at all levels, for individuals, businesses, communities, nations and the entire planet.”

I see this in our work at Sunwealth. The churches, schools, businesses and municipalities we partner with are putting solar panels on their rooftops and buying clean power because they know that long-term reliance on fossil fuels is untenable. They’re taking proactive steps to combat climate change, to stabilize their energy costs and to contribute to a broader movement toward decentralized power systems. 

Beyond the benefits to our solar offtakers, Sunwealth’s investments support and strengthen local businesses – the solar developers and installers with whom we partner; the manufacturers of the inverters, mounting systems and modules we use on each site; the engineering firms, equipment distribution companies and other sub-contractors who are involved in making sure our solar installations do what they’re supposed to do.

Our investments also help strengthen the renewable energy market, here in Massachusetts and beyond. Our investors recognize the untapped potential of the commercial solar market, and specifically all of those rooftops and would-be clean energy buyers that have been neglected or poorly served by institutional capital and large-scale developers. These underserved markets are not the proverbial “low-hanging fruit,” but they are ripe for solar development and comprise an essential part in any real effort to meaningfully address climate change.

 

A Broader Vision of What it Means to Invest

The second key concept Brill, Kramer and Peck put forth is a broader definition of investment. The traditional definition of investing is something along the lines of “what rich people do with their money to make more of it.” The authors argue that investing isn’t just what you do with your money, it’s what you do with your heart and mind, your energy and your time. Moreover, they contend, “the choices you make with your time, attention and energy are as central to your long-term investments as the ways you manage your money.” They propose developing an investment strategy, or strategies, to encompass all of the “assets” we aspire to grow – personal, including relationships, community and health; tangible, including our home, efficient energy systems and a healthy ecosystem; and financial, i.e. our money, stocks, bonds, etc. By creating a personal investment strategy that reflects our broader aspirations and goals in life, we are more likely to generate “returns” that reflect these goals than if we focus on a strategy targeting growth of financial assets alone.

This broader view of investment rings true to me, reflecting the way I choose to live my life. I invest in relationships with family, friends, colleagues and neighbors and in community organizations like First Teacher and Generation Citizen, which are helping to build the world I want to live in and pass on to my children. I probably don’t invest as much in keeping our house clean and organized; given a sunny Saturday, I allocate my time and energy to kayaking on the lake with the boys, or cooking a delicious dinner for friends. And these investments pay dividends I value and pay attention to way more than the growth of my stock portfolio.

That said, we’ve invested in our financial portfolio as well: finding an investment advisor who has helped us plan for milestones like buying a house, sending our kids to college and retirement. She’s also worked with us to connect the investment of our financial portfolio to the way we choose to live our lives. For us, that means opting in to community investments, like Boston Community Capital, where I used to work; and opting out of companies working at cross-purposes with things we care about. We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about our investments; but we have an annual check-in to talk about where we’re at, what our upcoming financial needs are, and our goals for our investments.

In this context, an investment in Sunwealth made sense to me. Paying attention to Brill, Kramer and Peck’s definition, I’m already invested: I give time, energy and my heart and mind to building this company and our community of investors every day. I believe in what we’re doing, and its potential to change the landscape of rooftops across the neighborhoods where I live and work. I also believe in our potential to change systems – to contribute to the transition to a clean energy economy and to help bring new capital (and solar panels and energy savings) to communities that have been underserved by the systems we’ve got. This work is critical to our planet’s future; it’s also critical to building a world that’s more just.

Viewed through this lens, the financial decision to invest was easy for me. It checks all the boxes – personal, tangible and financial – and offers one more way to align my resources with what I believe. Doing it felt exciting and right.

I’m grateful to be part of that community of investors we’re building – and to have that community of individuals and organizations to share in Sunwealth’s mission. I look forward to working with my colleagues and our partners to deliver – and share in – meaningful returns of which we can all be proud.

Jess Brooks