Spotlight: Dwight Hall Socially Responsible Investment Fund (DHSRI)

At the 2019 Harvard-Yale football game, hundreds of Yale students rushed the Yale Bowl football field encouraging Yale to divest its endowment, now $42.3 billion, from fossil fuels. The Yale endowment has faced intense criticism from students for its method of investment, for the endowment’s 40.2% growth rate in 2021 during the pandemic, and for the fact that Yale owns $4.7 billion worth of property in New Haven, yet does not pay tax to the city on all of it.

As Yale and its peer institutions face scrutiny for the spending of their endowments, the Dwight Hall Socially Responsible Investment Fund (DHSRI) aims to learn and demonstrate how an endowment can be used for good.

In partnership with the Board of Trustees of Dwight Hall, students involved with DHSRI play a fiduciary role in managing a portion of Dwight Hall’s endowment, working to ensure good financial returns through different forms of investment just as the Investments Office do for Yale’s endowment. Where DHSRI diverges from the Investments Office is that profitability is only one criterion for their investment decisions. The other is the kind of social and environmental impact that the investment will have.

DHSRI is divided into three branches. The portfolio team manages over $200,000 of Dwight Hall’s endowment and makes key investment decisions. The other two teams, shareholder engagement and community investment, explore other ways to use capital responsibly by influencing corporate decision-making and working directly with the local community .

2021-2022 Co-President Daevan Mangalmurti said that DHSRI is a part of a movement for socially responsible investing on college campuses. There are institutions like Brown, he said,  that have followed Dwight Hall’s lead and started similar organizations or funds, ”Dwight Hall and SRI specifically” chief among them. 

The first investment practice DHSRI engages in, Bryson Wiese ’24, one of the 2022-2023 co-presidents notes, is that DHSRI “make[s] investments in companies that we think are doing particular social environmental good.” DHSRI’s portfolio team invests in companies that meet environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria. One such company that DHSRI has invested in is Hannon Armstrong Sustainable Infrastructure Capital, which invests in sustainable infrastructure, such as electric vehicle charging stations and solar wind farms.

Seemingly counterintuitive, DHSRI also invests in many corporations with reputations for being decidedly socially irresponsible. ExxonMobil, Amazon, and McDonald’s are a few notable examples. Bryson says that DHSRI invests in these companies because they “see potential for improvement in corporate governance in social and environmental commitment.” As a shareholder, DHSRI partners with organizations like the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility to research corporate policies and in some cases file resolutions to encourage better practices. Recently, Bryson has been working with the shareholder engagement team to write a resolution asking ExxonMobil to adopt better clean energy policies.

Five years ago, DHSRI revamped its third branch, the community investment team. Under the leadership of this new team, a part of Dwight Hall’s endowment fund has been allocated to investing in a third category of company: New Haven nonprofits. This year, DHSRI has awarded for the first time two grants of $4,000 each to nonprofits that it feels are making a positive impact in the Elm City. Daevan, the former head of DHSRI community investment, reflected that the selection process for the two recipients was thoughtful and involved. “We worked a lot with New Haven community members, the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, Dwight Hall, and Yale to figure out the right approach.” In these conversations, Daevan says that the team tried to gain an understanding of New Haven’s most pressing needs and the areas that “Yale has historically favored when investing in the city. The goal is to fill the gaps where [investment] hasn’t been as active.”

When Yale invests in New Haven, Daevan said, it often makes investments that will benefit the university in some way. Dwight Hall has provided New Haven with a great wealth of human capital as well as $10,000 through its annual Civic Innovation Prize. He explained that DHSRI wants to build on Dwight Hall’s efforts to give back to the Elm City in ways that Yale has not typically done. More specifically, the goal of the grants is to empower nonprofits that are ready to expand to bring their programming and services to more New Haveners that need them.

The two recipients of the DHSRI inaugural grant were New Haven nonprofits Elena’s Light and New Lifestyles Women Empowerment. Elena’s Light aims to build a supportive community for refugee women and children in New Haven by providing ESL classes, healthcare education, and a space for building cross-cultural connections. Similarly, New Lifestyles Women Empowerment helps women facing addiction, homelessness, and the difficulties of reentering society from prison through mentoring and workshops.

In addition to this grant, the community investment team also provides financial literacy education to New Haven residents.

Daevan says that finding a way to engage with the New Haven community has been a special part of his time at Yale. “Because Yale is a relatively small bubble, it can be hard to get a sense of how and where you’re helping people. This, I think, for me, has been a very tangible way of doing something for a community that we’ve got to figure out how to be a part of.”

Like Daevan, Bryson has found working with DHSRI rewarding. He added that “it’s been interesting, being a member of the Dwight Hall Socially Responsible Investment Fund, at a time on campus when there’s a lot of conversation and skepticism about the role of the [Yale’s] endowment. I feel like I have seen firsthand how a permanent pool of capital can be a force for good, not only in financing the operations of Dwight Hall, which pay dividends in the form of community service and public service that benefits both Yale students and New Haven, but also in the indirect, social and environmental impact that we’re pursuing through our screening process and through the shareholder advocacy process.”

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