Green investor Hal Brill: Bringing the Money Home

  PAONIA, COLORADO — In a house stuffed with green-building books, astrologic calendars and a world-spanning array of wooden drums, a basement office is one of the few signs that Hal Brill’s life has headed squarely into the world of high finance and asset management.

"I’m definitely one of the more unlikely candidates to be an investment person," says Brill, and his path into that career was not a straight one. Brill spent several years as an environmental educator, working with inner-city children in California, before hitting the road on what he describes as a "vision quest," walking first across the United States and then Europe and the Middle East, and ending up in Santa Fe, N.M., in 1986. There, he joined with a partner to create a community that they hoped would be "a model of how people could live on the planet without destroying it."

The project — and the search for a sustainable business model to fund such a community — opened Brill’s eyes to the economic realities of the world. At the same time, Hal’s father, Jack, was becoming a trailblazer in the world of "socially responsible investing," a growing movement to use money to make social change. Jack asked Hal to help him research the book that would become Investing from the Heart, and encouraged him to get his stockbroker’s license.

The eco-village attempt tanked in the early ’90s, leaving Brill with little more than his broker’s license. Based out of his travel trailer, using an early laptop computer wired to a friend’s house, 500 feet away, Brill began doing trades for friends who had inherited traditional stock but wanted to put their money in companies that were more socially conscious. "I loved sitting out there in my Guatemalan shorts selling Exxon," he says. "That was a total kick."

The calls kept rolling in, and a career suddenly suggested itself. Hal moved to Paonia in 1996, and three years later he and his father, who lives in San Diego, formed Natural Investment Services, an investment advisory firm. The same year, Hal published his own book Investing with Your Values — which brought readers up-to-date on the now-burgeoning world of socially responsible investing. Brill now has more than 40 clients, and recently brought two new partners into the company.

Brill stands in a tide of social investing that’s been rising since at least the 1920s, when Christian groups began insisting that their money not be used in alcohol, tobacco or gambling industries. The movement marked its most significant achievement with the collapse of apartheid in South Africa in the early 1990s, a development driven in large part by Western investors who pulled their money out of the country to protest the government’s repressive policies.

"Your money is your voice to the world," says Brill. "When you spend your money, it represents what you believe in. And if you don’t tell it to say anything, then it’s just going to go around looking for the biggest return — and often that’s in things you don’t want it to do."

The socially responsible investing community uses an array of strategies to speak its mind, investing in companies that prove themselves socially and environmentally friendly, and using shareholder clout to change the course of those that don’t. In 1997, for example, activist stockholders in Home Depot joined forces with environmental activists and pressured the company to stop selling wood from endangered forests.

In 2001, Brill became concerned about the effects of coalbed methane drilling on local communities and the environment when a drilling company moved into western Colorado’s North Fork Valley (HCN, 10/27/03: Follow-up). Three years later, Brill’s concern has been translated into a "code of best practices" that coalbed methane companies must follow if they want to be included in several major socially responsible investing funds.

"With most of these issues, it’s definitely a water-dripping-on-rock kind of thing," says Brill. "You just keep at it and eventually you get a breakthrough, like we did with Home Depot."

Brill and his father have made a point of proving that socially responsible investing can yield returns comparable to mainstream investing. In a six-year New York Times competition, the father-son team outperformed two of the four mainstream contestants and ended within .55 percent of the top-yielding portfolio.

But despite such feats of investment derring-do, Brill’s looking for more. "I’m starting to see that there’s only so much you can do with the stock market," he says. "Socially responsible investing, for the most part, is corporate investing. There’s a need to push social investing to do more and get money directly to people to do projects. Community investing is even better."

In many ways, that search for visionary community economics goes back to Brill’s Santa Fe days, when he was on the founding board of the New Mexico Community Development Loan Fund. It was there, he says, that "I started getting passionate about money. Our first loan was to an organic farmer who wanted to build a greenhouse. He couldn’t get financing from a bank, so we were able to lend him the money. A few months later, I saw him at the farmer’s market and I was able to buy his salad greens and it was just like, ‘This is what capitalism’s supposed to be about.’ "

For years, Brill has pointed his clients toward a tree-farm project in Costa Rica, and a group that makes loans for renewable energy projects in the developing world. Now, Brill and a partner are working to bring a similar concept to the North Fork, by lining up investors to start a community loan fund. That will make more money available to help build an independent local economy — by fostering small-business development and sustainable projects such as organic farming and renewable energy — while offering investors a financial return from the interest on the loans. But even as Brill directs his energy more locally, he says, "I still enjoy selling (off) Exxon stock. That hasn’t lost its thrill."

The author is HCN associate editor.