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.
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."
— 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
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.
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."
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.
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
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.’ "
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