With college and university endowments topping $350 billion, activists are putting the pressure on for them to move their money to credit unions.
Campus activists across the country are preparing for Bank Transfer Day, which encourages people to move their money from big banks to community-based credit unions on November 5. But student supporters aren't stopping at encouraging their peers to close their accounts at major banks. They plan to leverage the energy from the Occupy Wall Street movement to push their universities to move their money, too.
Dan Apfel, the executive director of the Responsible Endowments Coalition, a New York City-based nonprofit that works to promote responsible investment practices, says American colleges and universities have collective endowments of more than $350 billion, the majority of which is housed in financial institutions that "have no connection and feel no responsibility to the community." That violates the lofty mission statements colleges have about educating people in order to improve the world: "They use terms like global citizenship all the time," he says, "so they should be acting that way."
Apfel says supporters on campus will host demonstrations on Bank Transfer Day, deliver petitions and proposals, and request meetings with college administrators to pressure them to move their endowments. It sounds like an ambitious goal, but Apfel says it's as simple as administrators realizing "that they can do this without compromising returns, and it's a win for the school and the community." Schools that caught flack a generation ago for not divesting quickly enough from apartheid South Africa should find it appealing that "it's easier to move your money to a responsible financial institution in the community than it is to ensure that outside fund managers are investing money in socially and environmentally responsible businesses," he adds.
For example, New York University, the largest private university in the country by enrollment, has a $2.4 billion endowment. "If they move 1 percent—$24 million—that’s very little skin off their back," Apfel says. If NYU put $10 million into the credit union it maintains for university employees, it would serve the both the employees themselves and the community around the school. It's not realistic for universities to move their entire endowments all at once, he says. So what the activists are hoping is that universities will "make a down payment on making change" by “moving $500,000 now and then commit to more later."
Apfel says Fordham University recently committed to moving half a million dollars into community development banks in its Bronx neighborhood, while a handful of other universities have quietly made similar moves. If administrators at those universities become vocal about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, Apfel says, that will show students that it's "important to think responsibly about investment and banking."