An interview with Jeff Perkins
Jeff Perkins is the Executive Director of Friends Fiduciary. He lives in Philadelphia with his husband and is a member of Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting. Jeff spoke by phone with Western Friend on April 4, 2017. The following text was excerpted from a lightly edited transcript of that conversation. Read the full transcript here.
Western Friend: Maybe you could start by telling us how Friends Fiduciary got started?
Jeff Perkins: We were founded in 1898, originally to manage funds for and to hold title to property for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Originally there were two organizations – one Orthodox, one Hicksite – which merged in the 1970s to become what is now Friends Fiduciary. Over that time, we’ve expanded. Today, we have 365 constituents, literally all across the country – from Honolulu to Florida. We call our investors “constituents” because the relationship is closer than a traditional investment manager/client relationship; we share a common faith and set of values.
WF: How much of that history have you been a part of?
JP: In the grand scheme of things, I’m a relatively new addition. I’ve been with Friends Fiduciary for almost six years. I have a finance and accounting background, and I worked initially in the for-profit sector for some Fortune 500 companies, including what is today called Sara Lee Corporation. While I was working for Sara Lee, I got involved in protesting at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site and the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository, camping in the desert. I remember telling my boss that I was going to Nevada, and I might not be back to work on Monday if I got arrested. He was very supportive; he was a great mentor to me. But eventually, it became clear to me that a lot of my interests were outside of just accounting at a food company. It was time for me to try something new. Making the jump to the nonprofit sector was a big move at the time.
WF: And how did you end up with Friends Fiduciary?
JP: Because I have a finance background, I ended up as treasurer in my meeting at various times. So I was familiar with Friends’ approaches to finances. I was working in the nonprofit sector in Philadelphia and met the former Executive Director of Friends Fiduciary, Connie Brooks, who was about to retire and who encouraged me to apply. I knew of the organization, and I had ideas of ways that it could do more and be more within the Religious Society of Friends. It seemed to me that more of the Quaker world could be investing their funds in ways that were more consistent with Quaker values. Particularly, Friends schools and Friends colleges could do that more. It was kind of my personal mission. I felt a sense of leading.
Before I came on, the board had gone through a strategic planning process. They saw that if they wanted to continue supplying services at a particular level to a religious community that was not growing, that was actually shrinking, then they would have to serve a wider range of organizations. But they were less clear about how to re-position for growth.
WF: What kinds of things were obstacles?
JP: I think some of it was the culture. I am of the opinion that churches and religious organizations can be high-performing organizations. But when I first got into the nonprofit sector, almost no one saw nonprofits as businesses. Over the last twenty years, nonprofits have gotten more corporate folks involved in their boards, and it’s generally accepted now that nonprofits are indeed businesses. But that perspective is something that has evolved recently.
WF: So, the vision you brought with you into Friends Fiduciary, how far along have you gotten toward that?
JP: I think we’ve accomplished a lot. From our founding in 1898 until just a few years ago, 2012, we only had one product offering. We now have four. So that gives you some sense of the change.
WF: Nice. . . . So I’m interested in what you have to say about the ongoing conversation in Friends meetings about saving versus sharing.
JP: Well, I have some strong opinions. I believe more Quakers ought to be supporting their faith community financially. I have no patience for anyone who doesn’t
give to their Quaker meeting. I think everyone ought to be giving something.
There was a time when we had really progressive thinking among Friends, and folks left money to their faith community, trusting that the meeting would steward it into the future. Friends Fiduciary manages over seventy trust funds created by wealthy Friends for particular causes. We have scholarship funds that support African American students that date from the 1800s. Today, it seems Friends only think about giving to their monthly meetings as an afterthought, after they have given to various other charities.
We also have an issue among Friends of a kind of tight attitude toward money, an attitude that reflects a scarcity mentality, rather than an abundance mentality. Frankly, that kind of tight, restrictive thinking about money – which leads to restrictive actions – I don’t think it serves us well as faith communities. One of the things I am currently bringing up in my own meeting is, “How do we start talking about more important things at business meeting? Sure, it’s important to talk about spending $500 on new chairs; but honestly, that’s not why I come to meeting.”
What I’ve learned is that money shouldn’t lead. Money should always follow. You don’t start a business saying, “Well, let’s figure out how much money we have, and then let’s figure out what our vision is.” You develop your vision first, and then you figure out how to fund it, how to make it happen. The meetings that are growing tend to be ones that are vibrant, the ones that are welcoming communities with a range of programs. They are not the ones that are doing the most efficient accounting or the ones that deliberate the most on their budgets.
WF: Do you see examples of good models of that in the nonprofit sector?
JP: Friends Committee on National Legislation. Part of what I have seen is that they have very wisely started communicating a lot more effectively and a lot more frequently, so you have a clearer sense about what they are working on. I think they are doing some really good, important work, and my understanding is that it’s paying off in the fundraising. I don’t know how they approached it, but I doubt they sat down and said, “Gee, how much can we afford to do?”
My own meeting is another example, Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting. We spent $3 million on a new building, which was very contentious. But there were folks within the meeting who felt that God was calling us to be a bigger presence in the community. And I have got to say that vision has really become realized; we really are a growing meeting. And part of that’s because of the new building. We have also been able to increase outside community groups using it.
And I think there are members in the meeting now, increasingly, who are saying, “OK, as a group of predominately privileged white folks, how do we use that privilege in a way that works for change?” In my view, if you have privilege, you absolutely have to recognize it, and you have a responsibility to use it to promote justice. In some ways, it’s similar to talking with companies as an investor; you have a certain responsibility as an investor, and you have a certain platform that other folks don’t necessarily have with companies.
WF: Well, that leads into another question on my list – the controversy over what is the “most Quakerly” way to influence companies – shareholder activism versus divestment, insider versus outsider . . .
JP: My view is that the greatest amount of change comes from both. We saw that in our work with PNC [PNC Financial Services] on mountaintop-removal coal mining. That was a clear case where the company went further than they would have if only we as investors had talked to them, and they went further than they would have if only the EQAT activists [Earth Quaker Action Team] had targeted them.
Early on, folks from EQAT came to meet with me to say, “We are doing these actions against PNC. You are invested in them, and we think you should not invest in them.” I try to be very open in listening to concerns of folks, regardless of whether they are constituents or not. I think it is always important for us to hear what Friends are thinking.
We determined that, on this particular issue, it would be more appropriate for us to begin to engage PNC on the issue as investors, rather than just sell their stock. Because we knew that selling their stock would have no impact on what the company did. So in 2012, we began conversations with the general counsel at PNC Bank, along with some other investors, including a few groups like a Rainforest Action Network, to try and move them on the issue of mountaintop removal. At the same time, EQAT was engaging in some very creative protest activities, and was continually ramping them up over time. We kept in contact with EQAT during this time. I wouldn’t say we worked closely together, but we kept each other informed, and ultimately the end result was that PNC changed their policy on mountaintop removal financing.
At that point, EQAT’s campaign was completed. They had gotten what they were after, and they celebrated that and then moved on to their next campaign. We as investors, however, had built up a relationship with the company over time, and it was important for me to know – since they had changed their policy – that they would actually deny financing to companies that might violate the policy. It’s one thing to talk about it in the abstract. It’s another thing to see an actual outcome or impact. We got assurances that indeed the desired outcome did happen.
From a Quaker perspective, I think that shareholder activism is important. I’m a big believer in laboring one with another, and that doesn’t mean picking up your marbles and going home when the other side doesn’t agree. It seems to me that sometimes it’s almost a punishment mentality that drives economic boycotts. I think for a boycott to be effective, things have to line up pretty closely. From an investment standpoint, we know that if we sell our shares in a company, they won’t care. In fact, it would mean we couldn’t file a resolution with them. So actually, selling our shares would make their life easier.
When I meet with a CEO, I tell them, “Our interests are aligned. We are long-term shareholders. We want you to succeed. Here are our concerns about this particular issue.” We don’t always agree, but sitting down and realizing that there is common ground is important. That is part of what I see as the value that Friends bring to this work. When I talk with top management, I talk about Friends’ integrity testimony. As long-term shareholders, we have that opportunity to share our concerns.
And frankly, as a businessman, I firmly believe that a sustainable company is going to be a better investment over the long term. Most of these CEOs would like to see their businesses successful into the future. They don’t like the fact that Wall Street demands quarterly numbers, and continually better numbers, which isn’t always healthy for a business. And it certainly isn’t healthy for our society.
I think that as Friends, when we deal with money, we are at the nexus of the world and our faith, and there’s a strong tension there. That’s really the world we live in, and if Friends can’t hold those tensions, then God help us. Part of who I am as a Quaker is someone absolutely committed to continually seeking and committed to living in that often uncomfortable place of tension. ~~~