Takeaways from the Pro's: Panel Explores University of New Hampshire's Journey to Sustainable Investing

This past May, the Intentional Endowments Network (IEN) co-presented An Introduction to The IEN Roadmap & How The University of New Hampshire Intentionally Invests at MIT Sloan School of Management. This event was presented in partnership by the Intentional Endowments Network with WISE (Women Investing for a Sustainable Economy), and hosted by the MIT Impact Investing Initiative.

Following the recent release of a Roadmap for Intentionally Designed Endowments, a step-by-step process for aligning endowment investments with institutional mission, the event convened members of the community to learn more about the roadmap and hear a panel of University of New Hampshire (UNH) stakeholders describe the why’s and how’s of their journey to align investments with their campus-wide sustainability goals. 

Main Takeaways: Leveraging Catalysts and ‘Radical Patience’

From an insightful panel discussion and buzzing Q & A session, the audience could gleam several clear, key takeaways:

  • UNH’s milestone achievement of transitioning part of its portfolio into an ESG pool did not happen overnight but rather was a culmination of conversations, catalysts from various angles and a hefty dose of ‘radical patience’. 
  • Catalysts for change come in different forms, whether they be students and alumni, well-connected and respected champions on boards and committees, proposals drafted with financial advisors, or even a donor willing to provide seed funding for an ESG sleeve.
  • UNH’s efforts to invest their endowment both intentionally and sustainably, is not only replicable, but ultimately enhances the opportunity for positive financial and reputational gains while contributing to a more just and equitable world.

Why UNH?

Since its founding over 150 years ago, UNH has strived to fulfill its mission of serving the community for the public good. This has translated into a high prioritization of sustainability.  UNH received a perfect score on the Princeton Review’s Green College Honor Roll and is one of only a handful of universities to have received a Platinum STARS rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), which measures sustainability leadership in operations, academics, and investments.

But even with so much leadership in sustainability both in research and operations, when it came to the university’s investments, as panelist Fiona Wilson describes, “our endowment had a huge glaring gap.” Thus, a variety of stakeholders at the university including Fiona, Erik Gross, foundation treasurer, and Alexys Gilcreast, a student at the time, set forth to lay the groundwork for what seemed like a very natural progression to align the university’s foundation with its sustainability profiles and values. 

As of May 2019, the UNH Foundation (which currently manages $225 million of the total $363 million in endowment funds) successfully completed the transition of $37 million (or 16 percent) of investable assets into an ESG pool, thus adding UNH to the short list of schools in the country taking the initiative to align sustainability values and endowment investments. UNH also has an active committee on investor responsibility (CIR)  to research and make recommendations on sustainable investment opportunities to the Foundation’s Investment & Finance Committee.

Highlights From The Panel Conversation

Each panelist brought a unique perspective to help paint a full image of this journey and illustrate the diversity of thought and actions necessary to close the gap between values and investments. 

Panelists (starting left) Kate Dumas, Fiona Wilson, Erik Gross, Alexys Gilcreast, with IEN Principal and moderator, Alice DonnaSelva

Erik Gross, Treasurer of the University of New Hampshire Foundation, recalls that UNH’s main catalyst towards intentional investing started with conversations initiated by UNH students. From organizing into divestment and ESG-investment clubs to presenting research and papers to the Foundation Board, students played an instrumental role in facilitating the learning process and maintaining a dialogue. Erik, as well as the rest of the panel, also stressed the importance of having a champion that is well-placed, well-connected, well-respected and willing to put themselves on the line to support the cause. Drawing upon a diverse array of levers, slowly but surely, consensus was ultimately reached to the point that the Board was ready to establish a separate ESG sleeve within the portfolio. 

“[What] I've seen over the last few years with the investment committee is they have opened their minds. They have allowed the conversation to continue and have allowed people to express themselves and that, I think, has been a very important element.”

Alexys Gilcreast, alumna and Committee on Investor Responsibility (CIR) member at UNH, shared her perspective through the learning and consensus processes as a student (and now alumna) member on the CIR. To her, one of the most important catalysts for having discussions with students, the committee or other endowment stakeholders is having an open mind. One must always keep in mind that people come from various backgrounds and students especially may not necessarily have an understanding of fiduciaries or sustainable investing. It may take time, but striking a common ground between endowment stakeholders that may have more traditional views on investing and their fiduciary role with the passion of students and young alumni is achievable. 

“I think that these conversations have been so impactful on my life and I have now tried as an alum [to go] beyond the things that you can do from a monetary perspective.”       


Fiona Wilson, Executive Director of the Center for Social Innovation and Enterprise at UNH, added more color to illustrate the role of the Committee on Investor Responsibility. Rather than having one ‘to exist’, it is critical that it is populated with people that bring diverse perspectives and that it will ultimately be used to advance how the endowment reflects the institution’s mission. In addition, Fiona emphasized the power of collective student and alumni voices in effecting change across campus, whether that means advocating to integrate ESG courses into core finance curriculums or being both intentional and explicit about how your financial gifts are allocated.

“We’re very ambitious about wanting to get to the point where we can go all in and commit 100% of our endowment criteria. I think we have learned in this process about the process [itself] and to be “radically patient”. This stuff takes a lot of time, especially in the context of how universities work.”            

As Principal and Consultant at Prime Buchholz, Kate Dumas discussed her role throughout all stages of the roadmap. From providing feedback about fossil fuels exposure in the portfolio to helping her clients weave a solid investment policy reflective of the institution, Kate highlighted the importance of keeping conversations flowing as well as having a framework from the investment side to build information and guide clients to actual investable opportunities. Kate also notes that shifts in the financial industry itself (i.e. that ESG investing is increasingly becoming more mainstream) has and will continue to be an important catalyst as more asset managers will drive the supply of ESG-focused services.

“We can have a million wonderful ideas about how you want to have an impact but at the end of the day we need to be able to allocate dollars to those ideas.”

In the end, as a public university with multiple campuses nestled between national forests and bustling (yes, bustling!) cities such as Manchester, UNH’s successful efforts to integrate sustainable policies across diverse sets of communities and landscapes reflect a replicable model for many higher education institutions. 

To learn more about The University of New Hampshire's commitment and strategy to ESG investing, click here or visit our school snapshot page. For more information about the event and speakers, click here. To learn more about the IEN Roadmap, click here

full panel video or panel highlights video (more coming soon!)

Get up to date IEN News

Sign up for our Newsletters