Warren Wilson College (WWC), a liberal arts institution located in Swannanoa, North Carolina, has established itself as a leader in environmental and social sustainability. From building the first LEED Platinum certified building on a college campus in 2003 to experiential learning on its 110 acre organic farm, WWC has fully integrated sustainability into all sectors of campus life and college operations. These efforts have resulted in WWC receiving several sustainability awards including Sierra Club’s 2007-2019 “Cool School” award and a Gold STARS rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) in 2020.
In the past 5 years, WWC has focused on intentionally applying environmental sustainability and social equity lenses to the management of its financial assets. In 2015, WWC’s student fossil fuel divestment campaigns motivated the school to reevaluate its endowment portfolio. Recognizing a misalignment between its core values and investments, WWC publicly committed to divest from fossil fuels within five years and to begin fully integrating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors into the investment process.
In 2019, WWC began exploring active ownership as a way to expand the positive societal and environmental impact of its investments, while also reducing risks and maximizing returns in its endowment portfolio. Active ownership is one of the fastest growing responsible investment strategies. The Principles for Responsible Investing (PRI) defines active ownership as the use of rights and position of ownership to influence the activities or behavior of investee companies.1 It is a form of stewardship that allows investors to influence companies on their management of environmental, social, and governance risks and opportunities. In addition to investors mobilizing capital for positive impact by driving responsible corporate practices, active ownership is integral to fiduciary duty as it considers businesses’ long-term systemic risks.
In efforts to increase WWC’s active ownership practices, WWC’s ESG Advisory Committee engaged IEN to explore shareholder engagement strategies. With support from IEN’s Shareholder Engagement Working Group members and staff, WWC was able to actively vote all its proxies in its separately managed equity accounts and co-file three shareholder resolutions in support of environmentally responsible and socially equitable corporate practices. This collaboration provided WWC with the necessary knowledge and experience to continue leveraging its shareholder voice to influence companies’ practices. In the coming years, IEN plans to increasingly support endowments in embracing their role as active owners.
Development of this case study was a collective effort of the Intentional Endowments Network and Warren Wilson College.The following people played critical roles in the research, writing, and review of this document:
Hannah Bowen, Network Manager, IEN
Alice DonnaSelva, Managing Director, IEN
Ben Linthicum, ESG Advisory Committee Chair, Warren Wilson College
Brian Liechti, Director of Sustainability, Warren Wilson College
Julia Maloney, Graduate Fellow, IEN
Anthony Rust, Investment Committee Chair, Warren Wilson College