There’s value in having a conversation about values. And that’s always been the case for advisors who want to specialize in socially responsible investing (SRI). But how do you get in front of potential clients in the first place?

“We put ourselves out there and we repel as many people as we attract,” says Stephen Whipp, an SRI advisor with Manulife Securities in Victoria. “It’s the branding, so that when someone walks in the office, they at least have an inkling of what it’s going to be like.”

Whipp learned the hard way that as an advisor, it’s important to be yourself. “Many advisors love the outdoors, they’re environmentalists, they’re active in their own community, but when they put on that suit, they’re an advisor. All they are interested in is profit and loss, the P/E ratio, all the mumbo jumbo. They get so caught up in that, they forget about who they are and what interests them.”

“Don’t be someone you’re not. I started doing it that way, I realized it wasn’t me.”

Keep in mind that what interests you as an advisor probably also interests your clients, Whipp said in an interview with at the Canadian Responsible Investment Conference in Toronto.

“Otherwise, the client wouldn’t be drawn to you in the first place,” he says. “I would suggest people who don’t have the same interests as you, they don’t make a good client for you anyway. Because that’s what makes a good client, when you share the values.”

“You can only attract like-minded people if you show who you are.”

Admittedly, that’s not easy. But there are rewards for advisors who choose to specialize in SRI.

“I believe we can use money in a much more positive, healthy, life-affirming way,” said Steve Schueth, president of First Affirmative Financial Network in Colorado, during an advisor panel discussion at the conference. “As investors, we have an obligation to understand how our money is impacting the world and the legacy we will leave for future generations.”

“I’m passionate about the people I serve,” added Cara MacMillan, an investment advisor with BMO Nesbitt Burns in Ottawa. “And as advisors, we tend to attract people who are similar to us. So, you have to have the values discussion. Link the conversation to where people are as individuals and make sure it honours where they are now.”

Although the credit crisis has created lots of mistrust among investors, advisors specializing in responsible investing can capitalize on that lack of trust, simply by explaining to clients that investing can be more than just about making money.

“That conversation is incredibly important,” says Schueth. “More so now than a few years ago. The general description [of our clients] is people who want to make money and make a difference. It’s not either or and neither one takes priority, it’s both.”

Whipp agrees. “The recent market volatility over the last two years has shown those of us in SRI that those clients are stickier. Those people want to have conversation about what happened from a values perspective, so it gives some context to what’s going on in their portfolios.”

”The BP oil spill has shocked and saddened people around the world, and although it may seem crass, it has also created the perfect opening for a discussion with clients who want their money to change the world in some way”, says Schueth. “Think about this: This planet is a closed system. We screw this up, and we all die. More and more people get that. There’s more opportunity for us to help people put their money to work in a more positive and transformative way.”

“Anything that happens out there that raises the issues of sustainability and risk, it’s got to be an issue,” says Whipp. “You don’t have to hold BP [in your portfolio] to understand that the risks of holding that kind of company are enormous.”

“It’s re-focused everybody – there’s more to this than just the bottom line. What are the risks in your portfolio today? And those are the questions that SRI asks,” says Whipp. “Advisors who are only talking about cash flow, they’re missing the conversation about environmental cost and the hidden risks in a portfolio.”

A final word of advice from Whipp. “If you’re not asking the values question, you’re going to be losing clients,” he warns. “I have people who come to me after 20 years with the same advisor, they’ve been asking about SRI for years and their advisor has never addressed the issue. So these are assets that have been in this advisor’s hands for 20 years. You would think those assets would be pretty sticky, but they are not.”

  • Doug Watt is an Ottawa-based writer and editor and co-founder of SRI Monitor, a blog on socially responsible investing.

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