Jody Rasch, Social Investing, Microfinance, Vegfund

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JDR Headshot (2)Jody Rasch is a consultant in the areas of social investing and microfinance. Prior to this he headed the Social Performance Group at Moody’s Corporation working on projects including microfinance and social investing. He developed the Moody’s Social Performance Assessment (SPA) which provides a gap analysis of practices for microfinance institutions. He also served on various advisory boards including Women’s World Banking’s Gender Performance Initiative, the SMART Campaign’s Certification Task Force, Grameen Foundation’s Social Performance Advisory Committee and the Global Impact Investing Rating Service (GIIRS). Mr. Rasch has presented on social and financial issues at conferences worldwide, including Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America, Asia and the United States. Prior to joining Moody’s in 2002 Mr. Rasch owned, for 15 years, a training company that conducted financial training programs for international commercial and investment banks. He also headed the New York derivatives sales desk of Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and has worked in the corporate treasury departments of two Fortune 500 companies. Mr. Rasch has a B.A. degree in Economics from the University of Michigan and holds an MBA in Finance from New York University.

Mr. Rasch is on the Board of Directors of two not for profit organizations. Battery Dance Company, which conducts cultural diplomacy in over 60 countries and the United States through its “Dancing to Connect” program; and VegFund which supports grass roots activists in promoting a vegan lifestyle. Mr. Rasch is also a painter (www.raschart.com) and is completing his first novel, “The Day After Yesterday”, which has an animal rights theme.

TRANSCRIPTION:

Caryn Hartglass: Hey everybody! How are you doing today? I’m Caryn Hartglass, and you’re listening to It’s All About Food! How are you today? I’m good, thanks for asking. I’m really looking forward to today’s program. But first, I want to let you know a few things that are going on. I may have mentioned this last week, but every year around this time—around Earth Day, which is April 22nd, next Wednesday, and it’s also my birthday—the organization Compassion Over Killing hosts the U.S. Veg Week. This year, U.S. Veg Week 2015 will be going on between April 20th and 26th. You can go to usvegweek.com and you can sign up and take a seven-day veg pledge. You’ll get all kinds of free stuff: coupons for yummy food and lots of great information, so if you need that kick in the butt to up your diet a notch or to finally take the plunge, take the pledge and go over to usvegweek.com. The other thing I wanted to mention of course, as I mentioned Earth Day, my nonprofit Responsible Eating and Living is having our big fundraising event next week and it’s going to be a lot of fun. We’ve got the Swing Gourmets coming in with a great performance and that’s going to be in Queens, the number one travel destination for 2015, named by Lonely Planet. So if you haven’t been here, you can swing on over. It’s so easy to get here. The venue is right by the Long Island Railroad, by the subway. You can even fly in; the airports aren’t that far away. Okay. So that’s it for my brief announcement. Now I want to bring on my first guest, Jody Rasch. He’s a consultant in the areas of social investing and microfinance. He’s also on the board of a number of non-profit organizations: Battery Dance Company, which conducts cultural diplomacy in over sixty countries and the United States through its “Dancing to Connect” program; and VegFund, which supports grassroots activists in promoting a vegan lifestyle. He’s also a painter and is working on his first novel, The Day After Yesterday, which has an animal rights theme. Jody, welcome to It’s All About Food!

Jody Rasch: Oh, thank you very much.

Caryn: I love talking to Renaissance people.

Jody: I’m not that old.

Caryn: No, no, no, what I mean is—you know what I mean, people who do whatever makes their heart sing.

Jody: Yes. That’s important. Helps also keep you sane.

Caryn: Absolutely, and that’s like probably the biggest challenge humans have here on this planet, staying sane. Or at least working toward feeling good most of the time, because there is a lot that can bring us down.

Jody: Very true.

Caryn: Yeah. So first let’s talk about something that’s very important to many of us, and that’s money. You’ve been involved in social investing and microfinance. Can you just give me an idea of where social investing is at these days and what it is?

Jody: Yes, well. Defining what it is is probably the more difficult of the questions because there are a lot of different types of social investing that goes on. Historically, what social investing has been is what they call negative screening, where you don’t want your money invested in certain areas. It started out more as a religious thing, where you didn’t want to invest in sin stocks. That was really the first level. And then it went from being more religious to then having a social aspect to it. You would have divestures of companies that were in South Africa. You’re seeing it now with a lot of the larger funds that are looking at divesting any of their holdings in carbon or in the oil and gas industry. That’s kind of the next stage of that. And then you have we’ll call impact investing, where you would invest your money to have a social impact. So rather than negative screen, you try to invest your money in a way that’s positive. For example, if you want to do something about greenhouse gases, rather than not investing in oil companies, you might invest in solar or in wind farms and other aspects that have a social aspect to it. And then the final area of social investing is really advocacy, where you would actually invest in a company that’s doing something you don’t like so that you can actually have a seat at the table and potentially give shareholder resolutions to try to elevate the discussion and actually make change. Those are the different aspects of it, and depending on who you talk to and how narrowly you define social investing, there’s potentially around seven trillion dollars that’s been invested in total in impact investing. Some of it might be just negative screens and not necessarily very impactful, but that’s kind of the realm of what we’re looking at.

Caryn: I remember when I first learned about social investing, it was about not supporting companies that were involved in tobacco or involved in the war machine.

Jody: Right. They also looked at pornography as one of the sin stocks as well. The problem with that, really, is that it made the investor feel good, but it didn’t actually change anything. The fact that you’re not investing in Lockheed doesn’t hurt their access to the capital markets, so they don’t change. It was really expensive for the investor, because you’d have to have somebody springing and managing these investments for you, and you really weren’t… We didn’t stop war when people stopped investing in war stocks, and so on.

Caryn: Right, haha.

Jody: So the advocacy of that type of investing is somewhat in question.

Caryn: So I thought that getting a seat at the table and investing in getting shares in a company whose mission you don’t support is something that I think is a really excellent idea. I’ve heard some good things that’ve come out of it, and I imagine that’s a more productive route.

Jody: Yeah. Personally, I think that can be very productive, and also doing positive investment, investing in companies that are doing something to promote change in whichever areas that you’re looking at. Those things are more effective and seem to be where the social investment market is going.

Caryn: And the thing about social investing, just like any investing—people want to put their money in and make money on it. Right?

Jody: Right, absolutely.

Caryn: Nobody wants to lose money on their investment.

Jody: Yeah. And that’s important in social investing, because it’s not like giving to a not-for-profit, where you’re giving them money to accomplish a specific objective. If you’re investing in a company, the way the company has impact is if they grow. So if you invest in a small company and it stays small, even if they’re doing something good, then the impact you’re having is not particularly large. If you invest in a solar company or a wind company and they expand, well that means that their product is expanding and you’re having more and more impact. The idea of getting a social return and a financial return are, in this case, not inconsistent.

Caryn: Also, there are lots of great things that someone can invest in that are going to make a positive difference on the planet. It may not be intuitive. You may think that these things are too expensive, but I think more and more as energy becomes more expensive and more polluting, these more sustainable choices become more attractive, more affordable, and just a better idea.

Jody: Absolutely.

Caryn: Yeah. All right. So that’s social investing. You’re also involved in microfinance, which I’ve read a bit about over the decades. It’s really been a powerful thing to help a lot of individuals and small people all over the world that never had access to any kind of financial support to create.

Jody: Right. So the idea behind microfinance, and it’s expanded since its early days where it was actually microcredit where you gave small loans to the poor to help them invest in their own businesses. That’s now expanded quite significantly. Microcredit is part of it. But it’s now more in a larger tent referred to as financial inclusion. Not everyone needs a loan, and for some people getting a loan is actually a bad thing because they have no real way to repay it. But there are other products that’re financial that we take for granted. Well actually, maybe we don’t, because one of them is insurance, and it’s very different types of insurance products that are for this market. And also, another really big product that seems to have potentially even more impact on the poor is savings plans—getting people to save on a regular basis so that they have money for contingencies. Other types of programs that seem to have a very big impact on the poor is financial education. Institutions not only give financial products, but the question is should they be doing other nonfinancial things. Other issues might be things like health programs and along those lines. One thing that’s always, being vegan, bothered me about microfinance and my involvement in that is that a lot of these microfinance loans that go into rural areas are in many cases used to fund the purchase of animals, so sheep or ducks or cows.

Caryn: I’m glad you brought that up because you just read my mind. That was my next question, and you just kept going with it, so please, yeah.

Jody: Yeah. So that, for me, created a pretty big conflict. I wasn’t involved in the loan side. I was actually working for one of the big rating agencies, and what we developed was a way to rate microfinance institutions to how socially responsible they are. We developed a rating system for that. But that really bothered me, that these institutions— It’s almost like you’re solving one problem or trying to solve one problem, poverty, but creating a whole range of new problems on health and environment and all that, and trying to get institutions to pay attention to that. So what I got the idea and had some success in this, is trying to work with some of these microfinance organizations to start doing we’re calling “healthy microfinance,” where, in addition to making the loans, you talk to them about the health aspects of animal agriculture and eating animals, and the environmental aspects, which come to the forum in the U.S. where you look at the drought in California. The reason they have a drought is because forty-seven percent of the water goes to support animal agriculture. You get a lot of that in the developing world, where you talk about desertification and people make arguments saying, well on marginal land you can only have animals grazing on it. But in fact, if you go back in history, the reason they became marginal lands is because of the grazing, and there are ways to rectify that. That became, in my mind, something that I wanted to try to push. It was interesting, because one of the big microfinance institutions, which is Grameen, which was one of really the first that started in Bangladesh, they also have an initiative in the United States and actually in the Americas. I started talking to the person who headed up Grameen Americas about this concept and he was very skeptical at first about doing this. But he had one of the people that worked for him start researching this. We put them in touch with people from PCRM, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and others as well, about the benefits of a whole foods, plant-based diet. I bumped into the guy who headed this up a year later and it turns out, first of all, he turned vegan, which totally shocked me. All the nutritional counseling they were doing through this Grameen Health Initiative they were calling it, was all plant-based because they just were convinced it was the better way to go. So that affects thousands of people, not only in the U.S. but also in, I think Central America is also part of what they do. The power of speaking up and actually saying these things for people, you never know where it’s going to go.

Caryn: That is really outstanding. I’m very excited to hear about that. Now the question is how to get a broader reach with that. I attended a meeting last year with the president of IFAD, the… What does IFAD stand for? International Fund for… They help rural people and they invest in rural people. The president was here in the United States and a few of us met with him and he was telling us about what they were working on and doing. I love the idea of investing in rural people and giving them what they need and helping them rather than just giving them donations—giving them the tools so they can help themselves, because that’s what people really want.

Jody: That’s right.

Caryn: And then I asked him, kind of saying everything you just said, saying we have so much knowledge now about plant foods and growing animals to feed people and what it’s doing for the environment and our health. What is it that you are promoting and encouraging? Of course, they’re doing what they shouldn’t be doing, which is giving people animals and helping them raise chickens and… He didn’t really have an answer when I asked him why he’s doing it because he doesn’t know.

Jody: That’s one of the issues, also. I’m working with other groups that are looking into sustainable agriculture. Whenever they define sustainable agriculture, so much of the time it involves animals. You just look at them and say, let’s not just call something sustainable. Let’s look at the science behind it. Anything involving animals is not sustainable. I think it’s a good thing to reach out to these type of groups because in their minds they want to do good, but they just don’t have the information. You mentioned that I’m on the board of VegFund. In addition to the grants, the grassroots activists, and supporting people on the Facebook campaigns and all that, we’re actually starting to do outreach in microfinance. We want to do outreach for some of the environmental conferences as well to bring these issues up in those environments and see if we can start spreading the message of veganism from a health, environmental, and social aspect of it as well.

Caryn: I think what people don’t even realize is helping these rural people and people in poverty to lift themselves up and get their families fed and going to school and improving their lives… I’m assuming that it would be… If you’re promoting a plant-based diet rather than animal agriculture in any form, you can have a much greater reach with plant foods. It’s just cheaper to do, period. Cheaper and easier.

Jody: That’s right. Yep. It’s cheaper, it’s more healthful, it supports the local environment. You have huge problems with groundwater pollution, so even if we… You try to bring up global warming when you’re dealing in microfinance, they don’t want to hear about it. They’re just basically trying to survive and get by the next day. But there’s much more very local issues of land use, water use. Someone upstream, well their runoff is going into the water and polluting the water downstream. Also, that runoff is manure from the animals there. As water becomes more and more scarce, these issues become more and more important and also are going to lead to things like violence and wars and also some other issues related to that. It’s a very important issue, especially in the developing markets, for things that are particularly important to the local populations.

Caryn: I remember the name of the organization I was talking about before. IFAD, the International Fund for Agricultural Development. I believe they’re part of the UN. They’re doing a lot of great things, but again, they’re doing it with animals a lot.

Jody: That’s right. One of the places you can actually open a dialogue with them… You have to be patient, you have to do it over time, but you can open a dialogue to them and it’s interesting how open people are to this. Luckily, people surprise you at times and they get it. You give them enough data and information from reputable sources. For the United Nations, they actually did “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” If you provide that information to some of the United Nations, they got to believe the source ‘cause it’s their own organization.

Caryn: Very good. Let’s talk a little bit more about VegFund. What are some of the things that VegFund has been involved with?

Jody: A lot of different projects. The core of what we do is give away money, which makes us very popular. We give money or we support grassroots activists. For example, if you want to do a food sampling in your area and need the money to buy the food and if you’re doing it in a place where there are fees or something like that, you can apply for a grant and we’ll cover the costs. If you want to do a pay-per-view, which I found… My wife used to do them before I went on the board. I guess she can’t be compensated by VegFund anymore, so I ruined that for her. Where you show little clips of a video about animal agriculture, you pay someone—typically it’s a dollar—to watch it. You’re paying them to view it. If you need money to do the dollar and do the payment, you can apply to VegFund for that. If you want to arrange a movie screening, as long as it’s a movie we feel is an appropriate movie for the vegan message, and if you have costs involved in that, then you can apply to VegFund and we’ll deal with that. We also have a number of Facebook campaigns where we’ll pay people for the clicks through to get a vegetarian starter kit. We’ll compensate somebody for the costs on the Facebook campaign or something like that. You can go to the website, which is vegfund.org, and look at that. The best part that I like, the best with that is, we also have this thing called our merit award. That can be for something that’s different and innovative that isn’t part of our normal programming. You can apply for that and we can take a look at what you proposed. If it supports veganism and supports college potentially, it’s something we can fund. We encourage people to be creative.

Caryn: That’s great. That’s great. I got a very tiny VegFund award last year as a speaker.

Jody: That’s good.

Caryn: When I went to talk to 250 cattle ranchers about animal agriculture’s impact on global warming, which was really fun.

Jody: Did we pay you so you could keep the car running on the way so you could get out quickly?

Caryn: I didn’t include that in my budget. But I did. Actually, like we were saying before about talking to people about different issues, especially when you think that they won’t be open to them, people really appreciate dialogue and information. Even talking to cattle ranchers about alternatives. They were asking questions. They were open, they were interested.

Jody: Yeah. Where was it, I think it was in Finland where they actually paid cattle ranchers to switch to growing berries, and they found heart disease rates went way down. It also made money. If it’s put the right way, there can be common ground.

Caryn: We’ve got this drought going on in California, and there’s all kinds of conversation about the reason behind it. I really wish that our government was able to rise above all the nonsense and do the right thing, and one of the right things would be to support people who are in businesses that are not environmentally friendly. People that are raising cattle out in Nevada and think there’s nothing else that they can do with that land that doesn’t seem to want to grow anything should be learning how to grow drought-tolerant crops and things that can help put the soil into health. Things like teff and other plants like that. We need some support there. Okay. Now. We just have a few more minutes left, and I wanted to talk about your art. Is that okay?

Jody: Okay. That’s perfectly okay.

Caryn: Great. I really believe that art is important in life for so many reasons. I myself am a singer, a performer. When I do get a chance, I like to dabble in watercolors and oil. I just think it’s important for each of us individually to express and create. I would like to see a lot more support behind the arts. These days it’s exceptionally frustrating. There’s just so much power in art. I’m looking at your website. I don’t know how you pronounce it, but…

Jody: Rasch Art. It’s Rasch Art.

Caryn: Your name is Rasch. I didn’t pronounce it correctly.

Jody: R-A-S-C-H.

Caryn: raschart.com. Right. I was really enjoying looking at your work. Under the “Astronomy” section, I’m looking at the first piece, Four Seasons of Dark Matter. I’m like seeing a little van Gogh in there, Starry Night. What I love is, you look at the macroscale with the astronomy, the big universe, and then the microscale under biology. Everything can be fascinating and beautiful.

Jody: Yeah. The idea behind that… For me, what’s interesting about it is that, whether it’s on the macroscale and you’re looking at radio astronomy images so that they don’t actually appear to be stars or something like that, it’s more abstract images. Or the biology or the subatomic physics that I use as themes in all the art. These are things that really make up the world but we don’t actually see. There’s actually a common bond between that and my outlook on life, particularly the veganism. If you think about the animals involved in our food supply, most people never see that. They never go beyond what’s just right in front of their eyes. What I want people to do, and what I challenge them to do in my art is to look beyond just the surface, to see what the world is made of and what really happens. For example in the biology, one of the things that I do quite a bit of is the different viruses. There’s an HIV virus. Bubonic plague is one of the images I’ve used. They look quite beautiful in their microscopic level, but then when you think about what their impact is on the world, just the difference between those two, the duality of it is really trying to get you to think about how things really are and really what the impact of our decisions are on the macroworld. There’s kind of a common theme. I started the painting because it helped me think about these types of issues. Helped me just go beyond what you’re seeing, and telling you to think more deeply about these type of factors.

Caryn: Mmhm. I just want to tell you, my favorite of what you’ve got on your website is the Synapse / Neuromuscular Synapse. I love the color, the balance. I think that’s my favorite. My favorite today. Could change at any time. I just wanted to mention one more thing before we go. I went through a little romp with advanced ovarian cancer eight-and-a-half years ago and I had this Gustav Klimt connection in my cancer story. It’s a long story, I’m not going to go into it here. I had some PET scans during this period, and it would light up where this little mass was. We kept thinking—Gary, who you met, my partner, and I—how that little mass in the PET scan looked a lot like the images in one of my favorite Klimt paintings. There’s that kind of—

Jody: Maybe there’s an art series in this one as well. We should talk.

Caryn: Okay. Let’s do that. Great. Well Jody, thanks for joining me on It’s All About Food and for everything that you’re doing. It’s so important. Thank you.

Jody: Thank you as well.

Caryn: Okay, take care and we’ll talk soon.

Jody: All right. Bye-bye.

Caryn: Okay. Bye-bye. Let’s take a really quick break, and then we’re going to be back with Jane Velez-Mitchell. I can’t wait.

Transcribed by JC, 04/14/2015

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