FAST COMPANY: With a new online brokerage aimed at millennials, you can pick a theme—like “Improve Education” or “No Glass Ceiling”—and invest. The catch is you’ll still be supporting big, conventional conglomerates.
It’s often said that the average millenial is more socially-conscious than previous generations. They are more likely to care about the environment and more interested in global challenges like poverty, for example. So it’s not surprising to see companies trying to channel that with new marketing approaches. If you’re trying to build a future-facing business, it makes sense to tap into the concerns of the next group of people with money to spend.
That, at least, is the rationale behind a new online brokerage called Swell. Aimed specifically at millennials, Swell offers baskets of stocks with themes like “Improve Education,” “Fight Cancer,” “Uphold Human Rights,” and “End Poverty.” For a minimum of $250, you can put your hard-earned dough towards good causes, while hopefully making a decent return at the same time (and don’t worry, you can be any age).
Swell is a partnership between Pacific Life, an insurance firm, and Motif Investing, an online brokerage that allows people to invest “thematically.” Say you think that drones are going to be big in the future because Amazon is going deliver everything from the air. You can invest in a basket of stocks based around the drone theme. Or, maybe you like the idea of companies headed by women CEOs. There’s a basket called “No Glass Ceiling.” And so on. Moreover, you can do it at a fraction of the cost of a traditional online brokerage. Instead of paying many dollars per stock, you pay a flat-rate $9.95 for a “motif” that includes 30 of them.
The socially-responsible Motifs available through Swell tend to be loaded with stocks from companies that invest in causes through their foundations. For example, General Electric, Intel Corporation, and General Motors all support education, so they’re included in “Improve Education.” At the same time, Swell promises to give 20% of its revenues to worthy groups, including Jumpstart for Young Children and the American Association of People with Disabilities.
You might say that investing through a basket of stocks in companies whose foundations then give money to charities that then invest in social programs is a pretty circuitous way of caring about something. But Motif’s CEO, Hardeep Walia, argues that it’s the best offer out there.
“It’s a way of getting market returns. You’re investing in your retirement, your education and yourself personally and, while you’re doing that, Pacific Life is doing something remarkable,” he says. “I don’t know of another fund that’s investing 20% of its revenues to doing good.”
Maybe. But perhaps before too long we’ll have more options for “blended” or “impact investing” that aren’t so sideways in their approach. At the moment, retail investors have limited options if they want to give money directly and see a return. The choice is still largely between getting returns by investing in a major corporation and/or giving your money away completely to some big charity. What we really need is a market where the returns are perhaps lower, but where the money goes where it’s needed. For all its innovation, Swell still seems like a conventional investment with goodwill tokenistically thrown in.