Voting with your money: Social finance investments for a better future

The term 'investment' often conjures up images of fossil fuels, gold, and foreign companies — entities that we don't always personally connect with. But what if there was a way that your investments could impact the organic grocer in your neighbourhood? What if your money could be used to make choices that align with your values and beliefs?

Last month, the Ottawa Renewable Energy Co-op (OREC) and Invest Ottawa held a panel discussion to show Ottawa residents just how they could accomplish that. Called Powering Up Ottawa by Investing Locally, the event focused on highlighting the strength of the Capital's social finance movement. Moderated by City Councillor David Chermushenko, a lively conversation detailed how local investment opportunities could not only strengthen the city's economy but also provide great social and environmental returns. These experts included George Brown from George Brown Law, Janice Ashworth from OREC, Bill Shields from West End Well and Jennifer Benedict from the United Way.

"The aim of the event was to raise the profile of social investing and social finance in Ottawa," added Ashworth. "That discussion has centered around a few institutions in Toronto and Ontario, but Ottawa hasn't had many opportunities for members of the public to take part in a conversation, nor for stakeholders to come together and network."

Those opportunities are amplified by the numbers surrounding these topics, which include $50 billion in assets. OREC itself has been able to raise over $1.5 million from individual investments in Ottawa, helping the installation of solar power systems. Additionally, local investments contribute to local, sustainable jobs.

"Social finance and social investing are filling an urge people have to bring human values back into their financial decisions," said Ashworth. "It's another way for people to vote for the future they want and influence what happens. That portion really registered with people at the event — it's a chance for them to make a real difference."

Financial decisions are often based on number crunching and risk assessments from computer modelling. Many people can attest that they don't feel they have much control. Including value-based investments, said Ashworth, will help bring a sense of control back into the decision-making process as well as a sense of connection.

"It's frustrating when many options are only what a corporate bank will give you," she said. "We need to shift away from fossil fuels to a sustainable economy and do that, we can't count on government subsidies for each of us, we need to do it collectively through our savings to make a huge change in the world. It creates the potential for a momentum shift. The tipping point is coming and people need to make better choices."

Better choices are all around us — in fact, Ottawa has a number of local investments that are thriving, thanks to local support. For example, West End Well is a social enterprise co-operative that integrates an organic grocery store with a café. It's operated by Stone Soup Foodworks, as well as a coffeehouse, that lends spaces for community workshops, meetings and other events. The Well also offers cooking classes to inspire people to live in a more sustainably and healthy way, as well as music nights, storytelling, poetry and yoga classes. And it accomplishes this all while minimizing its environmental impact.

Ashworth said attendees at the event took away information about options like West End Well that they could invest in. In terms of networking, social finance stakeholders not only connected but also discussed how to work together in overcoming barriers at a future roundtable. In the spring, another public discussion is planned on how to protect your investments from a climate change future.

"Ottawa has a great investment profile and opportunities because we're the nation's capital!" said Ashworth. "We tend to be slow and often look to Toronto for inspiration but we have high education rates, high incomes and a stable population — we're well positioned to increase the rate of social investing and Invest Ottawa recognizes that we need to keep our money here, too."

Learn more by visiting Invest Ottawa's website: and OREC:

On March 18, the Impact Ontario conference will be held in Toronto, bringing world-changing sustainable Ontario ventures together with world-leading investors and intermediaries. For more information and to register, visit