A pointed observation by one of its trustees last year has spurred a promise by the Kresge Foundation to place a quarter of its U.S. assets under the control of women- and minority-owned firms by 2025 — a move it hopes other weighty non-profits will emulate.

Kresge's announcement came during the annual conference of the ABFE, formerly the Association of Black Foundation Executives, at the Renaissance Center. Troy-based Kresge became the first private foundation to embrace the ABFE's Diversity in Foundation Asset Management Pledge.

Kresge President and CEO Rip Rapson said the oath was at least partially inspired by a moment of chagrin during an investment committee meeting when vice-president and CIO Robert Manilla brought his entire team into the room.

All 14 or 15 of them were white. Only one was a woman.

A trustee raised her hand, Rapson recounted, and said, "You know, Rob, I'm sure these are talented and wonderful people. Don't take this personally. But this is not acceptable."

A saving grace, Rapson said, is that subsequent accounting found that about 15 percent of Kresge's $1.85 billion in domestic assets is already invested with the type of firms it has pledged to support. A boost to 25% would mean a total of $462.5 million.

With its $3.7 billion in assets worldwide, Kresge's grant-making focuses heavily on equity and opportunity. Particularly given that emphasis, Rapson said, "Your decision-making, your creativity and the culture you bring to bear on your work simply has to be more reflective of different points of view, life experiences and ways of thinking about a problem."

The ABFE hopes to enlist 50 foundations by the end of 2021. President and CEO Susan Taylor Batten said Kresge had taken an important step to "not only look inward, but to serve as a model for other institutions that manage large endowments."

Kresge cited studies that show equal or better performance by asset management firms operated by women and minorities. But according to a 2016 report from Bella Research Group and the Knight Foundation, the firms represent only 1.1% of the financial industry's $71 trillion in assets under management.

Rapson said he recently asked Manilla the obvious question: "If that can be demonstrated, why have people been so reluctant to invest with them?

There's a persistent narrative, Manilla responded, "that you do this at the expense of returns."

Joining ABFE's movement, Rapson said — and for now, leading it — "clearly signals to our peers in philanthropy that this is something one of the best performers in the industry is going to take on."

Twitter: nealrubin_dn

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