Jennifer Lazarus’ first career was as a high school teacher. When she came to realize that profession wasn’t for her, teaching’s loss turned out to be her financial planning clients’ gain.
Lazarus’ journey began after she read an article about advisor Sheryl Garrett’s approach to financial planning. From there she sought out a member of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors to learn more about the profession, and then interned at another NAPFA planner’s practice before starting her own firm in 2005 in Durham, North Carolina.
During the internship Lazarus learned from her first mentors how they conducted client meetings, and realized “this is totally a lesson plan.”
When one of her first prospects at Lazarus Financial Planning sought her guidance on socially responsible investing, she decided to conduct her own research into SRI first, even though she says her heart was “already there.” Beginning in 2009, she went “100% SRI,” only accepting clients who are committed to that approach to investing.
“I realized I could work with a small number of people, but they needed to be as passionate about this as I was,” she says.
Her website puts it succinctly: I work exclusively with people who share my conviction that we can solve social and environmental problems by how we spend, donate, volunteer, and invest our capital.
Another differentiator from most of her peers is: most of her clients are relatively young; her oldest client is 62.
Those younger clients often have inherited money, she says, so her role is being a partner in their journey of trying to find “meaning and purpose in their lives.” She likens the relationship she builds with those clients to peeling back an onion; learning about the layers of what’s important to them so she can provide more holistic financial planning to each client.
Here’s a third difference: financial planning is the core of what she offers clients, but she charges clients a fee based on their total assets, not just on the assets she manages.
Let’s throw in a fourth: her client portfolios are composed only of actively managed mutual funds.
Those differentiators weren’t in place when Lazarus started her firm. Like so many advisors, Lazarus said her business has had “so many evolutions,” but she believes she has now hit on her own sustainable business way of doing well by doing good, based on her business experience and her understanding of the nuances of SRI investing.
Moreover, she continues to study SRI, attending every year at least one of the two major SRI industry gatherings: The SRI Conference (formerly known as SRI in the Rockies) or the US SIF conference sponsored by the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment.
Regarding SRI, advisors need to understand that providing advice on sustainable and impact investing is “much more than running a screen” using your Morningstar Advisor Workstation. For those clients interested in SRI, “you owe it to them to understand more … I made a decision to say, ‘Here’s what I believe,’” and to be totally transparent with clients from the beginning of the relationship as to what they can expect of her.
By the way, the value of using actively managed mutual funds is not simply in finding managers with the best returns, she says, but also those managers’ ability to conduct hard-nosed shareholder advocacy in the investments they own. That’s why she’s long been a fan of John Rogers of Ariel Funds, she explains, because he’s not shy about engaging with company management to prod them into aligning their practices with their values.
“There’s so much teeth behind using your voices” in that way, she says, reflecting her commitment to help her clients “understand what their dollars are actually doing.”
That process has brought her to the point now that she’s comfortable being more of an advisor to her clients, Lazarus says, and not just an educator.
James J. Green, a former editor of this magazine, is editor of Jamie Green Reports, an advisor-focused writing, editing and shepherding service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.