Rusty Leonard monitors values of companies for investors, holds nonprofits accountable

Ledger-Enquirer/September 29, 2007

You may have never heard the initials BRI. Or Or the CFPN.

A man named Rusty Leonard is coming to Columbus next week to help you make sense of these things and why they should matter to you, especially if you're a "red state Christian" who cares where your money goes.

The televangelist Benny Hinn knows who Leonard is. Leonard is a married father of two who runs a ministry called Wall Watchers (or out of his Pennsylvania home. Founded in 1998, asks religious organizations such as Hinn's for their financial statements. Mainly he wants to know how they spend their money. Though churches and ministries aren't required by law to file 990 forms, some information about nonprofits is available through the 990s.

An inquiry from Leonard's organization found that Hinn -- famous for fundraisers and "miracle crusades" in which he claims to heal people -- was not eager to divulge his ministry's spending habits. But an NBC special in 2002 discovered that Hinn used a ministry-owned home in California valued at that time to be $10 million. Hinn called it a parsonage.

Wall Watchers has been more successful with TBN, or Trinity Broadcasting Network. Leonard found in its 2004 filings that its cash and short-term investments totaled more than $340 million.

Leonard told World magazine this summer that he believed TBN was hoarding and had "the profit margins of Microsoft," with which he has issues since TBN is a nonprofit ministry. One organization in Georgia, Creflo Dollar Ministries, has also not responded to requests from Leonard's watchdog group. Leonard has about 500 ministries on his list that have been graded. About 500 more want to be listed on his site, Leonard said.

Why should any of this matter? Because in the case of about 10 percent of all nonprofits that he and his organization researches, much of the money goes unaccounted for and appears to be enriching mainly the people at the top.

"Yes, they do some ministry," Leonard told the Ledger-Enquirer. "But sometimes something is weird with the giving equation."

More good than bad

Leonard said most people tend to think of donating money this way: "If I do it, it makes me feel good and then I don't worry about what happens to it after that."

"We don't want to know (how it's spent), but we receive satisfation from doing a good deed," said Leonard, who has also admitted an aversion to the "prosperity gospel," to which some TBN preachers subsribe: It means that the more material blessings you have, the more proof that God is giving you favor.

Some of the transparent or positive ministries Leonard has uncovered:

  • Bible Study Fellowship
  • Ravi Zacharias International Ministries
  • Crown Financial Ministries includes the following screens in its criteria: financial transparency; strategic importance to Kingdom work; and by a straightforward evangelical perspective.

Leonard said there are far more "good" ministries than bad.

In 1998, Leonard walked away from a 10-year career with Templeton Investment Counsel, Inc. His last title was executive vice-president. He was regarded as a top securities analyst there.

One of Leonard's financial businesses, which he founded in 2001, is called Stewardship Partners Investment Counsel. Based in North Carolina, it goes to support the nonprofit As yet, he does not receive a salary, having built a healthy nest egg from his former job with Templeton. The company develops what it calls a Leaders List by noting companies that have a strong, sustainable position in their industry, and making money for shareholders.

This is where the letters BRII and CFPN come in. They stand, respectively, for Biblically Responsible Investing Inc., and the Christian Financial Professionals Network, of which Stewardship Partners is a member. With BRII, Leonard's company guides investors to companies that in its view are consistent with biblically sound practices. It judges companies on the S&P 500 by 10 criteria: Engagement in abortion; life-destroying or distorting scientific research; persecuted Christians and oppressed peoples; any abuse of the poor, children or the elderly; political oppression; alcohol, gambling and tobacco; pornography; homosexuality; entertainment that seeks to destroy appropriate attitudes; and efforts to promote sinful lifestyles. The companies might promote such activity themselves, or invest in other companies that do.

Another company that Leonard leads is the Institute of Christian Worldview Research Inc., which researches the publicly traded corporations and measures them against the 10 criteria.

'We're afraid of offending people'

Leonard has come to the attention of a Columbus investment company called Stifel, Nicolaus & Company Inc., on 12th Street, and they are sponsoring his trip here. Kim Sheek, one of the investment executives, had met Leonard at a few seminars and was impressed with him and his teachings.

"The more I have learned from a stewardship/biblical perspective, the more I think the Church in general doesn't like to talk about money," Sheek said. "We're afraid to go there. We're afraid of offending people." Sheek and his family are members of Christ Community Church. He is married to the former Nancy Page, and they have three children.

Leonard has called his type of tailored investments as mirroring "red-state Christian values," meaning putting one's money in companies that share those values. He contends that liberals -- secular and religious -- have a longer and better history of giving to companies whose values they share.

In attention to identifying companies that are failing in its 10 criteria, Stewardship Partners also highlights companies that are acting favorably.

Some of the good guys:

  • 3M
  • Alcoa
  • Cisco Systems

A couple of their offenders:

  • Pfizer
  • Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. About a fifth of the S&P 500 corporations are graded unfavorably by Stewardship Partners.

In some of its promotional material, Stewardship Partners asks investors to consider: What product or service does the company provide? Does it glorify God and benefit people?

Yet before investors can ask a company such as Leonard's to identify sound companies, they have to start at square one. Stewardship Partners will manage someone's money for a start-up fee of $100,000 (or more). The company has more than 600 clients. One of its teachings, based on the Parable of the Talents, is this: Fear not. In that parable from Matthew, one man buried his treasure, but because he did, his money didn't grow in value. Another man doubled his income. The preferred way is to double income, Leonard said.

"You can't run and hide. You do have to take risks," he said.

Granted, Christians will differ with one another on criteria to judge a company, and Leonard knows this. Some Christians might not care, for instance, about divesting in alcohol and tobacco companies. More liberal Christians have tended to mirror secular investors' trends, which may also have a "socially responsive label," Leonard said. Called Socially Responsive Investing, these include the Sierra Fund Stock Club, which allows people to invest in companies with clean envionmental records.

And other major faiths, such as Judaism and Islam, promote their own causes through investing in like-minded companies. Faith-based investing is healthy. According to fund research firm Morningstar, the value of assets held by faith-based funds has jumped nearly seven-fold since 2000 to $15.9 billion in 2006.

"In general, screened investing -- both religious and secular -- is getting more acceptable as investors have a greater desire to make investments that don't conflict with their core values," Morningstar analyst Bill Rocco told

Sheek of Columbus hopes that Leonard gives people food for thought while he's here -- or, more accurately, consider putting their money where their mouth is.

"I hope that out of Rusty's visit, folks have a broader and deeper understanding of finances," said Sheek who then quoted author Randy Alcorn's "the treasure principal": "We can't take it with us, but we can send it on ahead."

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