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Practicing What She Preaches

Since joining the Peace Corps, Jennifer Lazarus has wanted to have an impact on the world. She found a way by being a financial planner.

Kate Stalter, 10/16/2012

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2012 issue of MorningstarAdvisor magazine.  To subscribe, please call 1-800-384-4000. 

For several years after college, Jennifer Lazarus was searching for what she terms it. For her, that meant a career that would allow her to serve others, while expressing her values.

She eventually found her it, as a financial planner bringing customized advice to each client with a focus on socially responsible investing. Today, she runs a thriving practice from her home in Durham, N.C. But she got to that place in a somewhat roundabout fashion.

Out to Save the World
Born in Australia, she spent her early years moving around the globe with her family. Her father’s job in finance with Goodyear Tire took the family to many countries that were experiencing profound, visible poverty, something that made an impact on Lazarus as a girl. Before she moved to the United States at age 16, she had lived in Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Brazil. After graduating from Miami University in Ohio, she joined the Peace Corps, where she served in the African nation of Chad, doing community education work.

“I really wanted to save the world and make a big impact,” she says. “At that point in my life, I thought I wanted to work for the U.N. and feed the hungry.”

Lazarus left the Peace Corps in 1996 and went on to get her master’s degree in teaching from Boston University. She was an elementary and high school teacher for several years but realized that it was not the right fit for her. She wasn’t sure what career move to make next but was pursuing various interests, including investing. She found herself informally, without pay, advising her husband’s colleagues on their 403(b) plans, researching mutual funds and explaining why she would prefer one fund to another. She recalls the moment she began seriously to consider a career in financial planning.

“One of these friends said to me, ‘Do you notice how alive you are and how great you are at this? Are you paying attention to this?’ I was doing hours and hours of research and really loving it,” she says.

Around that same time, she read an article by fee-only financial planner Sheryl Garrett and realized that there were other services an advisor could provide, in addition to investment advice. That sent her back to school, taking classes toward the Certified Financial Planner credential.

“I figured I had nothing to lose by taking one class after the other for the CFP, because at least I would become more proficient in managing our own financial affairs,” she says. An internship at a local firm, Woodward Financial Advisors, turned into a full-time job. She credits advisors Henry Woodward and Linda Patchett, both now retired, for teaching her how to run a successful, ethical practice with an emphasis on client service.

“Henry sat me down and said, ‘This is how we do what we do, this is a client meeting.’ And I thought ‘This is so much like teaching!’ There was the equivalent of a lesson plan, your exhibits that you create—so many parallels. That was the moment when I realized that I had arrived at who I am as a teacher.”

SRI Point of View
In 2005, she set off to open her own practice. She did not have a book of business at the start, but she received a good number of referrals from Woodward for clients who found the more established firm’s fees too high. She knew her practice would be fee-only and that she would focus on planning, rather than investment management. She does extensive research and recommends investment vehicles for clients, but she does not manage the assets.

However, she has a definite point of view when it comes to the investing and works with clients who share that vision. Lazarus’ focus is on socially responsible investing. She says that the concept of SRI has evolved over time. “It used to be that people wanted to stay away from sin stocks. But it’s transformed to be more about looking for companies that have positive attributes.”

A key component of a client engagement is investment education. Here, Lazarus explains not only the philosophy behind SRI but also her reasons for using actively managed funds. “These active managers are looking at the financials, which all active managers look at, but they also look at environmental factors, like pollution prevention, resource management, reduced emission, climate impact,” she says. She acknowledges that it’s not possible to find the perfect company, citing the example of Nike NIKE. While the apparel maker has been lauded for its progress in the area of sustainability, it has also been criticized for labor issues in the supply chain. But she looks to SRI managers as catalysts for change in the companies they own.

“When I buy a share of a mutual fund, I want the manager to bring to the attention of corporate management any of the underlying issues,” she says. “For my money, I want to be effecting positive change. With the fund managers where I have entrusted my money, I feel like that is happening.”

Lazarus is accustomed to getting questions about performance of SRI funds. She has gathered research reports and data that show there is essentially no difference in performance between SRI and indexing strategies. She attends conferences, reads academic papers, and relies on data aggregated at USSIF.org, the website for the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment.

Local Finance
Her investment strategy doesn’t stop with mutual funds. She is a proponent of using community investments—financing for local projects and small businesses that could not be funded using more-traditional methods.

“At their core, they are Main Street investments,” she says. “You have Wall Street over there, and Main Street over here. A lot of my clients feel a stronger heart connection to the community investments.”

She says that it’s easy to get this exposure through emergency-fund cash parked at an institution such as Self-Help Credit Union in North Carolina, which specializes in financing ventures in low-income, rural, and minority communities.

Lazarus has worked from her home for years. Depending on the weather, client meetings take place at her dining room table, on her screened porch, or in her yard. Creating a relaxed environment is something she strives for, because she’s aware that many clients are nervous about the financial planning process.

“Often, people have said, ‘Thank you for this environment. It’s so soothing. I already have so much anxiety about my money; it’s so refreshing to be here.’”

How she caught our eye: Has strong socially responsible approach to running her practice and investing. Career path: After graduating from Miami University in Ohio, joined the Peace Corps in 1994, serving in Chad. After returning in 1996, taught high school history and in elementary school. Worked as an associate planner at Woodward Financial Advisors from 2003 to 2005 while completing CFP courses. Founded Lazarus Financial Planning in 2005. Personal: Married. Co-dean of NAPFA University School of Communications, columnist for NAPFA Advisor, and local NAPFA study group leader. Works to help local farmers gain access to capital for their small farms and is member of advisory board for Accion Emprendedora, a nonprofit that promotes economic development of Hispanic small-business owners in North Carolina. Favorite investments: Portfolio 21 Global Equity PORTX, Appleseed APPLX, CRA Qualified Investment CRAIX, Parnassus Equity Income PRBLX, Pax World International PXIRX, Envest Microfinance, RSF Social Finance, MicroPlace, Self-Help Credit Union, Slow Money.

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