The Australian fund manager has persuaded 17 stock pickers to work for free for his new firm, Future Generation Global Investment Co.—all for the sake of charity.
In doing so, Mr. Wilson is attempting to emulate a pro-bono work culture more established among doctors and lawyers than those whose business is managing money.
He isn’t alone. A like-minded Australian fund manager, Christopher Cuffe, began a similar venture about seven years ago called Third Link. With 82 million Australian dollars (US$60 million) under management and 12 money managers working pro bono, the firm donates about A$1 million a year to children’s charities based on what it saves on stock pickers’ performance fees.
In the U.K., former hedge-fund manager Tom Henderson started his Battle Against Cancer Investment Trust about three years ago. It also has fund managers and staff working without pay, and donates 1% of its assets annually to cancer research. The fund oversees about £473 million (US$742 million).
Charitable foundations, or investment trusts that donate regularly to social and environmental causes, have been around for a while. Fund managers do also volunteer their time to help charities invest their money without charging them hefty fees.
What is different about the latest trend is that it harnesses the power of collective effort by turning an entire company into a pro-bono endeavor.
“People in the financial industry are perceived as money hungry,” said Mr. Wilson, who has been a wealth manager for more than three decades and is a director of several nonprofits. “This is about giving something back. It’s a perpetual gift from the funds-management industry to the charities.”
Mr. Wilson’s project involves more fund managers across more countries than the others—as well as a bigger cash pile to share with charities.
Future Generation Global, or FGG, is expected to start with A$550 million under management, raised through a listing next month on Australia’s stock exchange of 500 million shares at A$1.10 each. Mr. Wilson hopes to increase that to as much as A$1.1 billion in two years’ time, when investors will be allowed to exercise stock options that could double the amount of shares outstanding.
It plans to donate 1% of its net assets each year to nonprofits that help young people suffering from depression and other mental illness, a critical issue in Australia where the suicide rate for the indigenous population is among the highest in the world. If all goes as planned, charities stand to gain A$11 million—even before counting any income from potential share-market returns.
FGG has recruited stock pickers from firms such as Neuberger Berman, Nikko Asset Management and Singapore’s Eastspring Investments, in addition to some local boutique outfits. The fund managers were chosen for their track record of outperforming market benchmarks.
Australia’s stock exchange has agreed to waive FGG’s ongoing listing fees, while a number of brokers are encouraging sales reps to eschew commissions in their dealings with the firm.
Mr. Wilson, who will become a shareholder and is also one of six board members who won’t earn a director’s fee, set up an investment firm with similar ambitions on a smaller scale last year. The listed company raised A$200 million from mom-and-pop investors and business leaders Down Under. It is on course to pay out more than A$2 million a year to Australian children’s charities.
Clients of these pro-bono investment firms are potentially better off than ones with no charitable leanings, thanks to the substantial cost savings. Mr. Henderson’s U.K. outfit has yielded a return of about 29% for its clients since inception. And in Mr. Wilson’s new firm, some fund managers have agreed to forgo performance fees of up to 27.5%. The smaller investment company outperformed Australia’s broader market benchmark by more than 3% in its first nine months of trading, and will pay an inaugural dividend of 2 cents a share.
“This is a cracker of an investment opportunity, even besides the charity aspect,” saidLouise Walsh, who ran the nonprofit industry organization Philantrophy Australia before being appointed as co-chief executive of Mr. Wilson’s company.
Some of FGG’s stock pickers may have been attracted by the opportunity to boost their own profiles in Australia, which has a fast-growing pool of pension money that many global investment firms would love to get their hands on.
“It’s an entry ticket into the fourth-largest pension-fund market in the world,” said Mr. Wilson. “What a fantastic way to improve your brand—to be seen as the good guy.”
Some critics see the charitable aspect of Mr. Wilson’s project as little more than window-dressing, arguing that the primary motive remains profit. Others say it is disappointing that participating fund managers aren’t obligated to make so-called ethical investments.
“They could be investing in anything from casinos to alcohol producers that ultimately increase the mental-health problems they’re trying to address,” said Kylie Charlton, chief investment officer of the advisory arm of Ethinvest, a Sydney-based asset manager that targets projects that bring about tangible social benefits.
Executives from investment firms participating in Mr. Wilson’s venture, however, prefer to think of FGG as a win-win for both investors and the charities. “It’s our job as fund managers to perform well, otherwise we can’t give away,” said Elizabeth Cribbs, head of corporate social responsibility at Neuberger Berman.