Originally published in 3BL Media on June 12, 2015.
“Such big solutions surely would help, and a number of times I have tramped the streets to promote them, but just as surely they would fail if not accompanied by small solutions.”- Wendell Berry
This April, members of the BALLE-RSF Community Foundation Circle (CFC) came together in Ashville, NC for the second immersion (read about the first immersion here). During a session led by Leslie Christian, she spoke candidly of her work on Wall Street with Salomon Brothers, her later work with Portfolio 21, and currently as a personal financial advisor. She offered a new definition of risk called “integrated risk” that incorporates ecological limits and environmental sustainability as a best practice. She illuminated the fact that unlimited, finite growth has been built into our economic psyche but we are beginning to reach our limits, literally.
Leslie challenged the community foundations leaders to think outside the box and put both imaginary and real limitations aside as they considered what their foundation investment portfolios could look like if there was less mystery and murkiness (the “black box”) and more tangible, impactful, and meaningful investments. She proposed that a financial statement is really a values statement. But how can we feel good (or not) about our foundation’s investments and begin to make changes if we don’t dig into what we are invested in? She encouraged the leaders in the room to seriously evaluate their “black box” of investments, chip away at it piece-by-piece, and begin to sprinkle bits of it into more mission-aligned, local investments. After Leslie’s session, one participant reflected, “It’s true, it’s a self-perpetuating cycle, and we pay the least attention to what makes up the financial side of our work because it is a big black box and we don’t know what’s there.”
A second key conversation was led by Marjorie Kelly of the Democracy Collaborative and Peter Berliner, recently retired from Mission Investors Exchange. The conversation centered around this question: If the role of the community foundation is to serve the community, how does the duty of obedience to mission apply to your financial assets? Peter and Marjorie provided historical context and highlighted changes they see in the field related to fiduciary duty, particularly as it relates to foundations’ relationships with their financial advisors. Boards must be reminded that fiduciary duty as it relates to non-profits and foundations is different from the duty that applies to for-profit organizations. Duty of care and loyalty are the same, but the duty of obedience to mission is unique to non-profits, and surprise, no duty of maximization exists! A great article about this topic that was a suggested pre-reading for the group can be found here.
Before the CFC disbursed, members broke into small groups to discuss new projects they’re working on that will advance place-based impact investing by their foundations in their communities. The projects were chosen after the first immersion and requirements included: ability to complete or move forward significantly during the CFC intensive (concludes in the spring of 2016); an exciting (and slightly uncomfortable) topic; and components that push for the cultural and strategic transformation that is necessary to move toward place-based investing. As an example, one participant recently partnered with a consulting group to conduct a feasibility study focused on needs and investable opportunities in the region and is now beginning to craft a related investment strategy.
One of my favorite parts of the agenda is the space for opening and closing reflections from the group, which provide some insights into the impact the CFC is having on its individual members and their capacity as leaders:
“This is an oasis for me, a support group for pioneers, a place to make connections with valuable resources.”
“I was blown away by the first immersion and the concept of bringing our full selves to work. I have been able to apply some but not enough and am eager to make even better use of the CFC resources.”
The third CFC immersion is taking place in Calistoga, California in November. In the meantime, members are staying connected and energized by participating in monthly calls and quarterly webinars focused on topics such as culture change and board governance. At the November gathering, the agenda will be designed around the theme of capacity building as it relates to staff, board, and investment advisory staff with a focus on the ability of the community foundations to deploy more assets towards place-based investing. Stay tuned!
Catherine Covington is Manager of Client Development at RSF Social Finance.