Community Foundations: What It Takes to Become Dynamic Hubs of Local Capital
by Don Shaffer
Community foundations—with their deep local ties, significant unrestricted assets, and community benefit missions—are ideally positioned to play a leading role in solving our communities’ most profound and difficult challenges. Yet many are stuck in a pattern of disbursing only a small percentage of their assets in grants and investing the rest in traditional portfolios that don’t advance (and may even undermine) their mission.
What is preventing these anchor institutions from realizing their potential? What exactly is that potential, and how can community foundations shift to an impact investment strategy that really makes a difference to community success and resilience?
RSF Social Finance is taking a hard look at these questions. We recently brought together senior executives from 24 of the most innovative community foundations in the U.S. and Canada, along with RSF advisors and other impact investment experts, for “A Field-building Collaborative: Changing the Game through Local Impact Investing,” a conference looking at barriers to place-based investing and how to overcome them, lessons learned, and drivers of change.
The imperative of impact investing
We were pleased that the Jan. 29–31 event, co-hosted with the Arizona Community Foundation in Phoenix, attracted so many community foundation leaders from across the country, representing rural as well as urban communities and holding assets totaling more than $5.5 billion. But we weren’t surprised: a powerful combination of generational change and aspiration is motivating community foundations to explore local impact investment strategies. Foundation leaders are searching for ways to stay relevant to the next generation of donors, who tend to take a hands-on approach and often are entrepreneurs who made their money by thinking big and taking risks. These leaders also aspire to make their institutions drivers of local economic health. They see the opportunity to become dynamic hubs of community capital, deploying a full range of low-interest loans, loan guarantees, convertible notes, and other forms of investment funding to social enterprises.
Kelly Ryan is on her way to doing that in central Wisconsin as CEO of the Incourage Community Foundation. She told the story of how her community lost 40 percent of its jobs overnight when their major employer moved overseas. The foundation rallied, changing its focus to creating jobs and supporting local businesses, essentially saying, “We’re going to be the institution that brings everyone out of the ashes.”
All community foundations have that opportunity right now. The questions we started exploring with “Changing the Game” are, is it possible to make that happen before reaching the tipping point of a massive crisis? And if so, how?
The motivations and opportunities to invest for local impact are powerful—but so are the countervailing forces. Foundation leaders who take steps toward changing their institution’s investment practices confront a thicket of challenges. Two sets of issues stood out in the presentations and discussions.
Culture. The cultural assumptions of boards, investment committees, investment advisors and even staffs can present significant roadblocks. RSF advisor John Fullerton captured the problem: the people serving on investment committees often have spent their careers living and breathing current models of portfolio theory and investment management. They’re focused on fiduciary responsibility, and in their minds that means making sure the money makes more money—not ensuring that investment has a positive impact on the community. It’s hard to convince a board member who spent their career on Wall Street that financial return is not the number one goal.
Capacity constraints. Most community foundations don’t have the staff expertise to evaluate and manage direct investment in local enterprises, or to develop a cohesive local investment strategy. Even hiring appropriate consultants can be a challenge. Impact investing is relatively new, so the pool of experts is not yet deep. Another challenge is tension between programming and investment—the program staff may feel that impact investments are invading their turf. In addition, the lack of history with direct investment means the opportunities may not be obvious to foundation staff.
Creating space for impact investing to grow
Discussions at the event revealed a big gap between the desire many have to pursue impact investing (“Why wouldn’t we want to do this?” was a commonly expressed sentiment) and the knowledge they need to actually do it. RSF advisors and foundation leaders who’ve started down the path shared suggestions for moving forward.
Work with the board to change investment culture. Private foundations are often created with one large gift that’s expected to last; they are risk-averse and focused on returns because they want to ensure perpetuity. Community foundations, however, are public institutions whose growth and success rest on the number of donors they can continue to attract over time; they should be free to focus on demonstrating their relevance to the community and attracting the next generation of donors. There’s no structural reason for them to be risk-averse and returns-focused—the fact that many are is often a result of board culture.
Brian Byrnes of Santa Fe Community Foundation encountered tremendous board resistance to a shift in investment strategy; to counter that he took the board through an analysis that revealed their level of investment in areas contrary to their mission. Byrnes said the exercise was a powerful force in opening minds. Kelly Ryan reconstituted her board at Incourage so that they could implement a community investment strategy as a central feature of their mission.
Redirect investment expenses. One of the most eye-opening moments for many participants was RSF advisor Leslie Christian’s “do the math” challenge. “How many of you are experiencing a roadblock in that your boards think impact investing is too expensive?” she asked. Hands shot up all over the room. She then did the math: a $100 million foundation paying a typical 0.8 percent fee to its investment advisor is spending $800,000 a year to maintain its portfolio. What if the foundation fired the investment manager and instead put all that money into a Vanguard index fund, which historically has long-term returns as good as or better than investment managers? With a typical mutual fund fee of 0.08 percent, they’d free up $720,000 they could use to hire impact investment experts.
Restructure your organization. Dana Pancrazi of the FB Heron Foundation put forward a structural solution to internal turf battles and mission conflicts: the foundation dissolved its grantmaking and investment teams, replacing them with an operations team that provides administration and support, and a capital deployment team that handles grants and investments—and treats both as 100 percent mission driven.
A few foundations have already made great progress on local impact investing, but it hasn’t been easy—and it won’t be for the next wave of pioneers, either. In addition to inspiring stories, we also heard “it’s not all rainbows and unicorns.” At RSF, we know how hard this is, having spent the last 30 years building up the expertise and insight to invest for impact effectively. There will be failed investments and difficult expectation setting. But as entrepreneurs know, failures teach the lessons that lead to ultimate success. Why not give the non-profit sector the same opportunity to use investments to try out innovative solutions to our communities’ most pressing problems?
We’re hoping to spark this change by inviting the most committed community foundation leaders to join a community of practice that will go deeper into what it takes in terms of personal leadership to shift to impact investing. The group will provide peer support and share everything from in-progress case studies to best practices to credit memos.
We believe the opportunity for change is profound. If a relative handful of community foundations reinvented themselves right now, they could truly change the game for communities across the country.
Don has served as President & CEO of RSF Social Finance since 2007. He grew up in central New Jersey, and comes from a long ancestry of Quaker farmers and small business people in and around Philadelphia. Don lives in Berkeley, California with his wife Jennifer and their two children, Sabine and Samuel. He graduated from Cornell University with a BA in American History. Don has been a social entrepreneur for many years, growing a for-profit education business, a software company, and a sporting goods manufacturer, in addition to a non-profit, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies.
As leaders in social finance, Don and the team at RSF seek to transform the way the world works with money. In a world where our financial system can be described as complex, opaque, and anonymous, based on short-term outcomes, RSF is constantly asking the question, “How can we model financial transactions that are direct, transparent, and personal, based on long-term relationships?” Under Don’s leadership, RSF’s total assets have grown 40% in the past three years, to over $160 million.