RSF Culture

Foundation For the Challenged

March 10, 2015

This article was originally published in the Winter 2015 RSF Quarterly.

By Meredith Storton, Client Development Associate

Over seven million Americans have an intellectual or developmental disability. These individuals are some of the most marginalized and underserved members in our society. They face poverty, unemployment, and discrimination, all of which combined make finding affordable housing a particular challenge. Fortunately, there are housing options that provide independence, dignity, and a sense of community to the developmentally disabled: community-based living. Foundation for the Challenged [FFC] is a non-profit that is working hard to meet the high demands for community-based living by making homes available for the developmentally disabled to rent. Tucked away in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, FFC provides homes to 350 developmentally disabled individuals in 94 residences located across 11 states. With support from RSF’s financing, FFC has been able to weather the 2008 housing crash and continue on its mission to buy homes for the developmentally disabled, positioning themselves as a social enterprise helping those with the most need.

Residents of FFC housing work on an arts & crafts project. Courtesy FFC.

Residents of FFC housing work on an arts & crafts project. Courtesy FFC.

Inspiration

Fran Wesseling has been at the helm of this organization since 2002, when FFC started buying homes for the developmentally disabled to rent. Wesseling started her career in nursing, but after an interaction with a developmentally disabled person she decided she wanted to focus all of her energy towards helping that community. Soon thereafter, she started working at Alternative Residences, Inc. [ARI], the predecessor organization to FFC. ARI was a non-profit that focused on managing group homes and providing direct services to the developmentally disabled. These support services include taking residents to the grocery store, helping them dress, and preparing dinner for them. There are many service providers like ARI, however, and ARI’s board, led by Wesseling, believed they could do something else – something more impactful for the developmentally disabled. So, in 2002, ARI sold its service provider contracts to other providers and became Foundation for the Challenged. Their goal became to improve the quality of life for the developmentally disabled by encouraging community inclusion and providing a place for them to live affordably and comfortably. Buying houses and starting a charitable program, it turns out, enables FFC to do just that.

Innovation

Developmentally disabled Americans receive monthly financial support from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. They use a portion of their SSI funds to pay rent. FFC is the landlord in the homes they own. They use the rental income to pay down their mortgages and to support their slim operations (FFC has two full-time and two part-time employees). Because FFC is not providing the at-home services, the separation of service provider and landlord roles ensures that the residents are treated fairly. FFC is a compassionate landlord that understands the various needs their residents have and the challenges they face. They provide the residents with the opportunity to live with other developmentally disabled individuals in a place where they feel at home. This integration into the wider community is better for the residents and better for society as a whole. As Kathy Streblo, FFC’s Associate Director of Housing Operations, sees it, the benefits of community living are significant, “The developmentally disabled are able to enjoy all the things that you and I are able to enjoy about living in a community – choosing roommates, picking where you live, and what activities you do.”

The need for real estate for the developmentally disabled is enormous. For decades, many developmentally disabled people, regardless of their disability level, were living in state-run institutions segregated from society and stripped of their independence. In 1999, a landmark Supreme Court decision declared that the segregation of people with disabilities is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a result of the so-called Olmstead decision, community-based living became the desired solution to institutional settings. Now, however, there is a new problem – a shortage of homes available for the developmentally disabled to rent. Tens of thousands of developmentally disabled people linger on waitlists for years for homes like those FFC owns. In the meantime, they live with aging caregivers or they remain in institutions. FFC does not have control over the state-run waitlists, but they are attempting to fulfill the need one home at a time.

When FFC started purchasing homes, they were able to acquire them quickly using the affordable housing financing available through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Then in 2008, the housing market crashed. Affordable housing financing dried up and suddenly instead of making 10% down payments on a new home, FFC was required to put down 30%. They were forced to hunt for state and federal grant dollars to help supplement their purchases. Even then, the budget was tight and their ability to buy houses slowed significantly.

FFC went to several small lenders that specialized in housing for the developmentally disabled, but they weren’t able to provide a loan that was large enough to cover FFC’s needs. In 2010, Wesseling, still on the hunt for financing options, met RSF Senior Director of Lending Ted Levinson at a Social Enterprise Alliance meeting. Wesseling recalls, “there was synergy in that RSF valued what we were doing and the mission that we had when other banks didn’t care what we were doing and the social impact we were having.” RSF was able to provide FFC with a $3.9MM mortgage loan, which brought their interest rates down and enabled them to use the savings from the refinanced mortgages to do much needed repairs and improvements on several homes. Levinson is grateful RSF was able to support the critical need FFC is addressing. He explains, “RSF shares the view that every person, regardless of ability or disability, deserves to lead a full life. This includes their emotional, social, and spiritual needs. A permanent place to live – one that a person can truly consider a home – is a critical first step in achieving this full life.”

Impact

Though they provide much needed housing for 350 individuals, FFC felt the need to give back in a more direct way to the community they work with. In 2006, FFC launched the Community Living Fund that supports the developmentally disabled by providing basic living necessities such as wheelchair ramps and walking devices. Individuals have the opportunity to apply for up to $1,000, which goes a long way for someone living on SSI payments. One of Wesseling’s favorite stories is about a grant that was used to pave a bike trail in a rural area so that a boy with down-syndrome could safely ride his bike near his home. FFC has provided over $130,000 in grants to individuals since the fund started in 2006.

In mid-November, FFC held a fundraising event to expand and endow the newly named Wesseling Community Living Fund so that even when the organization faces financial hardships like the 2008 housing crash, they’re able to give back. So far they’ve raised 70% of their fundraising goal for the fund and the donations are continuing to come in. The event doubled as a retirement celebration for Wesseling. After serving the organization for 28 years, she is stepping down and in her stead Kathy Streblo will become the Executive Director. They have plans in place for a smooth transition. Over the next few years, FFC will focus on growth in the markets they’re already in – states like Ohio, Tennessee, Iowa, Florida and Washington – where they already understand the state regulations and have vetted the service providers. They hope that they’ll be able to keep serving those most in need for a long time to come. RSF hopes to keep supporting FFC’s work and other like-minded organizations that are providing dignity, stability, and independence to people with developmental disabilities.

Interviews From the Archives: Mark Finser

February 12, 2015

Click here to view the previous interview in this series

We have created a mini series of excerpts from our archive of interviews in the RSF Quarterly. Lots of wisdom was shared by these individuals who hold deep ties to the roots of the organization as early trustees and staff members. We chose to focus on aspects around money, spirit, and associative economics as these themes are core to RSF’s history – and very relevant to our work today.

The interviews were conducted by John Bloom, now RSF Vice President, Organizational Culture. They were part of his exploration of the guiding thoughts that helped to form what was then called Rudolf Steiner Foundation and now RSF Social Finance.

Mark Finser, 1999 & 2002

MAF - Copy (2)John: Why is money such a challenging social force?

Mark: Money itself is connected to the capacity of thinking, feeling, and willing that each person carries. And, the will in each human being is the least conscious of the three soul forces. Consequently money is problematic because a lot of things play into it without people being conscious of what’s happening. RSF brings a consciousness to money, tries to awaken people to its movement and intentions. If one becomes awake to what’s happening in relationship to money within a school, for example, it can actually be the most socially advancing force for a school. We try to help the different organs within a school understand their particular roles in relationship to money. For example, we will help a school form a pledge community that then secures a loan from RSF to the school through pledged gifts. This entails individuals making personal commitments to the project and carrying a consciousness for the well-being of the school. Those individuals can also take an even wider view of their money. They, or anyone, can open a lender fund at any time and thereby participate in a large or small way in RSF’s work for the greater good. When they lend some of their savings to us, they are aligning their values with ours and seeing their money work in a socially-beneficial way.

John: How do you see the Foundation and its responsibilities in transforming the cultural mainstream?

Mark: Money is so connected to everything that we do in life that from the standpoint of its movement, one cannot separate one organization or individual from another in our society. It’s one of the biggest disappointments when an initiative does not see their impact on other initiatives and organizations. Collaboration among groups rather than competition between them would be an appropriate approach to reflect the reality of the movement of money. One could say that money is connected to the life-stream within the whole social body of humanity. Its movement has often been likened to the circulation of the blood. If we are deeply involved in that movement, we can’t help but be interested in and deeply concerned with the current turn of events in the global economy, for example.

We want RSF to be awake to the movement of money, whether it’s in gifts, grants, lending, or borrowing. We constantly ask the question, “Is this particular movement of money socially constructive?” We do not come with a judgment or an answer. We help the projects or donors answer the questions for themselves. We are by intention a third party that accompanies and bears witness. This is the most fascinating part of our work. As we have developed insights over the last 15 years, we have begun to take more leadership in educating people about the conscious use of money as investment. We now say, for example, “collaborative work is important.” This kind of leadership from RSF arises out of a yearning to see how much more we can accomplish in our work together.

Much of the new living economic thinking fits well with some of Rudolf Steiner’s core ideas around the threefold nature of social life, especially working in an economic associative way. When one is involved in dialogue with producers, consumers, and people on the local level, one cannot avoid concern about right livelihood and living wages. At the same time, people’s consciousness is evolving so they can empathize and engage with something going on in Bali or Bangladesh. Because of this new consciousness, RSF will need to develop overtime new tools, financial vehicles, and partnerships to meet all three areas—international, national, and regional.

John: It seems that trust is an essential ingredient of the process of bridging, whether it is on the part of clients or colleagues. How does RSF work with this quality of trust?

Mark: There are many levels to this. One is in being able to listen. It is in the art of conversation. When someone is opening their heart or expressing their intention and the other is not fully taking it in, not really listening, a sense of discomfort can develop. The question arises, “Will that individual or that organization really be able to meet my needs?” Another condition for trust is a track record. Trust is developed incrementally through the experience of RSF meeting requests or needs over time.

If one looks at our historical record in our investment-lending work, one can see the success of our projects and repayments. We have been able to fulfill our clients’ needs, regardless of whether they were planned or incidental. Our consistency and faithfulness build trust and are among the pathways to opening up bridges for alignment of outer and inner values.

Money is itself a bridge. People can begin to see that how they manage their own finances and other resources can bridge relationships, or keep them isolated. One of RSF’s guiding principles, right from the beginning, has been transparency in finances. It is key that there be enough transparency that people can experience where their money is working, how it is being received, used, and repaid in the case of a loan or activity generated in the case of a grant. All of these mechanisms serve as bridges between the clients and the projects and initiatives. They are vehicles by which money can follow intention. We’ve seen many, many times, the personal satisfaction and quality of community that is created when one joins others in investing or giving, in aligning intentions and values. We have been privileged to experience this in so many different ways in the various activities at RSF, and to have contributed to this positive and evolving view of money.

Mark Finser is former President & CEO and current Chair of the Board at RSF. He was a founding member of the group that revitalized RSF in 1984.

Interviews From the Archives: Ann Stahl & Clopper Almon

February 3, 2015

Click here to view the previous interview in this series

We have created a mini series of excerpts from our archive of interviews in the RSF Quarterly. Lots of wisdom was shared by these individuals who hold deep ties to the roots of the organization as early trustees and staff members. We chose to focus on aspects around money, spirit, and associative economics as these themes are core to RSF’s history – and very relevant to our work today.

The interviews were conducted by John Bloom, now RSF Vice President, Organizational Culture. They were part of his exploration of the guiding thoughts that helped to form what was then called Rudolf Steiner Foundation and now RSF Social Finance.

Ann Stahl, 1999

Ann Stahl2 (2)John: What do you mean by the myth of scarcity?

Ann: It is part and parcel of our present-day materialistic society. The message we hear everyday through all the media is that we don’t have enough of something. If you open a magazine, you see for example: “Your teeth are not white enough,” “Your hair is not shiny enough,” “Your body doesn’t smell sweet enough.” All the messages conspire to point towards a human being who is not sufficient just as he or she is.

John: Those all exploit a tendency for fearfulness.

Ann: Absolutely! You’re not like the others who do have enough. If we think that we don’t have enough, then we certainly are not going to be in a place where we feel we have lots to give away – whether that’s time, warmth, health, or money. The mindset is: Hang on to what you have, you haven’t got enough. This affects finances very strongly. It is really at a very deep level that we feel we are not sufficient as we are.

John: What drives this phenomenon?

Ann: I think it is fear that drives it. We’re all caught in this, regardless of whether you have a spiritual practice or not. This question of “enoughness” is tied to our every thought. It affects whole organizations as well. I think that it is a very laming condition to be in, to think that you can’t do something until you get enough money, enough enrollment, enough space, enough whatever, rather than figuring out a way to do it.

John: Do you have a cure for this myth of scarcity?

Ann: When you consider the polarity of excess and scarcity, what is the balancing tendency? What I would place in the middle is abundance. And we all have an abundance, it just has different qualities and colors. If you look around to see what different people have in abundance, you come up with a wonderful basket of abundances! Working with those is quite different than working with either the “too much” or the “not enough.” Part of the abundance is money, part is time to do things, part is capacities and skills. So abundance in that middle place is as varied as the people who will come when they see that you’re working out of that recognition – a belief in the abundance of life. There is plenty of everything in the world. There is plenty of money and human beings with wonderful capacities.

Ann Stahl is a former staff member of RSF


 

Clopper Almon, 1999

almonJohn: What do you consider the spiritual basis for economics?

Clopper: Economics is about the determination of values, and the exchange of products. In its physical matter, each product incorporates a tremendous amount of thinking, imagination, and organization. Think of that pen that you are writing with. Imagine how much went into designing it, into extracting the ores of the metals that it is made from, organizing the transportation system, the trade, the marketing, and even the advertising that got you to buy that pen and not some other. All of that takes human imagination and thinking—and all of that is spiritual content. When you realize that behind everything that we think of as matter is spirit, then rocks are spiritual; plants, animals, humans, all of the creation has a spiritual foundation. How one awakens people to that realization, I wish I knew.

Clopper is a Professor of Economics and a former Trustee of RSF

Click here to view the next interview in this series

Interviews from the Archives: Philip Mees

January 29, 2015

Click here to view the previous interview in this series

We have created a mini series of excerpts from our archive of interviews in the RSF Quarterly. Lots of wisdom was shared by these individuals who hold deep ties to the roots of the organization as early trustees and staff members. We chose to focus on aspects around money, spirit, and associative economics as these themes are core to RSF’s history – and very relevant to our work today.

The interviews were conducted by John Bloom, now RSF Vice President, Organizational Culture. They were part of his exploration of the guiding thoughts that helped to form what was then called Rudolf Steiner Foundation and now RSF Social Finance.

Philip Mees, 2000

John: What from the bank environment informed or changed the way you could work in RSF?

Philip: The way I originally learned to approach a loan was so much more relevant in this environment of RSF than it was in the environment of the big bank. First you need to know your customer, to trust your customer, and to be trusted by the customer. However, each project also has to make sense on its own merits. That’s why you have to do credit analysis. Underlying the techniques of credit analysis and objective judgment, there is a subjective world of people being able to get along together, wanting to work with each other to accomplish something. All of these factors are important to us.

John: We try to be somewhat objective about those subjective aspects, don’t we?

Philip: Absolutely. That’s where the art comes in. Banking is not a science by any means. Banking is an art because one deals with people who want to do something in the world. One needs to make judgments on what one thinks of what they want to do in the world, and then whether one wants to support it. That’s not a scientific process. I’ve never called it an artistic process, but I’ve always talked about the art of banking.

John: Behind financial transactions and relationship is money. What is money?

Philip: Money is something that belongs to us. We have the clothes that belong to us, we live in the kind of house that belongs to us, we live the kind of life that belongs to us, and we have the illnesses that belong to us. The money we have is intimately connected with our karma. The decisions that we made before we were born for the kind of life that we were going to lead have financial consequences. Daily we face the consequences of the decisions that we made before birth and all the way through our life. In that way, money is the expression of very deep spiritual realities.

One of the ways we build our existence in the world is by doing things in it. We find our identity through the things we do. We make a living and acquire things, and those things are represented by money today. We acquire that which we have earned.

Money is earned by thinking, thinking about things of the world and being able to transform things and organize activity, as well as by physical labor. When you look at how people have made money throughout history, the one thing that stands out is that people who work only with their hands, do only manual things, never make any money. Society seems to be organized in such a way that they are able to subsist, they are able to continue doing that, but they will never build a surplus.

Through the ages, the people who really made money had other people work for them, even back to when the capital was accumulated through conquest. The economic or business way of accumulating capital is quite new. In the old days people went out, made war, plundered, and acquired land. Land and natural resources were the real base of capital. The kings or rulers who directed these conquests had their people bring them the spoils and gave them a small part back. Thinking has always been connected with accumulated capital.

John: What is capital? Is it something other than a specialized form of money?

Philip: I have trouble drawing a line between the two. When you direct the kind of thinking I’ve just described, you make money. Almost automatically you build up a surplus, and that surplus is today called capital. It’s an interesting word, because the Latin word caput, meaning head, is the origin. It never comes from the hands. Capital is the result of spirit and the spiritual activity of thinking. That’s why it needs to go back into creating new spiritual activity, so that people develop the capacity for new thinking.

John: Money is also then connected to the renewal of human capacity.

Philip: I love the statement by Rudolf Steiner where he says, “The gift is the most productive economic transaction that you can create.” A gift helps create new spiritual capacities. A gift to a school, for example, enables a number of new children to learn things that will make them productive in the economy one way or another.

John: The picture of thinking and capital that you have outlined depends on an individual at the head of a hierarchical structure. The pyramids are the classic example of architecture reflecting cultural and economic hierarchy. Do you think that there are new models of people working in businesses that are not so individual-driven, or is that a challenge for the future?

Philip: Well it depends how you use your thinking. In the economy there is no equality. The spiritual capacities of people are unequal, and they result in unequal work in the economy. In the political sphere and before the law, we are all equal. But, in the economy, in the art of applying the spiritual capacity of thinking to matter, we are not all equal.

Philip is a former Trustee and staff member of RSF.

Click here to view the next interview in this series

Social Enterprise Stars Campaign Needs You

January 20, 2015

This update was originally published in the Winter 2015 RSF Quarterly.

Nearly 2,000 people have checked out our 25 social enterprise stars campaign page since September, when we launched our effort to add a wave of new borrowers to our loan portfolio in the coming year. That’s a great start, but we know there’s plenty of room for an even bigger reach if everyone in the RSF community keeps an eye out for social enterprises that could have a greater impact with our help.

Do you know—or have you heard of—established businesses or non-profit organizations in the U.S. or Canada that are doing groundbreaking work in food and agriculture, education and the arts, or ecological stewardship? Please send them our way:

  • Let the lending team know about them by emailing lending@rsfsocialfinance.org
  • Direct prospective borrowers to our campaign page: http://rsfsocialfinance.org/social-enterprise-stars/
  • Share news of our borrower search through social media, using the hashtag #SocentStars.

Not sure who’s a good fit? Here are a few great examples of current borrowers in the arts and education field:

Playworks is the leading national non-profit leveraging the power of play before, during, and after school to transform children’s physical and emotional health. Its programs improve school climate, reduce bullying, and increase student engagement through play and physical activity. Playworks provides public schools with trained, full-time coaches who use recess and play to support learning. Playworks also provides consultative, training services for educators and youth workers

Liberty Source meets an under-recognized need by employing military spouses in U.S.-based business process outsourcing work. Military spouses in the U.S. have a higher rate of post–high school education than the general population but, because of frequent moves and limited job opportunities near military bases, they are four times as likely to be unemployed or underemployed.

LA STAGE Alliance is a voice for the arts sector in the public policy sphere and creates audience engagement resources, operational support, and other programming designed to “raise the floor” for the entire arts community and allow artists to reach increasingly ambitious artistic goals.

Thank you for helping to build the next economy!

To receive a loan from RSF, an enterprise should have the following qualifications—but we’re not asking you to screen referrals. If you think they might meet our criteria, we’d like to hear about them.

  • A social mission in one of RSF’s three focus areas: Food & Agriculture, Education & the Arts, and Ecological Stewardship
  • Incorporation in the U.S. or Canada
  • Strong collateral (which may include pledge or guarantee communities)
  • Funding needs ranging from $200,000 to $5 million ($100,000+ for arts organizations)
  • 3 or more years of operating history
  • Operational profit, or a clear path to profitability in 12 months
  • Annual revenue of $1 million or more ($500,000 for arts organizations)

 

Interviews From the Archives: Siegfried Finser

January 15, 2015

We have created a mini series of excerpts from our archive of interviews in the RSF Quarterly. Lots of wisdom was shared by these individuals who hold deep ties to the roots of the organization as early trustees and staff members. We chose to focus on aspects around money, spirit, and associative economics as these themes are core to RSF’s history – and very relevant to our work today.

The interviews were conducted by John Bloom, now RSF Vice President, Organizational Culture. They were part of his exploration of the guiding thoughts that helped to form what was then called Rudolf Steiner Foundation and now RSF Social Finance.

Siegfried Finser, 1998

John: The term associative economics keeps surfacing. What does it mean?

finser_seigfriedSiegfried: I see three different trends all based on what’s happening in the development of the human soul. One of them is this yearning in the soul for being affiliated with others, for being part of something—community. A great part of that yearning harks back to the time when we were actually part of a clan or family, when we were not so alone standing so completely, self-sufficient, independently in the world. In that ancient time, when we felt part of a whole community, we were all devoted to service, but it was unconscious service. That is the one force in society today.

The second stream has to do with trying to ameliorate humanity’s suffering and starvation, poverty, and pain in our lifetime. We struggle, somehow, to make this earthly life into a better place, a paradise. We long for it to be better, to be as perfect as we can possibly make it.

The third stream is the one that I am and RSF is connected with. I would use the word esoteric to name it. There are young forces deep in the human soul from which our future world will be built. They are just being born and contain incredibly strong potential. Our work is the awakening of those inner forces to the building of a world that is actually derived from human consciousness and creativity. When we work with money, we try to awaken the ethical individual in each of us. The movement and flow of money will be the first earth-bound material to be transformed by human forces to reflect spiritual purposes.

John: This quality of abstraction and money is a hard thing for this culture to understand. Partly, money is usually marketed as something real, something you own. You have commented that money should have a living quality. I wonder if you could elaborate.

Siegfried: The way that we view our wealth, our personal wealth, is to bring it all to a standstill and count it. A balance sheet is nothing else but finances caught at a particular moment. But “balance sheet” itself is an interesting phrase. It implies that it constantly changes, constantly self-adjusts. However, one freezes it for the moment only to be able to grasp it with one’s intellect. Our present way of dealing with money in establishing our wealth is to bring it to a total standstill. In actuality, the greater one’s so-called wealth appears to be, the more it’s moving all over the world.

Siegfried has been a Trustee at RSF since revitalizing the organization in 1984.

Click here to view the next interview in this series

Announcing the 2014-2015 RSF Social Impact Fellows

December 19, 2014

RSF Social Finance is pleased to announce the 2014-2015 RSF Social Impact Fellows. This cohort marks RSF’s fifth year of the fellowship program, and the first year professionals have been invited to participate in addition to graduate students.

The Social Impact Fellowship is designed to support the development of the next generation of inspiring leaders in the social finance field. RSF also seeks to bring a fresh perspective to the organization’s business development activities.

Fellows will work closely with RSF’s Lending Team to identify prospective borrowers, conduct due diligence, and structure commercial loans that will become part of RSF’s $85 million Social Enterprise Lending portfolio. The Fellowship is an extension of RSF’s mission to build the field of social finance. Working with graduate students and professionals across disciplines and geographic areas not only allows RSF to build a network of advocates for the industry, it also spreads the work of social finance into places where the concept of values-aligned investing is still very nascent.

Twenty-seven fellows have completed the program since it began in 2010. Nearly half are now successfully working in the social finance field at organizations like Village Capital, Impact Assets, and OPIC.

“I know first-hand, this is an incredibly valuable experience,” said Kate Danaher, Senior Lending Associate at RSF. Danaher was a part of the first cohort of Fellows and now runs the program. “These fellows have the opportunity to identify and engage with pioneering entrepreneurs who are at the forefront of solving pressing social and environmental problems.”

2014-2015 Social Impact Fellows 
                                                                                                                                             

Lisa Fisher is the Founder and President of an independent consulting firm focused on cultivating vision, authenticity, and sustainability in individuals, organizations, and communities with an emphasis on social responsibility and social impact. For 17 years, Fisher has served nationally and internationally as a coach, a facilitator, and an educational, organizational, and development consultant for both for-profit and non-profit organizations. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and holds a Master of Arts in Teaching degree and a Master of Arts in Leadership and Organizational Development. She is currently completing a Master of Arts in Psychology and a PhD in Organizational Systems with a focus on catalytic philanthropy and social enterprise. Fisher is a certified yoga instructor, a former Junior Olympic alpine ski racer, and, most importantly, a mother. She loves to play in the glorious outdoors as often as possible.

 

Nakul Kadaba is currently a Project Associate at the Small-Scale Sustainable Infrastructure Development Fund and helps manage their projects and other initiatives in South and Southeast Asia. He has experience in innovative finance, enterprise development, and poverty alleviation for several organizations. He holds a Masters in Public Administration from George Mason University and a Bachelor’s degree from The College of William and Mary. He is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is excited to add to the social finance conversation.

 

Sam.Kressler_Head Shot CroppedSam Kressler is the Executive Chef of Bom Dia Market, a neighborhood gourmet market in Noe Valley. Before joining Bom Dia, Sam ran Stir Consulting, a consulting agency that focused on menu and product development for hospitality and food businesses. Sam holds a culinary degree from the French Culinary Institute and a Masters in Food Systems from NYU. He is a founder of Slow Money NYC as well as a monthly happy hour that brings together Bay Area professionals across the sustainable food and agriculture industry.

 

Dave Hanold is a loan officer at NYBDC, a mission-based lender in New York State. Dave leads a team of community development lenders specializing in SBA loans of $25,000 and upward to businesses that are not eligible for traditional bank financing, with a recent focus on food and beverage producers. After graduating from Macalester College in 2009, he spent a year in the Americorps NCCC program, performing community service projects across the Midwest. When he’s not evaluating balance sheets, Dave’s probably at the climbing gym or playing soccer!

 

Stu Fram currently works at the High Meadows Fund, an environmental foundation in Vermont, where he supports the administration of the Fund’s mission spending budget. Prior to joining High Meadows, Stu received a BA in Human Ecology from Middlebury College, where he co-founded an organization that works to improve the amount of local and sustainable options available in the dining halls. While studying abroad in Madagascar, Stu received a grant to study local and institutional perceptions of integrated conservation and development projects in one of the country’s national parks. He resides in Burlington, VT.

Reflections on Inequality

October 21, 2014

John Bloom

By John Bloom

There are only so many ways to describe the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor. No one seems to disagree that the gap exists, and no one seems to question that the defining element of it is money and all that accrues to it. Also no question, the whole financial resource terrain looks and feels quite different depending upon where one stands in it with material assets, a belief system, or philosophical worldview. If one views the wealth gap as a problem, it is clear there is no simple fix. If I have already lost you, here is a radical counter-imagination: What if one were to consider love as the defining element of wealth, and further “account” for how much we need and experience the supporting flow of it? This wealth gap might look quite different than the monetary one. So it is important and central to my purpose to determine what problem is worth solving if the intention is one of peace and shared earth. Wealth is a good thing; it makes many things possible. On one level we produce it by simple interest in and care for others. On another, money could be viewed as the holder of collectively produced economic value. That is the light side of money. The shadow: That money is considered as owned, treated as a commodity, and driven by self-interested behavior is one expression of a much bigger and challenging materialistic world view that has lost sight of resource sufficiency and economic interdependence, while fostering cultural exclusion and isolation of the individual.

As others do, I struggle with the extremity of the wealth situation from both moral and practical perspectives. The circumstances feel unjust and disastrous for all given the continued extraction and over-accumulation of wealth from the financial system and the continued commodification of land, labor, and capital. Just as there are ecological limits so too are there limits to suffering—and as a society in general we seem to have turned a blind eye to both. Thus I am challenged to find the ground on which to stand that might provide a foundation for transforming the unhealthy, unsustainable, and disempowering tendencies of our time. While I know that there are groups actively working on aspects of this transformation, I find myself in a stuck place unable to step outside my privilege or adequately into others’ disadvantage.

I want to be clear that I am in that stuck place both outwardly in the work that I do with money and organizations, and inwardly with knowing that there are barriers to my speaking with convincing solidarity to others’ oppression, internalized oppression, or invisibility. At the same time, I know that both privilege and oppression are bound in the same system of which I am a part. In my attempt to free myself from this dilemma long enough to explore the great wealth divide, or at least imagine I can do so, I would ask forbearance and forgiveness from those who bristle at what I am trying to address and how I address it, simply because I am not one of them. I know of no other way through my morass except to take such a risk and invite anyone else struggling with these issues to participate in a way that opens inclusive dialogue.

Much has been written about the topic of inequality—its origins in a capitalist system, in greed, in political power and policy, in control of natural resources, in cultural dominance, in winning and self-worth measured by wealth. Rarely is the value of human capacities celebrated beyond the statistical framework of productivity. However, the telltale facts of the great balance sheet remain regardless of the lens through which one looks. Given the current state of affairs, solutions such as a universal tax on wealth, or a transformation of the capital system away from the rule of owning class, are a virtual stalemate. Inviting those who are at an advantage to relinquish that advantage is a strategy sure to fail. Inviting those at a disadvantage to the path of insurrection is also a failing approach. The path of non-violent transformation is slow and enervating. And, naming a problem doesn’t change it.

I would argue that inequality represents a spiritual or moral crisis, which reaches beyond class, beyond political boundaries, beyond identity, beyond the behavior of any individual, though this is where change can start. This crisis is not about the possession or dispossession of material resources—these are no more than indicators, byproducts or painful reminders of a deeper systemic issue. Wealth is a natural phenomenon; it is the result of economic activity. How that wealth is treated, used, or owned is another matter that bespeaks the state of human nature. From this perspective, when we value money and accumulated wealth more than people and nature, the central issue is dehumanization from both inner and outer dimensions. When someone self-determines or is told implicitly or explicitly that they are less valuable than another because they have less money, then they have to live with a view of self that is distorted by the assumptions behind it and which tends to devalue the gifts and capacities each individual brings into the world. This is the sacrifice we seem to be making at the altar of wealth as defined within the mainstream materialist paradigm.

How might transformation to a people-centric and land-based economy be fostered? We can really only affect that over which we have control. No matter the historical or cultural narrative told or digested, imposed or inherited, each of us is the author of our own experience. The turning point for transformation is in this reflection. From a moral standpoint, each of us has the capacity to give ourselves back to ourselves or reclaim ourselves from those who have co-opted that authorship. Yet, the inner path of overcoming even internalized oppression can be challenging for anyone, though the condition of the oppression and how it manifests may be different in the extreme. If there is an ideal for liberation, it is the liberation of each person’s inner voice. Guidance for each human being is to be found there—it is that inner voice that speaks to injustice, speaks to right action, and tells us whether we are safe. The spiritual crisis is that we have been numbed to and disconnected from our inner voices. That is where each person’s freedom resides, and it is the place from which we can find each other again in our humanity.

Despite how laws and policy are written, we have a responsibility for right non-violent action (or civil disobedience). Despite how extractive and destructive profit driven economic activity is, we have to demonstrate a capacity for brotherhood and sisterhood through meeting each others’ economic needs, even if this means outside the dominant money system. In other words we have to birth a new way of being in the world with each other—our spirits need to remain free, our laws and agreements need to respond the voice of each individual, and our economy needs to rest on sufficiency by assuring that each person’s basic material needs are met while nature is restored as a result of economic life.

In a spiritual crisis, each individual, organization, and community has to take responsibility for its own moral condition regardless of whether the circumstances were legitimately caused by someone or something else, or caused by one’s own actions. In the world of spirit, as I experience it, destiny is a compilation of choices; each person chooses her or his own path and, then, bears responsibility for those choices. It cannot be any other way though we may be deeply conditioned to think otherwise. Undoing the conditioning is akin to diving into the source and experience of inner oppression.

From this foundation, a crisis of the spirit can be transformed in a way that everyone feels connected to themselves, each other, and the world. This is the very opposite of how things lie now, and this sense for connection is an unaddressed longing spoken in many ways and in many languages. I would not harm that to which I am connected; whereas, that which is characterized and treated as other can be easily written off, castigated, or eradicated devoid of a feeling for violence to the self.

If you are running a competitive race you want to see increasing distance from those behind you. You chances of winning increase with every inch of separation. If, on the other hand, you are trying to build a house together, appropriate skills contributed, close communication, and interdependent progress are critical. No one wins, and the house stands as testament to collaborative effort. The polarity here is defined on one end by the rule of the individual (or competitive team), and on the other the rule of collaborative intention. By extension, the ends of these approaches point to radically differing and seemingly irreconcilable worldviews—survival of the fittest, or sustainability of the whole. This tension is pretty alive in the world right now, and the reconciliatory conversation, while rumbling in the underground, is rarely to be had where broad-scale change can be enabled.

Those who feel suspended in or stuck with this unhealthy condition in their hearts (and I count myself among that group) need to speak out more about it—not out of judgment (though that may be the greatest barrier to dialogue) but rather out of compassion for the suffering of those left without and equally for the suffering of those who have accumulated so much. Neither all the wealth in the world, nor all the poverty in the world, is antidote to the loneliness or isolation of dehumanization—perhaps the cruelest of human conditions. The reality is that there are real people with longing for community behind the screens of wealth and poverty. I would propose that some of them, as I am, are seeking partners to heal themselves, spiritual and relational divisions, and the world. Compassion is the invitation to dialogue, sufficiency the earthly cry of coexistence. So, what if love were the substance of wealth?

John Bloom is Senior Director of Organizational Culture at RSF Social Finance

A Celebration of Giving – Part I

July 10, 2014

RSF_30th_purpleby Kelley Buhles

As RSF Social Finance celebrates its 30th anniversary, we can be pleased with how much we have accomplished since the organization’s founding in 1984. Our staff has grown dramatically and clients now number well over 2,000. The number of transformative financial transactions has greatly increased and the RSF community is even more deeply rooted in its mission, vision, and innovative work in the world.

In looking back over these 30 years, we feel deep gratitude for all the supportive relationships that have nurtured, inspired, and challenged RSF to expand and deepen how it goes about transforming the way the world works with money and that have brought associative economic principles into daily practice.

Over the next few months we will be posting a series of stories about some key catalytic gifts and givers that saw potential within RSF, seeded future possibilities, and in turn, helped direct our destiny.

THE FIRST FAIRY GODMOTHER

In the fairy tales of old, the fairy godmother gives magical support and wise counsel to the hero or heroine of a story. She also tests their integrity and inner loyalty. In this relationship, the emphasis is always on the giving. Today, we use the word “donor” to identify a similar role in human affairs.

MaryA very special donor to RSF was also one of our first, Mary Theodora Richards. She was a biodynamic farmer, musician, and a student of Rudolf Steiner. Similar to the fairy godmothers in the stories, she advised and supported Mark and Siegfried Finser during the organization’s formative stages. She encouraged them in word and deed.

Her interest in RSF came from her passion for associative economics and the threefold social principles identified by Rudolf Steiner. During their long relationship, Mark Finser and Mary Theodora studied these principles together. She was deeply inspired by the vision of RSF to bring spiritual elements together with practical movement of money in the world.

The number of times Mary Theodora Richards acted as “the first” in RSF’s history is astounding. She opened the first Investment Fund and the first Donor Advised Fund at RSF.

Many of the activities her gifts made possible are early examples of what has emerged as RSF’s innovative approach to financing—integrated capital. Here are a few examples. Mary Theodora was excited about leveraging her gift money to make lending activity possible. She was the first client to guarantee a RSF loan with a gift. She also allowed RSF to use her charitable funds to make loans to schools when not enough investor funds had been raised, in effect creating a bridge loan. In addition, she guaranteed a portion of our reserve funds, providing a larger safety net that was attractive to more investors.

photo 1Mary Theodora Richards was able to plant ideas she knew would be important to our future as a growing organization. She made a challenge gift to RSF to fund the first year of a retirement plan on the condition that it would be included in the budget for the following year. She funded our first computer and database system knowing the importance of technology for the future. In addition to all these deeds, she helped to fund the purchase of the original building on Fern Hill in New York which housed RSF until the move to San Francisco.

These are the many ways Mary Theodora Richards acted as RSF’s first fairy godmother, encouraging its growth and giving direct support when it was needed. This turned out to be the special quality in all of our most collaborative donors—the ability to see and cultivate in us what we have not yet seen ourselves. Like so many others over the last 30 years, she acted anonymously, never wanting to place herself in the foreground.

It seems very appropriate now, 24 years after her death, to honor her role in the life of RSF Social Finance.

Click here to see Part II of this series

Kelley Buhles is Director of Philanthropic Services at RSF Social Finance

A New Purpose for Philanthropic Services

June 24, 2014

KelleyBuhles_Books_Small

by Kelley Buhles

“Where do natural resources come from? Did humans buy them from somewhere?

What about our knowledge and abilities? Did we also buy those? Or are they on loan to us?”

John Bloom, RSF’s Senior Director of Organizational Culture, recently posed these questions to staff. The response was a long stretch of thoughtful silence, it was clear these weren’t easy questions.

Perhaps that is because it isn’t often that one is asked these types of questions; they are often delegated to the philosophers and spiritual practitioners of our time. Yet, if we take the time to search within ourselves for the answers, what we arrive at can dramatically change how we frame our relationship to the world around us.

Can we begin to explore the idea that the bounty of life, our ability to physically engage with the world, and our mental capacities to imagine, reason, and learn are all gifts to us? How differently would one behave in the world if we started to see everything we have as a gift, rather than something we earned? And if we can, how might that transform our relationship to money?

The Philanthropic Services team at RSF has been working with Rudolf Steiner’s thinking around the vital role gift plays in our lives. We observed that gift is typically left out of modern economic thinking. As part of RSF’s work to transform the way the world works with money, we also feel it is important to transform the way the world works with gift. We are excited to announce a new purpose statement for our philanthropic services department:

To cultivate giving as the source of economic life

As a transformative intermediary we:

·        Move the field of philanthropy towards a gift economy

·        Support and honor our client’s deepest intentions

·        Integrate gift money into catalytic capital

·        Facilitate the circulation of gift money

With this framework we can start to build a new understanding of the role that gift plays in economic life. Gift moves at the beginning of the cycle, rather than being something that happens at the end, once an individual has accumulated adequate wealth. By seeing gift as the primary igniter of economic activity we can start to understand what Steiner said in World Economy, “We cannot arrive at a healthy economic process unless, in the first place, it is made possible for people to have something to give and, in the second place, unless they have the good will and intelligence to give what they have.” (Lecture 5)

This transformation of our understanding of the world from something we have earned to something we are gifted with can inspire us to live into the spirit of interdependence with each other. Ultimately it can transform our understanding of the primary purpose of economic life, from meeting our own needs, towards working together to meet each others needs.

Kelley Buhles is Director of Philanthropic Services at RSF Social Finance

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