Money

Heart’s Guidance: An Economic Imagination, Part II

January 21, 2014

Click here for Part I


by John Bloom


As an organ, the human heart plays leading role in maintaining human life forces. And, it works in a fully integrated system. It is an arbiter between the intense circulatory exchange in the fine capillaries at the extremities and need for constant vortical movement as the blood moves through the heart’s chambers. Blood, exhausted after delivering its nutrients along the way to the periphery, returns to the heart-lung center to be revitalized—a systolic, diastolic rhythm of constant exchange. There is no part of the human organism that is not permeated through circulation, and just about any stoppage in that circulation has significant health consequences. I am certainly not the first to use the circulation of blood as simile for the circulation of money. This is an illuminating but partial picture. Circulation is meaningless without the management capacities of the heart, its sensitivity to our inner and outer-facing nerve-sense system, and the forces of our metabolic system. Simply put, the heart embodies interdependence, serves as guide and guardian, harmonizer for human life, and thus supports our capacities to think and act. This complete and unalterable interdependence has much to tell us about economic life.

How the heart models service is in stark contrast to dominance of self-interest, a concept intractably nestled in the modern evolution of economic thinking. Self-interest as currently fostered and practiced has become debased from the moral, and I would say religious, framework that says that it is in your self-interest to be interested in and help others. As economic experience has become ever-more embedded in the materialism and consumerism of the marketplace, interest in the other has converted into competitive fear of the other. Money is the measure of man; thus, I am better the more I can extract from the system for myself. This is a powerfully destructive thought.

It is fascinating to me to consider that the heart is naturally moral. It does not deny one part of the body over another unless it needs to allocate healing resources for an interim period. It does not judge, it simply recognizes need and responds. It seeks sufficiency, and its actions are all guided by the impulse to restore balance—all for the purposes of circulation and meeting the needs of the whole throughout a very diverse organic system. Many natural systems are like this. Nature is moral, but somehow we have allowed the anti-social power of money to corrupt this moral element in human nature. It doesn’t feel right. Just as self-interest gives the lie to how truly interdependent we are, money supports the illusion of independence and serves as a measure of fittest in the Darwinian notion of survival. If the money was won through competition, what was lost along the way? These are not propositions of the heart. They are propositions of the head; rationalizations for historical patterns, and cynically, justifications for essentially immoral behavior in the financial marketplace. The heart does not speculate, it anticipates and regulates, not as an exercise in control, but rather in service to the whole.

So what is capital, and how does it serve in the heart imagination? One could say that capital is the materialization of spirit, spirit brought into matter through economic activity. This may seem a stretch, but consider the following. Economic life evolves from the work it takes to transform natural resources into practical goods. Of course, the transformation is not magical, rather it is often hard won through trial and error, through the application of physical and mental creative powers. The invention and evolution of the plow, or any machine for that matter, demonstrates the additive, transformative power of applied consciousness across generations and geography. A second development is how these powers are harnessed and organized for efficiency and production through the further application of intelligence. This applied intelligence in combination with the production of goods and services is what gives rise to capital.* Capital is to the economic realm what intelligence is to the individual. Since intelligence is not material, that is, it has no physical substance, it is by its nature non-objective. Its value appears as practical activity in the world. Capital is spiritual, while its value, its measure, derives from its application at a specific time and place.

The role of capital in the heart economy is like that of oxygen to the human heart. Oxygen is carried through the blood even as that stream is also collecting the carbon dioxide waste, which it returns to the world through breath. This self-regenerative system is the key to the imagination of a heart-centered economy.

I offer this imagination as a starting point for changing how we think about and live our economic life through our daily transactions. Can we see that we are part of a great circulation? Can we see that we are part of both the destruction and regeneration of natural systems, and that in our economic world we are never separate from each other, from wealth or poverty of resources, even though we have been conditioned to think that way? If, in our own body system, we were to establish “political” boundaries and protect them as we do, we would die an instant death. Boundaries are important, just as cell membranes are important. They are permeable; they protect, and contain, but in the end it is the circulation that is the most vital. And it is the workings of human heart, the servant of the circulatory system that demonstrates the wisdom we need to transform money, the financial system, and economic life. Not only by, but also from the heart we can learn how the world can support our lives as we work consciously to support others’.

* This essay is inspired by Rudolf Steiner’s insights into economics. In his 1922 lecture cycle, now published under the title Rethinking Economics: Lectures and Seminars on World Economics, he goes into great depth on how these two essential capacities, labor and intelligence, create value.

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

Heart’s Guidance: An Economic Imagination, Part I

January 16, 2014

by John Bloom

The mind thinks it loves; the heart loves before the thought.

In our current stage of materialist economy, we are entranced with capital and disconnected from our hearts. This discord is a result of the inherent nature of capital, so centered as it is in the head, as the origin of the word indicates. In the visible world discord looks like a widening gap between wealth and poverty, and in the inner world like a disintegration of beliefs, values, and behavioral decisions. Make no mistake, we need capital in one form or another, and we need those who work with capital to be in the world in a way that values each human being and supports the regeneration of nature. This inner integrity might then begin to heal social and ecological wounds.

So, how might the imagination of economic life change from where we currently are— dependence on growth that is heading toward the demise of nature and increased suffering—to one that is instead life affirming and regenerative? The purpose of this essay is to focus on a guiding framework for systemic change. Real change never happens without a guiding imagination.

Let’s start with the basics. As I remember, the things that I needed to know or commit to memory, I learned by heart—a poem, a lifeline phone number, a lover’s birthday. I suspect this is true for others as well, though ever-present reference technology has helped us grow lazy about such matters. Long before textbooks, encyclopedias, and wikipedias, the heart is what we had by way of stored knowledge, even while it was the head’s task to process that knowledge. Thus, consciousness has been as much if not more a product of the heart than of the head, though modern industrial culture has come to prize intellect over character. We have learned how to perceive and transform nature, while also learning from each other in order to survive as individuals and in communities.

As we evolved, our relationships were practical as well as spiritual; that is to say that trust catalyzed community action, whether the trust was a result of blood connection or common cause. Each individual discovers and develops her or his own capacities or gifts. And, it is when those capacities begin to serve both self and others that the glimmerings of economic life emerge. Fast forward and you get the industrialized version of economic efficiencies in the division of labor. When I am contributing my capacities and in return receiving what I need back from the community, I feel engaged, recognized, and valued—supported both materially and through a sense of fulfillment. While this is a somewhat simplistic framing, I believe this feeling is one desired not only by me, but also by a significant number of individuals open to reflecting on the nature of vocation and economic life.

What I am describing is a heart-centered economy, one motivated by continuous circulation, connection, caring, and cognizant of each person’s dignity and destiny. And most important, an economy in which the rediscovery of trust becomes the vital element supporting the circulation and regeneration of resources as common, co-produced wealth, including but certainly not limited to money. After all, money emerged primarily as an economic convenience, as a portable way to store value. By agreement its value was established through the exchange of goods and services. It was a means. But, as money has become more a valued commodity in and of itself, it has been disconnected from its purpose of accounting for economic flow, disconnected from real needs and human activity. In this sense, the more money is valued as an accumulated object attached to an individual, the more anti-social it becomes. In contrast, economics is deeply social as we are fully dependent upon one another’s capacities to meet our material needs.

Click here for Part II

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

Easter in the Investment Conference Room

March 28, 2013

At this time last year, RSF investor Rosemary Feerick, brought her two sons to our office to open their very own Social Investment Fund accounts. Later, she decided to share the story of her experience that day.

This essay was originally published in the Harvest Time newsletter.

by Rosemary Feerick

When we arrived at RSF Social Finance, Ellie, the receptionist, asked if we wanted a cup of tea.  It was the day after Easter, a day off from school for my sons.  I told the boys that we were going to San  Francisco to invest some of their college savings.

On the way to the city, we stopped at our credit union and withdrew money from a savings account I had set up for my eight year old son Ian. I gave Ian the check to hold in the car. He studied the piece of paper carefully. When we got to RSF Social Finance, he was still holding the check with care.

“I would like a cup of darjeeling, please,” Ian responded to the receptionist’s question.

“Darjeeling. Hmm. Let’s go see if we have some,” she offered, leading us into the kitchen.

Mark Herrera, RSF’s Client Development manager met us there. As Ian and Ellie focused on tea, Mark showed the composter to my 11 year old Roddy and explained what biodynamic sugar is. “These are some of the products made by the companies supported by the fund in which you’ll be investing,” Mark explained.

Next, he led us upstairs to the conference room overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. We felt very important.

In the conference room, Mark gave the boys samples of organic cookies. Together they read the ingredients, all of which actually sounded like food. Then, Mark told the boys about a company that employs people who are newly released from prison. Next, he described with excitement a sustainable fishery in Alaska that is allowing the Eskimo people to keep their way of life. “These are more of the companies the fund you are investing in supports.” The boys nodded.

Mark then sat down with Roddy and Ian and explained the mechanics of the investment, making sure they understood how it worked and what the rate of financial return would be. Together they did the math to figure out what that translated to in terms of the boys’ investments.

Rose Feerick & Sons

Rose with her sons Ian and Roddy.

When Mark was satisfied that Roddy and Ian understood what they were getting into, he had them each fill out an application and sign it. Their accounts were officially open.

On one level, this exchange felt like no big deal; it seemed like how making an investment should work. But as I watched, another part of me wanted to celebrate. I was aware that what I was witnessing was the result of years of my searching for a different way with money.

Twenty years ago, I received a gift of love that came in the form of a financial portfolio. At the time, I understood little of how investments worked. But as I learned about the mutual funds in my portfolio, I realized that I was invested in companies whose products and ways of doing business offended my conscience. I searched for other models of investing and discovered socially responsible mutual funds.

Initially, I felt good about moving my money into those funds. But as I read through the prospectuses and annual reports, I soon realized that in spite of a variety of social screens I was still invested in companies whose products I would not buy. The socially responsible mutual funds I had in my portfolio felt to me like the lesser of two evils.

A few years later, I was attending a conference on Sabbath Economics when Rob Baird of Progressive Investments (now Portfolio 21) got up to speak about investing. He did not have any fancy visuals, but as he spoke, I felt as if fireworks were going off. Listening to Rob, I saw for the first time a way that investments could do something good in the world.

Up until then, I felt I had to hold on to some of my investments in order to care for my family. But I felt horribly conflicted about doing so because it felt that my money was sitting inside of a global economic system that is causing harm. As Rob spoke about different models of investing, a door to a whole new world opened for me. I started to search for investments that could do good.

I learned about investing in microcredit; in affordable housing mutual funds; in community development banks; fair trade companies; and social investment funds. I worked with Andy Loving, an advisor who shares my faith and began to move some of my money into those kinds of investments. When the financial statements came each month, I noticed how differently I felt opening the ones that came from investments I had chosen. Instead of feeling guilty, I felt excited. It felt like a privilege to participate in the work of fair trade companies and local organic farms.

Shifting to alternative economic models required that I let go of the possibility of a high financial return. Having been raised to believe that receiving a high financial return was “good stewardship,” that was hard at first. Didn’t I have a responsibility to seek high returns for myself and for my children?

But as I learned about the impact many corporations are having on the ecosystem and the human family, I came to believe that that definition of good stewardship was inadequate. Good stewardship, for me, needed to take into account the world that I am passing on to my children as well as the money that will eventually change hands. I wanted any investments that I participated in to be part of creating a world full of life.

On one level, my visit to RSF Social Finance to invest a portion of my children’s college savings on Easter Monday was simply the next step in my process of shifting the investments I manage into such vehicles. But that day in the conference room I felt as if something else was happening too. There was something there that felt holy.

As a mother, I feel a responsibility to form my children in Easter hope. I try to do that by modeling and letting my children know about ways of living that respond to the crises of this historical moment with alternatives that bring life. My children will inherit this world. For me, it is not enough to bring them to church. I feel I also need to show them how to discern where God is moving in the world and teach them how to participate in that.

That is what it felt like was happening that day at RSF. In the conference room, I sensed that my boys and I were participating in a way of investing money that brings life to everyone it touches. In addition, Mark’s taking the time to teach the boys about how their investment would affect others was powerful. It was as if he understood that giving children life-giving possibilities when it comes to money is a radical investment in the future.

As I witnessed the exchange, I felt a sense of awe and gratitude. I felt a Holy Presence with us as we sipped tea, ate cookies, and filled out investment account forms on Easter Monday.

Between Land and Money: An Economic Consideration, Part V

March 20, 2013

This is the fifth and final post in a series by John Bloom on money (global) and land-based (local) economic systems. While we are largely accustomed to the former, this historical analysis makes the argument for a new kind of economy, one which raises the profile of land-based systems to benefit and balance the global economy as we know it.

In my last post, I described the distinct differences between money and land-based economies.

We need both facets of the economy, but with a renewed awareness of land. By and large the land economy has been adumbrated by the money economy. Everything, it seems, has been monetized. What the Relocalization Movement, Transition Towns, Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, TimeBanks, BerkShares, Buy Fresh Buy Local, and Community Supported Agriculture, along with numerous other groups are doing, each in its own way, is trying to reawaken the local-regional economy consciousness with the rebuilding of community and resilience at the core of all initiative. In essence they are encouraging communities and individuals to take back authority as much as possible for the development of economic life out of a sense of interdependence. In some cases these groups are creating their own innovative means of exchange in order to complement the conventional money system. And the new tools are more in alignment with the values they are cultivating. The money economy has set us in competition with one another, atomized us and left some of us in a state of fear of not having enough to take care of ourselves—all on the assumption that the only way to meet one’s needs is through money. Since we are so busy trying to make money, and do not have time to do anything else, we are left with paying someone else to take care of matters. The extreme of the money economy is that we work so hard at our livelihood that we end up outsourcing our life.

The conclusion of all this economic history and analysis is to say that we need a new kind of economy, which raises the local-regional land-based on equal ground with the global, recognizes the value and role each play, and manages capital in a way that supports the interplay between them. This management component would raise community self-determination to a new level beyond politics, recognize the importance of multi-stakeholder participation and at the same time steward the intersections between local and global via larger scale associations of stakeholders. A picture that says only one system is the answer for all, that to be economically viable and profitable, for example, everything must be built out to large-scale efficiencies, no longer works.

Both the money system, though overstretched and fraying at the edges, and land-based systems are already working, even if the latter is still surviving only in the background. However, in many cases the local or regional land-based solution is going to be far more resilient in the future because those who create it usually feel responsible and accountable for what they have co-created and accomplished. To change our economic being will require a radical reconsideration of ownership—how we own, why we own—and a major disruption of the myth of self-interest. The reality of our interdependence in economic life will have a new story that also celebrates the importance of community-interest, both local and global.

What we seriously lack in order to move toward this new level of economic system consciousness is an educational infrastructure that seriously challenges the current economic and money paradigm while researching and experimenting far more broadly the methodologies and benefits of the land-based economy. But nothing will happen in this direction unless each of us steps out of consumer consciousness—one endgame of the money economy—and finds a way to really reconnect with land, not as real estate, but as the source of all economic life.

John Bloom is Senior Director, Organizational Culture at RSF Social Finance.

Between Land and Money: An Economic Consideration, Part IV

March 7, 2013

This is the fourth post in a series by John Bloom on money (global) and land-based (local) economic systems. While we are largely accustomed to the former, this historical analysis makes the argument for a new kind of economy, one which raises the profile of land-based systems to benefit and balance the global economy as we know it.

In my last post, I described the rise of various visionary economic thinkers who viewed the economy as a whole system in contrast to the limited money-based view.

The money economy is global. It allows for trade and the movement of manufactured goods across political boundaries, and money can move around the world at electronic speed. It supports scale and efficiency and has made the accumulation of wealth a bedfellow of unparalleled poverty. Much of that wealth is a result of enclosing and owning natural resources and newer technological infrastructure that could more rightly be considered in the commons. It was this disparity and the injustice that accompanies it which led Henry George to seek a remedy. It is not hard to see both the genius and shadows of the money economy; many of us benefit and suffer from it. It has, unfortunately, pervaded all aspects of economic life to the exclusion of other ways of being economic.

A land-based economy is by definition rooted in place, animated by its inhabitants, and conditioned by the natural resources that make up the span of its geography, however that is defined—one day’s horse ride, river or mountain boundaries. Agriculture, for example, cannot be anything other than land based. In many ways, I would venture that most economies prior to the modern era and certainly prior to the ascent of the money economy worked that way. Such an economy understands and depends upon a social ethos in order to function, and every community member is valued though each has different capacities. In its ideal, it is a kind of gift economy. The Sarvodaya Movement in Sri Lanka founded by Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne is a living example. There are now some 15,000 villages practicing economic self-reliance based upon the land. Everyone is cared for, and everyone has meaningful work to contribute to the community regardless of age. They never talk about full employment as we do in Western culture. Instead they speak of full engagement. The beauty of such an economy is that the quality of community life is lifted and with it each individual. While a land-based economy may not generate such enormous wealth for individuals, it is, as in the case of Sarvodaya villages, more likely to foster a more fair economy that produces sufficiency. Of course, the risk involved in working this way is a shadow, a closed community that oppresses the life of the individual.

An example of the transformation of a land-based economy to a money-based one might help illustrate the distinction between the two. In Indonesia, prior to its independence following World War II, village life was very strong. The staple food crop was an indigenous variety of red rice, which provided a wide range of nutrients and supported people’s wellbeing; there was little disease or starvation. Following upon independence, the new government wished to participate in the emerging global economy and essentially directed rice growers to cultivate white rice that could be exported to hungry markets. The government provided the necessary subsidies and support. Shortly thereafter, with a shortage of red rice for nutrition and white rice transported out of the community to the marketplace, there was a rise in disease, malnutrition, and poverty. At the same time, wealth accrued to those who controlled the marketplace, who did not live in the villages, but rather in the ports and centers of capital. This portrayal is oversimplified to make the point, but the facts remain and the circumstances are nonetheless true—and, sadly, it is not an isolated case.

In the land economy, people are connected to the food they eat, the people that grow it, and the soil in which it is grown. Land based enterprise might include food processing, crafts and manufacture from regional materials, localized energy production through wind or solar, and the list I am sure can be much longer. The point here is that the economy emerges from working on the land. This framework does not in any way limit exchange between communities because the exchange remains between people who have their own connection to the land. Because the land held in common is a source of production, and not economic in and of itself, the land economy is much less likely to have externalized costs. And, there will be more ecological consciousness as the community has to live with the consequences of its own activities. In a land economy, transparency means that a product can be traced to its sources and makers.

On the other hand, the money economy makes it possible to manufacture on a scale and with efficiency not possible at a regional level. It would be absurd, for example, to think that each region has to make its own mass transportation vehicles. One question would be whether externalized costs and other less visible human and environmental consequences of manufacturing can be accounted and paid for, and mitigated in a restorative manner.

John Bloom is Senior Director, Organizational Culture at RSF Social Finance.

Between Land and Money: An Economic Consideration, Part III

February 28, 2013

This is the third post in a series by John Bloom on money (global) and land-based (local) economic systems. While we are largely accustomed to the former, this historical analysis makes the argument for a new kind of economy, one which raises the profile of land-based systems to benefit and balance the global economy as we know it.

In my last post, I discussed the evolution of the American version of economic life: an industry of limitless production fueled by commoditized land and labor, growing economic inequality, and volatile market fluctuation.

Numerous economists have observed the cyclical patterns of boom and bust, the disparity of wealth and poverty that seem an endemic part of the industrialized and global economy. But, none has addressed it as directly as Henry George with the publication of Progress and Poverty in 1880. In the book, which caused no little controversy, George argued that land and natural resources should be owned in the commons, and that private ownership and the control of rents was one of the major contributing causes of impoverishment of the many at the hands of the few. As a remedy, he proposed a single tax on the value of land. This tax would return to the public the monetary resources that in some senses were sequestered in the land and in private hands. He hoped to free up enterprise and enliven the diversity of the free market by eliminating production taxes. He argued that the single land tax would provide adequate revenue for the government’s needs. It was simple and brilliant, and a threat to those in power. What George was trying to do was find a monetary equivalent for decommoditizing the land, to make it in the community’s interest to make sure that the land was rightfully used and stewarded for future generations. George’s was a land-based economy in which the community benefited from the wealth generated by the increasing value of land. He was mostly concerned with the multiplier effect of manufacturing and production on the value, especially in cities, and less concerned about the role of land in agriculture since it was not subject to the same kind of dynamic of development.

Henry George’s approach to economics represents a view that land and all natural resources are not economic unto themselves. That is, they do not enter the economic stream until someone works on that resource; the product of that work is economic. Rudolf Steiner in his lectures on Economics given in 1922 put forth a similar concept and elaborated further that this work on the land generates one kind of value. He also identified a second kind of value stream: that which emerges when intelligence is applied to labor. These dynamically related principles lie at the heart of economic life, lead naturally to the division of labor, and the capacity to arrange that labor in such a way as to achieve efficiency and surplus capital. In some ways we have lost sight of the first value stream as our consciousness and technical capacities have developed. The land-based stream has been devalued as it tends toward place, and stands against the imperative of capital and global markets.

Steiner’s insights into evolving economic life, which he saw as global in nature, run counter to the prevailing market money paradigm in which everything down to genetic structure is owned and commoditized. Steiner stated that all the essential elements of the economy—land, labor, and capital—were phenomena not commodities. Economic life as we experience it emerges from the interactions between them, and is embodied in people’s capacities to recognize and meet each other’s material needs. For example, it was an invention of industrial society to be able to attach a price to someone’s work. It was as if to parse an individual’s capacity into machine-like component of production. In essence, Steiner also said that capital is not a singular thing, but instead could be traced in movement through its various functions. The value of that capital would be realized in how it could serve initiative and enterprise in the economy. In his far-reaching view he felt that treating capital and money as a thing would lead to a world of speculative or virtual rather than real value.

In her study of economic life, especially in an urban environment in the late 20th century, Jane Jacobs developed a vision of self-sustaining regional economies based upon what she called import replacement. Hers was a vision of small to medium-scale entrepreneurs and manufacturers who would find ways to make things locally that the community needed but had gotten by importing them. Her imagination was of a vibrant diverse and interconnected economy that depends on outside inputs only in so far as they enable local innovation. She indicated that this approach would sustain the local entrepreneurship, the job market and the rest of the local economy, and at the same time reduce the environmental degradation that results from extensive transportation of goods. Her vision also includes that which both Hamilton and Jefferson missed—a mindfulness of organic systems that looks at waste as an integral part of the economic whole and which finds innovative ways to transform that waste into new value. From a financial standpoint she realized that money kept in local circulation as a result of import replacement would have significant added value for the quality of community life. It should come as no surprise that her work has become a prime inspiration and philosophical framework for the local living economies movement. Jacobs crafted an economics of place in which land and regional natural resources play an important part, but her take on land itself in relation to economic value is not directly addressed.

Each of these visionary economic thinkers saw the economy as a whole system, and each brought a new perspective based upon the reality of their respective times. The purpose of narrating these various views of land and money is to tease out of them some sense of how we can actually live in a dynamic tension between the two, and to resurrect the shared reality and importance of land and natural resources, not as economic in and of themselves, but as part of a livable economic future—and before it is too late to do so. And further, to revise our understanding of capital; to the extent that it represents applied intelligence, it serves as something of a mediator, moderator, and motivator of the two.

From Fragile to Resilient: Libor to RSF Prime

November 28, 2012

by Don Shaffer

Let’s recognize the historic opportunity we have to change the current culture of money!

We know, for example, that big banks like Barclays pushed the adoption of Libor over another benchmark—a comparatively simple cost-of-funds index that many observers now say was better for borrowers and much less volatile. The switch was made for one reason: to increase short-term profits for the banks. The foundation of trust in Wall Street has been completely undermined as a result of this and other recent scandals.

Based on our core principles, RSF is taking small steps to create a fundamental transformation in the way the world works with money. A great example is RSF Prime. We developed RSF Prime to create community among the participants in our flagship loan fund, the RSF Social Investment Fund.

For many years, we based our investors’ return rate on the 13-week U.S. Treasury Bill. Each quarter we recalibrated the rate based on this well-publicized benchmark. In 2006, we shifted to Libor because it represented the most commonly accepted barometer for short-term interest rates worldwide.

But as the first wave of the financial crisis unfolded in 2008, we became increasingly uncomfortable with this approach. We realized that pricing to meet the needs of our stakeholders could most productively be determined by the community of stakeholders itself. So we began hosting face-to-face meetings at our offices in San Francisco with representatives of the three stakeholder groups of our RSF Social Investment Fund: investors, borrowers and RSF staff. In October 2009, we adopted a customized interest rate collaboratively recommended by these stakeholders each quarter. We dubbed this new base rate for borrowers “RSF Prime”.

We believe this is the first time that a lending institution has facilitated meetings between investors and borrowers to determine loan pricing. With RSF staff at the table facilitating the conversations, all three stakeholders are visible to each other and engage in a direct and transparent exchange to understand intentions, motivations, and needs. We feel that other financial institutions such as community banks and credit unions have similar stakeholder groups that could be engaged in this way.

The loan-pricing meeting is one step towards modeling a more resilient financial system. At its heart is building community, which RSF also holds in how it works with borrowers by bringing them together to share wisdom and resources, and in its innovative grantmaking through Shared Gifting. A web of trusting relationships and a spirit of collaboration are foundational to a resilient economy. We have observed that by bringing all the stakeholders together, there is more engagement, fulfillment, and accountability.

Just as an organic or biodynamic farm relies on far fewer external inputs than a conventional farm, we are eliminating our reliance on Wall Street rate-setting, going “off-the-grid” as much as possible, so that we can be more resilient based on the strength of our investor-borrower community.

We invite you to share other ideas with us—either suggestions for what we can do at RSF, or ways you think other institutions can change to make our financial system more transparent and trustworthy. You can ask your bank about how they set their interest rates, for example.

Ultimately, we have to “be the change”, as Gandhi said. In our view, energy spent modeling a new way of working with money will have much more positive, transformative, and long-term effects than trying to change the existing system from within through regulation.

Let us know what you think!

Don Shaffer is President & CEO at RSF Social Finance.

Fourth Conversation on Money, Race, & Class

August 2, 2012

By John Bloom

Conversation is powerful technology. It can be used to build community, engender trust, transform people, and renew what it means to be human. Such communication can invite a sense of the sacred by the very willingness of participants to delve into deep and complicated topics out of interest in each other, and an openness to be in the tender condition of vulnerability. If successful, one leaves the gathering as a different person, a keeper of others’ stories. When the stories focus on the entwined realities of money, race, and class, and are shared in a group that is cross-class and race, the conversation brings forth extraordinary challenges. The genius is in both acknowledging those challenges and making the safe space to work through them.

On December 9, 2010, RSF hosted the fourth Conversation on Money, Race, and Class. This full-day gathering, brought together a diverse group of fifteen community leaders from the Bay Area. Each responded to the invitation out of an interest in the topics, and opportunity to explore them in an unhurried collaborative environment. Further, each participant agreed to recording the conversation, so that it could have lasting value. Click here to download the full transcript. Each of the participants has reviewed the transcript and has released it to be published. We have tried to create a collectively held copyright in that each participant maintains the right of use, while RSF holds a general copyright for any inquiries.

It is fair to ask why RSF Social Finance, with my leadership, would invite such a gathering. The answer is quite simple. We need to get past not talking if we want to bring about change. Money and the effects of the financial system touch everyone. If we are striving to transform how we work money and how it works on us, then we are called to learn how to have conversations that may be uncomfortable, challenging, sometimes confrontational, inspirational, and include often unheard voices at the table. The stories can be painful, sometimes celebratory—to tell and hear. Imagine someone saying how painful it is to talk about race, but it is a good change from the pain of not talking about it. Imagine, from a position of privilege, absorbing someone speaking of the legacy of shame due to poverty. Or, to be able to own and share a prejudice against people with wealth even as some of those present are wealthy. These are transformative moments, certainly moments of deep learning for me, borne of a willingness to listen deeply, and to being present with each other. Understanding the complexity of human issues working in our economic life is useless without understanding how those issues feel to and directly affect each participant day-to-day.

Patricia St. Onge, our facilitator, helped us set the tone of inquiry and the basic ground rules for the day. She led the first experience, Conocimiento, for which each of us was given a large sheet of paper and a choice of drawing and coloring media. The “task” was to create a picture based on the following: my name and (if there is one) the story behind it; I am from… ; my people are… ; a childhood memory of understanding money and/or family dynamics about money… ; an early experience of economic injustice… ; tracking the changes in my attitudes about money; and, today, money holds meaning for me in these ways….. Following the completion of these works, we did a gallery tour in which each person told the story of their drawing and was then acknowledged by the whole group. What a beautiful beginning way to get to know each other’s story. The thoughts and feelings spoken during this session continued to reverberate through the day.

The Conocimiento was followed by launching into the first conversation question: What is the connection between who we are and what our experience is of wealth, economic need and prosperity—for ourselves and in our community? This question and the issues that emerged through asking it engaged us for the better part of the day. For the latter portion of the meeting, we drew questions from the group, and spoke to them until it was time to close for the day. We closed with a brief sharing of insights from the day, a wish for the group, and a wish for the world.

Following the gathering, we asked for reflections. In response to the question: How were you affected by the conversation? One participant wrote:

“It is so rare to have the opportunity to sit and think and talk about the important issues of our contemporary lives. To have the luxury of time. To have the luxury of a safe space. To have the luxury of both familiar and unfamiliar faces, all of whom are compassionate warriors in the struggle for making the world a better, saner, safer, more loving place to live and grow. The day fed my mind, soul, heart, and body. What a blessing. I’d like everyone on the entire planet to have a day like this. I, who live a privileged (though not wealthy!) life, find this experience so healing. How many millions of people on this planet (whatever their socio-economic status may be) may not even know that being this way is possible? Maybe that’s the transformative moment—to have the lived experience, that this being this way, in conversation, open and thoughtful and compassionate, is possible.”

It is with humility and an awareness of others’ realties that RSF convened this conversation on money, race, and class in collaboration. It is our hope that the wisdom and insights shared in these collected conversations serve anyone wishing to transform themselves and their communities. We are currently editing the fifth conversation held in January of 2012, and are looking forward to planning the next.

Click here to download the 2010 Money, Race, and Class Transcript

To learn more about this event and review past transcripts visit http://rsfsocialfinance.org/impact/reimagining-money/

John Bloom is Senior Director, Organizational Culture at RSF Social Finance.

Bridging to Trust, and the Structural Flaws of Libor

July 24, 2012

By John Bloom

Imagine coming to a bridge high over a river on a stormy day. At the threshold is posted a very visible sign saying: “This bridge has structural flaws.” Would you cross that bridge? Would you expect to see additional warnings that say proceed at your own risk, or vehicles over one ton should find an alternate route? And if it doesn’t say that, whose risk would it be? The architect that designed it, the construction company that built it, or the government entity that financed it? How convenient is such ambiguity for avoiding any responsibility or assuring endless and likely frustrating pursuit of culpability?

I don’t want to push the metaphor any further, but the language used by Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve (as reported by the Los Angeles Times), when testifying before the Senate on the Libor (London interbank offered rate) scandal, relied on those very terms: “It is clear that the Libor system is structurally flawed.” That language is carefully engineered to acknowledge problems while avoiding any accountability. At least he acknowledged that it is a system, which means the participants in the system, banks to be specific, bear collectively the weight and responsibility for the degree to which the system was rigged to support their needs—meaning they could proceed to game the system without regard for any consequences to others, while operating under the assumption that the logic of the structure was opaque to all but themselves.

But, we know that the Libor index affects interest rates on many consumer financial products from mortgages to securities. For example (among many others from the NYT to the WSJ), Peter Eavis and Nathaniel Popper wrote in the NYT: “The flaws in the rate-setting process, which is used to determine the pricing for trillions of dollars of financial products, have been exposed by the latest banking scandal.”

What do we do with this information? Cross that bridge when we come to it? Unfortunately, as an economic community, we are already on the bridge and it has been structurally failing very visibly since 2008, if not well before. The typical response, likely fueled by financial industry-funded public relations, has been to blame the regulators. Anything but take responsibility and make real change. It is as if the poachers are reminding the game warden of their task long after the poaching is complete, and then only because they are forced to do so. The Libor scandal is part of the continuing saga of the structural decay of any ethical practice in the conventional financial system.

Eavis and Popper correctly identified pricing as the function that most directly affects participants in financial transactions over time. I mention this because price is “king” in most economic models; it stands at the center of all monetary-based exchange systems. Yet, how price gets set is one of the great mysteries, and, at the same time, the process offers one clue into the deeper values held consciously or unconsciously in an economic community.

In September 2009, RSF Social Finance decided to eschew any third party index, such as Libor, as a basis for setting interest rates on lending and borrowing—and instead constituted RSF Prime. We took this innovative step because we were seeking (and continue to seek) ways in which our values could actually shine through our financial processes. By shine, I mean light, transparency, and participation by all parties affected by the considerations. True enough, the financial unmasking of 2008 was clearly in the background and certainly at the forefront of our thinking about being ever more mindful of working in a more human way with money. With the purpose of making every financial transaction as direct, transparent, and personal, and based upon long-term relationships, we brought together our Social Investment Fund investors and borrowers to reflect on the appropriate RSF Prime interest rate. We have been doing this every fiscal quarter since 2009. The result is transformative and community building. So, as an RSF Social Investment Fund investor or borrower, you can cross the financial bridge to working with money in new ways with the knowledge that you are actually part of the trussed structure, and that accountability to and for each other is at the heart of every transaction.

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

Reimagine Money: Episode 2

May 31, 2012

Reimagine Money is a monthly investigation into the power of money to support social enterprises that are changing the fields of Education & the Arts, Food & Agriculture, and Ecological Stewardship.  In this series, you’ll hear from impact investing practitioners, social enterprise executives, social finance thought leaders and more, discussing their work and ideas.

We will keep posting podcasts here on our website; you can also get the latest by subscribing to Reimagine Money in iTunes.

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